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The Jewish Leadership Pipeline Problem

The following is a transcript of Episode 147 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Tuesday, June 27th, 2023. 

There’s been a steady drumbeat of a conversation for years in the organized Jewish community about something called the “leadership pipeline problem,” a hypothesis that there’s a decline in interest, and thus a shortage of talent to fill the leadership roles that are open in our Jewish communal ecosystem of organizations and institutions. When I first heard about this crisis in leadership circles going back more than a decade ago, it tended to be associated with a particular phenomenon that was looming at the time. It was projected that a vast majority of CEOs of Jewish organizations were boomers, which made sense given the developmental arc of Jewish institutional life from the 1950s to the 1980s. And further, it was projected that those boomer CEOs were all going to retire at around the same time, creating a leadership vacuum that couldn’t be adequately filled.

I remember at the time, when I first heard about this, feeling a mix of annoyance and resentment at the whole conversation. Part of it, I admit, that whole thing seemed to me like some of the usual boomer narcissism that many of us in Gen X have bristled against for a long time. I remember a particular opinion piece in one of the Jewish trade publications that was written by a retiring boomer CEO, in which he argued that one way to solve this problem was for boomer CEOs to just not retire and stay on longer. 

I don’t think I could have rolled my eyes any more than I did, and I wrote at the time an angry response titled, Leadership and Change in the Land of the Lost, in which I argued that the real problem was not the manifestation of a broken leadership pipeline, but an underlying set of conditions that were showing up with this symptom, conditions like a declining and dated communal infrastructure, like the insistence by one generation of Jews that it was responsible for shaping the next generation, but actually holding back the next generation from genuinely participating in shaping its future, and the Jewish community’s instinct, more generally, to respond to adaptive challenges with technical fixes.

So I have a lot more sympathy for the problem today than I did back then. And I’ll share more about that shortly, but there’s another piece of this that’s worth mentioning, which is that I think every generation of Jews has worried profoundly about whether the Jews that will come next will take our place properly in the chain of history. It goes all the way back to Abraham, the first Jew anxious about Jewish continuity. 

And sometimes things go as planned. Because Isaac, Abraham’s chosen son, spends most of his lifetime redigging his father’s wells. Sometimes, the new CEO just continues in the footsteps of her predecessor. And sometimes there are twists and turns. Like then Jacob seizes his father’s inheritance, but in a way that ultimately allows for the children of Israel to flourish in ways that the predecessor couldn’t have anticipated. 

Leadership transitions and anxieties about the future are ever present in our history. And it’s fair to wonder, is what we’re experiencing now within the context of the Jewish communal ecosystem really all that different than other presentations of this fear of the future that we’ve seen in our past? And moreover, what if the best thing for Jewish life was precisely this kind of crisis of continuity? 

I don’t want to overplay the binary of continuity leaders versus change leaders, but if there ever was an ecosystem of institutions ripe for disruption, it’s probably the organized Jewish community, a warren of organizations and agencies built largely in the 1950s to respond to 20th century challenges.

Meanwhile, a huge swath of new organizations have sprouted up in the past few decades, helmed by visionary leaders who want to lead the Jewish people, but they don’t want to take over the wood panel desks and leather chairs in the traditional institutions. And is that a bad thing or asked differently, how do we make sure that a conversation about leadership continuity is not just a conversation about preserving a whole set of status quos, which some people want to keep and may not be at the vanguard of where the Jewish people actually need to go? 

These questions continue to concern me, but like I said earlier, I’ve become more sympathetic to the seriousness of the problem in the past decade or so. Maybe this is just a getting older thing, and I hope not, but I certainly do see the story differently than I once did, because I’m an employer for a growing organization, and at times, we really have struggled to recruit and identify talent from what seems like a shrinking pool. I’ve especially come to understand that a pipeline shortage does not discriminate between those organizations that are often and problematically called “legacy institutions,” and those other institutions that are equally problematically called “innovative institutions.”

More troublingly, the challenge materializes way earlier than the time when people might be sorting themselves into one or another career pool. We’ve talked about this on the show before, but the number of people standing up earlier in their lives and earlier in their careers and saying that they want to be rabbis, for instance, is at a historically low point.

And I think this is the same for all training programs, for jobs or careers across the Jewish community. I think about the question of leadership and talent a lot in my work, independent of the prompt of this particular crisis. At Hartman, we often say that our institution is premised on an idea. a theory about the Jewish people, that we are carried through history by the quality of our ideas and the strength of our leaders. This is why we do what we do. 

This summer, as part of my teaching here at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, I’ve been focused on one aspect of why Jewish leadership today seems to be troubled, maybe part of the more complicated set of diagnostics that we’ll get into today about the pipeline crisis. And it’s this: I wonder whether we just don’t see any luster anymore in the work of Jewish leadership, whether our noble commitments to equality and equity, the rise of the idea of servant leadership, the need to meet Jews where they are, all these extraordinary ideas have accidentally instilled in us or in many of us that our leaders are not people to be admired or venerated. Maybe they’re in the end just jobs. And not necessarily well compensated ones. And not always the ones that we, as stakeholders in societies that valorize social and economic mobility, want our kids to pursue the kinds of choices that’ll make us proud of them. 

And if that’s the case, wow, we have a lot of work to do. I tend to believe that communities get the leaders they deserve, which would mean that the work right now is not just putting more people in the pipeline, it’s changing the very culture of how we treat and respect our leaders. 

I’ve been excited for a long time to speak to today’s guest, Gali Cooks. Gali is the founding president and CEO of Leading Edge, an organization, according to their mission, that “influences, inspires, and enables Jewish organizations to continuously improve performance through culture and leadership.” Leading Edge was started in response to the pipeline crisis. I think that was the original name of the organization, we can hear about that later, and has taken an ecosystemic view on the kinds of research and data we need as a community to address an issue like this comprehensively. 

And it also works in direct service on training and supporting new CEOs and in trying to raise the bar in organizational cultures to make Jewish organizations more compelling places to work. In this respect, Leading Edge is a leader. for leaders. And Gali, really one of the most respected professionals in the organized Jewish community, is one of our community’s gems. So Gali, thank you for coming on this show. And I want to start with you. And if I could start personally, because I’m interested in it as a case, what was it or who was it who pushed you or inclined you to work for the Jewish community and the Jewish people? And my assumption here is that since you have thrived in corporate environments, and you probably could elsewhere, what was it that pushed you or tilted you to pursue a career in Jewish leadership? 

Gali: Wow. Well, first of all, Yehuda, since we’re recording and I’m seeing you in person, the amount of nodding that I had as you really entered into this conversation, some of the threads that you tugged on are really some of the beginnings of my own story, and looking forward to, you know, digging into it in a variety of ways.

The reason why I’m here is really a three step process. My parents grew up in Israel and were very much Tzabarim. We have very deep roots in Israel. And when I was six, they decided to pursue the American dream, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Yehuda, which is, I’m not sure if we can see a bigger inverse to Tel Aviv than Minneapolis in the 80s, but that’s where they went. It was really like yerida. I mean, they really, they knew they were like, okay, we’re planting new roots in a land with more prospects. 

And that, from my beginnings, showed me that I have a dual identity. I have one leg in America and one leg in Israel. There were times, and I still feel very Israeli with Americans and very American with Israelis, and have had all of my family is still in Israel, have tried to navigate that in ways that have felt authentic, that have felt true to my own experience. And there were different forks in the road, and really the second fork in that, the first was this big move. 

The second was when I was in college and had to decide between, do I go and study abroad in Paris for a year, because I was very into French, or do I go and study abroad in Jerusalem, my junior year. Then I chose Jerusalem, and very glad that I did. And it was an incredibly formative year. It introduced me to the study of different texts. I had gone to Orthodox Jewish day school, which I think many expat Israelis are like, the only Judaism that’s really legitimate is Orthodoxy, therefore, let’s, you know, go there. So I went to that, had an amazing experience.

And you’re right. I’ve navigated through the various sectors. I started my career in diplomacy. I’ve always wanted to straddle and have been called to straddle different worlds. And it was really my hunger to create peace in the Middle East, which, Yehuda, I did not succeed. I really thought that, you know, as a 23 year old, I could do that, writing speeches for an ambassador, but did not happen. And started understanding how the world works. 

In some cases, it’s really not a meritocracy and people have different power and what have you. And navigated my way through philanthropy, ended up in business school, worked in tech. From the first day, I knew that this was not my you know, this was not going to be a place where I could call home. And really, for me, the reason why I decided to go into this leading edge mission is really deeply personal. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about this, Yehuda. It certainly didn’t come up in my CEO search process.

But about ten years ago, my father was killed in a workplace shooting in Minneapolis. It was three months before Newtown. It was a horrible, horrible time. And I remember thinking, like, we can make workplaces better. Just safer. And then, like, let’s make them a place where people can thrive and maximize our potential. Because the majority of our life is spent at work. If you actively hate your job at work, and even if you’re quiet quitting, that degrades everything in your life, and can turn violent in the worst cases, and can be totally neutral and useless, frankly, in another case, and can be, you know, glorious. 

So it’s been a widening road, as many liberal arts majors, you know, their careers are generally informed by serendipity, mine certainly was, and different sort of markers along the way.

Yehuda: I have a lot of questions, but one of them is, it’s powerful, Gali, that you say you had this transformative, traumatic experience that didn’t say to you, I’m going to go work on gun control. I’m not criticizing. I’m saying what you said was, I actually think that maybe, and maybe I’m putting words in your mouth, I have a lane already, a community I know, a system I can wrap my head around, and I could make that system much better, much more compelling, and much safer. 

There’s something extraordinary about that. And I guess part of the reason I’m starting personally, I know we got kind of deep fast, but part of the reason I wanted to start personally is because one of the things that I wonder about in terms of like compelling more fantastic people to go into the work of Jewish life, is whether the serendipities, as you called them, whether those are scalable, whether you actually could create the kinds of serendipities, the kind of inflection points, the kind of choices that would hit someone earlier in their lives such that when they then had a passionate thing, I want to make workplaces better. They would come to the Jewish community to do that kind of work. Do you think that’s possible?

Gali: I do. I do. I think that’s a beautiful way to be able to tap someone on the shoulder. Whether it’s in day school, or high school, or Hillel, or anywhere in university, at the formative time in a person’s really maturation, and be able to say, I see you, I see you, Yehuda, you got something, or I see that you’re really passionate when we talk about X, or it seems like you’re really interested in exploring Y, and being more mindful of the role I think of educators in particular, whether it’s formal or informal, certainly like camp counselors, we know that camp is just like, it’s a major feeder. It’s a leadership factory. 

There are ways in which we can make those types of almost like drive by comments, that are like, whoa, that really hit me, into things that don’t happen by accident and don’t happen in some ways through serendipity, but are actually, that we’re wired toward that, because we know that that has such an impact.

Now, still authentically, because we know that like, you know, when you try to, you know, force a mentorship, let’s say, it just, it backfires in different ways. But I think that they are scalable, to your point. 

Yehuda: We’ll come back to that a little bit, because I had a question about that I want to come back to. But let me now go back to the beginning and say, I would love for you to just describe the challenge that you see from this position at leading edge. What’s real about the leadership pipeline issue? What do you think is mythology? What does it look like for the inside life of organizations? Like, help us get the kind of picture of the problem that’s maybe stripped a little bit of my bias that I left for the beginning, especially because, you know, I know that so much of the work that you do is actually driven by real analysis and data of the field.

Gali: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I appreciate that. So this is where I came into it and I think we entered this conversation at pretty much the same, the same headspace, kind of scratching our head and wondering like, why is this a crisis again? You know, like this seems to me like an amazing opportunity because wow, the Jewish community needs to evolve and not be on maintenance mode. You know, like let’s think about the next chapter in a real, chalutz kind of way. 

So about 10 years ago, I think it was the real genesis of leading edge was there were a group of donors who looked around at their portfolio of grantees and were like, wow, there are a bunch of CEOs who lead organizations that we invest a lot of money in who are going to be retiring, just by the nature of life, physics, biology, and we have had uncomfortable, in some cases, indirect conversations, and in some cases, very formal direct conversations with them about who’s got next. And all of them are like, I don’t know, you know, the next generation, they’re lazy, they’re different, they’re, you know, they don’t want to work, they feel like the first day of work, they want to be, you know, bosses, etc, etc.

So this group of funders were like, well, wait a second. If we’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars in these organizations, we know that the most important stabilizer and marker of a great organization is its leadership. And if that’s going to be somehow volatile, we need to hedge that exposure and write quick.

And they banded together and they were like, all right, well, let’s build this leadership commons, frankly, for the Jewish community. So let’s start with data. Because we have a lot of horror stories. We have a lot of anecdotes. You know, this person says X and that person says Y. And what’s really happening here? What’s the signal and the noise?

And in, I think it was the beginning of 2014, a report came out that I, I read with a lot of excitement, it was called the leadership pipelines initiative or something. And it basically said, yes, we do have a pipeline problem. And the question was why, and they identified, it was Bridgespan, this nonprofit consulting firm identified two really core root causes. 

One, we actually do have a lot of talent within our Jewish organizations. We are not developing them in ways that make them ripe and right for leadership. So it’s on us. We’ve got, you know, folks who are like Yehuda 10 years ago, raising his hand saying like, yeah, I would be a leader, but I need to develop some executive skills. I need to have certain experience. I need to have a certain depth of knowledge. So that was the first. We have people, we’re just not developing them. 

The second, and you gestured to this in your intro, is that we live in a world of choice, and talent can choose to go work anywhere. Jewish folks and frankly, non Jewish folks who are, have a more of a purpose calling, because we are a sector of Jews and non Jews working together, they have choice. If I’m passionate about education, why would I go to work at a Jewish day school as opposed to like a charter school or Teach for America? We just don’t have the value proposition. 

And what they found was exactly what you noted, was, you know, a certain risk aversion, a certain bureaucratic defensive rather than, you know, offensive, kind of, we’re always working against as opposed to working for, kind of, tapestry of organizations that the next generation was like, no, I want to solve social problems. I don’t want to come into a bureaucratic mess that I’m not going to be able to do anything until I pay my dues, quote unquote. 

So that was really the genesis and these funders looked at this and they were like, well, whoa, we got to do something about this because there was a lot of data coming out at the time in the Jewish and general nonprofit and frankly, corporate America space. I mean, this was just, again, the nature of the boomers starting to retire. They had risen to the top of almost every pyramid across our tapestry of organizations, as well as ecosystem of just companies, et cetera. And they were like, we got to do this because about three quarters of these CEOs are going to be retiring over the next decade or stepping down in some way. And we don’t know who’s got next. And that means that we are going to have organizations that are going to be in precarious situations. We got to start building a leadership pipeline. 

And I had heard that this was going on. I read the report, as I mentioned, in ways that I’ll be honest. I read the report. I was kind of nodding and I was like, duh. You know, like, yes. Of course. This is it, like, this is, of course, the problem. And it’s a solvable problem, unlike Middle East peace, like, you know, like we could actually solve this. So that’s really the chances.

Yehuda: So a solvable problem is interesting comment of itself. It sounds to me like I pulled out three threads here. One that your perception that there is talent inside Jewish organizations, but they’re not getting the training, the tools, the mentorship to actually be able to move to the next level. The second is Jewish organizations because they have to compete in a landscape have to become as good as if not better than other organizations for people to work in so that someone who has the choice of working for a Jewish organization versus a non Jewish civic advocacy organization, assuming they want to do that kind of work, is going to pick a Jewish organization. And the third, which feels like the messiest, is what’s the value proposition of working for the Jewish people to begin with. 

And my guess is that like those first two pieces are places where leading edge can have obvious lanes. Can leading edge address the value proposition question for the Jewish people?

Gali: I mean, it’s a tall order, right? I will say this is where the pandemic has presented us with a tremendous opportunity. I mean, what did people do? They stayed at home, working from home, March 2020, for however long before people started, you know, going back to work if they did. Or the office, I should say. And they had pandemic epiphanies. They’re like, what the hell am I doing selling insurance for the majority of my life? Like, I want to create value, not just push around value. 

And so, you look at organizations that are actually working on solving social problems, interacting with people who are on the side of good. And let me tell you, I have worked in government and I’ve worked in business. There are people working at non profits, who have chosen, as you’ve said, to make the world a better place in a real way. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have people who are, you know, have different characters and whatnot, but ultimately these are good people trying to work for the greater good.

And that’s where also there’s a tipping point, because if we have of the estimated 9,500 Jewish organizations in the United States, if we have more of a flywheel, the beginning of momentum that says, you know what, these are organizations where a person’s going to go, they’re going to get livable wage, and however you define that, and we can talk about that, they’re going to have opportunities to grow, they’re going to have also like a lattice where they’re going to be able to move around different organizations, have different opportunities, continue to be curious and solve social problems, that’s a meaningful path that we can chart. 

And if we have that as different use cases, frankly, and we can show that, so, one plus one plus one and all of a sudden that equals a hundred, let’s say, then we can say our ecosystem is actually one that is the tip of the spear for different social problems, opportunities, but it’s almost like by solving the first and second, we’re able to then contribute to the third.

Yehuda: It also allows you to be, which I assume is necessary, somewhat agnostic about the various ideological propositions that are invested in Jewish life. And in other words, leading edge doesn’t care, really, whether what you’re doing is helping to fix the talent pipeline for ultra-Orthodox day schools in New York or reform summer camps outside of Toronto.

Gali: Exactly. Exactly. It’s so funny. I actually say talent is agnostic to all of the different political fault lines and everything. That’s exactly the beauty of it.

Yehuda: Okay, so let’s take them piece by piece. Then let’s talk about the better places to work. So first of all, what are the bright spots that you’ve encountered in terms of how Jewish organizations show up competitively in the marketplace of institutional life? And where do you think are the two or three places where Jewish organizations, just almost across the board, assuming that within your 9,500 organizations, there’s a spectrum of doing great and doing poorly, but what are the kind of emerging trends that could be learnable across the system? 

Gali: So the bright spots are ones that really conform to what we know from the literature and our own research about a great place to work. It really starts with leadership. It’s a leader who understands that in order for us to manifest our mission and to carry out our strategy, I need a team of people to be able to carry that work out. The work of the Jewish people is the service industry, basically. The people are the asset. And therefore, if I invest in the people, they are going to appreciate and improve.

That sort of hashkafa, that sort of worldview, just in itself is almost a break from 20th century management science and leadership. There wasn’t this kind of understanding, only, you know, some of the most groundbreaking innovative, you know, leaders saw this as like, oh, yeah, my people are the ones who are going to be able to make a great latte, says Howard Schultz. And therefore, I’m going to give them, you know, health insurance. And, you know, that was groundbreaking before. And now here’s where we are with Starbucks. So one is it starts with leadership. 

The second is, there two things really that stand out within a Jewish nonprofit that makes it a great place to work along with some of like hygiene factors, which we’ll get into. One is a culture of feedback. So I’m going to give and receive feedback. I’m going to know how to do it in a menschy way that’s constructive. I’m not just going to give you false flattery all the time and just say, yasher koach, you know, Yehuda, you did a great job. I’m also going to say that podcast could have been better. Let’s think about that together. 

So our managers are mensches, but they don’t make people better, unfortunately, which is, by the way, a good thing because you can’t really teach being a mensch, you know, when you’re fully formed adult necessarily, but we can teach the management science.

Yehuda: And by the way, I’m interrupting you just to say, what Gali just said, that’s, you have data in that. That’s not just, that’s not an anecdotal observation, right? I mean, people report that about their bosses at these organizations.

Gali: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah, that’s right. I feel respect and I feel care and concern for my manager. Does my manager make me perform better? No. So that’s one, a culture of feedback. The second is a culture of two way open and honest communication. Within the non profit sector, communication is the currency that enables us to do our work. What are we doing for our program? Give me the opportunity to do this curriculum, and that curriculum, etc.

And what we hear is a lot of employees, and again this is all coming from data, to your point, a lot of employees feel surprised. They don’t feel like they understand why decisions are being made. Look, a lot of them want to be around the table where the decisions are made. That’s where the leader has to be very clear, you know, you have a voice here, you have a vote here, you have a veto here, and be able to be very clear about some of those expectations. 

And those organizations that are really striving to do some of that, to understand that the people are the most important stakeholder for them to be able to do the kind of work that is in their mission statement, that there is a way of doing work that makes everyone one percent better every day because I’m going to give you feedback on the way in which performance is being done, and then ultimately, like letting the oxygen flow through the cabin, through communication, those are really the core ingredients that managers need to have, that employees need to have. You bring those together and those are very powerful. 

Yehuda: So it’s interesting. Both of the examples that you give both of these clear indicators, strong culture of feedback, strong cultures of communication. There’s top down elements to them. And then there are lateral elements to them, right? Culture of communication, because feedback connotes some implicit hierarchical relationship. Feedback comes from supervisors to supervisees, but really powerful organizations can witness feedback moving up and down an organizational hierarchy.

A culture of communication can be, has no relationship to hierarchy. It can actually be, everybody has to know what’s going on in order to move. So those kind of challenge the notion that organizations need certain type of hierarchies. At the same time, the language of implies that there’s something essential about the one, two or executive team involved with a particular organization, and I guess this is kind of a left field question, but I wonder about how the continued belief in exceptional individual leadership, or a handful of individuals, how that’s sitting with a growing moral conversation, especially in America, about taking down organizational structures, rethinking hierarchies. 

I led with this a little bit about, does our commitment to egalitarianism get in the way of our commitment to elitism? I’m wondering how that’s showing up. Because you sound like you’re making the case, I still need a great CEO to run an organization, even if I have this beautiful, non hierarchical culture of feedback and communication that is fostered within. How do you see that dynamic playing out? 

Gali: Oh, it’s so funny because we are learning so much about this, Yehuda. You gesture to the fact that we have a CEO onboarding program. So new CEOs, they come in, they need some runway to be able to get a sense of what their organizations are doing. 

During the pandemic, we kind of took a pause, as the entire world did. And we were like, wait a second, is our investing only in new CEOs and CEOs in general, are we perpetuating this whole hero as leader? Like it’s one person who is responsible for the vision, the strategy, the et cetera, et cetera. And we’re like, that doesn’t necessarily work. And frankly, it could lead to the burnout of this individual, if you know, the more that we say, Yehuda, you are going to be leading the way. 

So we actually developed a program for senior leadership teams. And what we saw during the pandemic very clearly is those CEOs who had a strong senior leadership team, or at least a high performing one, strong can be defined in a variety of ways, they weathered the storm with more alacrity, with more ease, with more flexibility, they were able to pivot, they were able to also rally the troops in different ways. So it’s a really interesting thing because what we are seeing and, you know, as evidenced by your announcement last week, there is a movement toward more of like a co-head kind of structure. There are co-CEOs. I mean, Netflix has co CEOs. There are different ways. 

They’re still rare, but there is an understanding that in a more complex world with more and more adaptive challenges and where things are moving so quickly, you can’t expect one person to necessarily be the chief everything in many ways, however, you do need one person with whom the buck stops. We just need that from an organizing principle. 

So while there may be a molecule of folks who are leading the organization and distributed leadership model, it’s clarifying for folks to be like, okay, that person is the general. And I get it. And there may be, you know, like, maybe that’s the four-star general and then there are a bunch of, like, three-star generals or whatever the other layers are under them.

But we are seeing that this is a world where, instead of it being clockwork in the 1950s, we’re now a swirl. It’s totally messy. There are things coming at us from all different ways. It’s unfair to ask of one person to be able to take in all this information and then also to be able to think of what’s happening in the next chapter. You point to a deep philosophical question that a lot of leadership thinkers as well as management science individuals are looking 21st century than they did in the 20th. 

Yehuda: I mean, I guess I’m, I’m interested on both ends. One is sometimes the conversation around talent at the CEO level tends to unicornize, therefore, what institutions are looking for, right, as a verb I just invented, right? Whereas actually most of the work of a CEO on a regular basis is more workhorse than unicorn. But the thing that people want is unicorn, right? So there’s that trend, which is a dangerous and complicated one, because then nobody can do what what has been done. 

In the meantime, like I’ll give you an example of an organization that I know pretty well, not my own, where the CEO feels that their team is really shaping the agenda of the organization in very, very dangerous ways because of the mounting skepticism, especially for the generation entering the workforce right now, about the legitimacy of org charts, the legitimacy of hierarchy. And it feels to me like those, then, are two related conversations taking place at the same time, that I feel like, they’re on a collision course with one another.

Gali: They absolutely are. In many ways, we’re seeing the pendulum swinging from really management and leadership having all the control and leading in a command and control kind of manner. And especially again, with the pandemic and the way that it really accelerated a lot of the trends that we were seeing already, the pendulum swinging the other way, and labor, if you will, or employees in the team that isn’t, let’s say the executive, they are having more power because there are two positions open for every person who’s looking. Like we know that there is, for the first time in, certainly my generation, there is this swing in the pendulum.

Now we are going to get back to equilibrium in some way. Some of the organizations that we work with are newly, newly unionized. Some organizations in many ways see the data that we provide them in our annual employee experience survey, and really wring their hands, because they see that this could potentially be, you know, weaponized by their employees in order to drive some change that again, leadership may find either distracting or, you know, incredibly not productive. The pendulum’s gonna, you know, settle, but this is what we’re seeing for sure. 

And I would say also, like, this isn’t unique to the Jewish community or just the non profit sector. We see this in tech companies. We see this in corporations. We do see employees being like, well, wait a second. We have some power. Let’s exercise that power. And what we see, I should say, in the data, which, you know, just last month, we gathered data points about work experience from 18,212 employees across all different types of organizations. And we did an analysis of those organizations who had been newly unionized and those who are in the process of being unionized and those who are not unionized. And what we see is for those organizations that have been unionized, employees do report feeling more a sense of higher well being, work life balance. When it comes to confidence in leadership and when it comes to actually producing the work that needs to be done, they score dramatically lower than organizations that are not unionized yet. Now, again, needs to settle, but yeah.

Yehuda: There’s nothing, there’s truly nothing better than uncomfortable statistics. It’s the best because everybody can always marshal the data they want for whatever position they’ve already decided to begin with. You get like this fluctuation of this is better and this is way worse, then that’s, you know, that’s the interesting work.

So let’s go to the other one. You talked about the better places to work. The other is elevating and moving talent within organizations and systems, which by the way, obviously is one of the tools by which individuals move throughout the system. So somebody promoting and training someone within an organization, obviously you hope that that person stays in whatever organization they’re in, but you’re actually also doing a service for the broader field because the people who get trained in one place may be able to then take over another place. So what have you seen as kind of the habits or the practices, the behaviors of organizations that do this kind of thing particularly well that could be then learnable and scalable in other places?

Gali: Yeah, it starts with really managers taking an interest in an employee’s growth trajectory. And that means like, is there time, is there dedicated time for a one on one meeting to say, you know, Yehuda, where do you want to be in five years? How can I help you get there? Like, let’s think about, you know, the skills.

And again, going back to that Bridgespan report, there weren’t those conversations happening. It was a person’s own ambition and motivation and maybe external and internal pressures that enabled them to seek out this skill building thing to go to that conference, to build that mentorship, etcetera. Or to do a fellowship, etcetera. 

So, one is just on a very individual level, taking an interest in a person’s growth trajectory, knowing that most people have about 20 different roles that they do in a given career. The average tenure now of just an average employee is about 2.5 years. In any given role. And forget, you know, the different ways in which they can be promoted and whatnot. So, let us assume that someone is going to be leaving as opposed to staying forever or climbing whatever pyramid you’re able to have.

Also of note here, by the way, is that many Jewish organizations are small. We’re not going to be able to give a hungry intern who then gets to be associated, who then gets to be manager, any additional ladder opportunities. So then it means that we have to look and we have to really open up our peripheral vision.

Now the organizations that do this really well, A, understand that a person’s not going to stay forever, or not going to stay a certain amount of time. So there’s already more of like a pipeline that’s incoming. I can tell you an organization that does this incredibly well is AIPAC. They have a steady stream of different college-aged folks who are very active. Some of them go into an internship, some of them become legislative assistants. There’s an understanding that if you’re a legislative assistant, you go there maybe one, two, three years, then you’re out. But there’s a whole alumni network of AIPAC people who are proud to be part of that, right? And then there’s the 1% that sort of goes up the pyramid. It’s actually very McKinsey-esque, you know, it’s very like management consulting esque. 

So the best organizations know that you get the best people, they’re going to probably leave. And your job is to get them into fighting shape in their role. And then that means that you have a culture of feedback, you have given them opportunities to stretch, etcetera, etcetera.

Now the thing that we’ve seen over the last like eight years or so, since really Leading Edge came to be, is that the Jewish community has actually seen itself more of a community. Really more of a field of organizations as a sector. It wasn’t just, how can I move Yehuda through the JCC movement? There was some of that, or federation.

There’s an understanding that if you start out at camp, you may need to go to federation, and then you may need to go to JCC, and then maybe you had a foundation, and then maybe you go to a Jewish learning institution. There has been more of a movement toward understanding that a career path is more of a lattice, so you move around in different ways. Maybe you move laterally because you’re like, I want to work with that leader. I know that that’s going to give me some exposure that I don’t want, even if it’s moving from a manager to a manager role. That’s as easy and as hard as that is. 

Yehuda: Well, we were at a gathering recently on the talent pipeline with a bunch of different organizations, and one of the ideas that kind of kept getting kicked around was, could you take something like the AIPAC model and federalize it, nationalize it, where instead of particular organizations being good at knowing, I only have this person for a couple of years, what if there was an incoming class of folks who are coming to work in the Jewish community somewhere between, I don’t know, 200 and 2,000 who are participating in the same set of activities around advancement, but it almost doesn’t matter where you’re assigned, so to speak, for those couple of years because you’re probably going to not stay there anyway.

And the biggest obstacle to that, Gali, is obviously, we are just a far less nationalized and federalized Jewish community than we were two generations ago. So just as we, we had something, it was called the federation system, that would have been capable of doing it. We don’t have that at the same level today. Those organizations still exist, but they don’t hold the same kind of convening power. Is there momentum or even the ability to think about those kinds of scaled activities across an ecosystem when there’s already an arms race between organizations for talent. Is that possible? 

Gali: I think it’s possible. And you gestured it. We have a playbook of a possibility of how to do it. There are specific umbrellas. There are specific verticals who are trying a version of this or have done this in the past. So you can look to the Fera fellowship, which it was almost a hundred X is needed of what you just mentioned. But the Fera fellowship, Hillel has tried this with not only, the JCSC fellowship, which was wildly successful, if you look at some of the alumni there who where they are now, but also Springboard, which I think they bring a class of like 40 or 50. They sprinkle them across different Hillels. 

By the way, those Hillels have to be great places to work. That’s another, it’s a huge thing, right? You don’t want a bunch of young talent to come in to crappy workplaces. That’s just going to be like, Oh my God, I’m never going in there. And I’m never going to the Rabbinate. I’m never, it’s just going to be a huge turnoff. So they place them in great places to work, great manager, great leader. And then also don’t hold onto them too tightly. There’s another aspect of things. But I, I think that’s super possible.

Yehuda: Well, here’s a dumb question to invite you to give a more sophisticated answer than the question, which is, if organizations know that they are going to have, probably at best, 2 to 3 years out of their early career employees, and that there’s only a 1% chance that that person is going to kind of stay in the organization and be a star and the CEO one day, doesn’t it feel like there’s a kind of counter incentive for them to do a huge amount of investment in their early career professionals? You know, you might as well just have a factory. You’re there for two years. You’re going to do what you do. You’re going to go somewhere else anyway. 

How do organizations, I guess in order to do something that enriches the whole field, every organizations has to feel that their investment in their talent is not merely an investment in their organization. It’s an investment in the talent pool for the Jewish people. And as is always the case with these kind of collective projects, unless everybody’s kind of willing to do that kind of sacrifice, then it becomes really easy to just say, well, you know what? It’s fine. People will work here and then move on.

Gali: Yeah. Well, not a, not a simple or dumb question there. And you gesture to the commons. This is exactly the problem with the commons. Do you know what the lowest scoring question, every year, when we ask about employee experience, what the lowest scoring question is over and over again? 

Yehuda: I do not. 

Gali: Are there enough people to do the work? No. So what we’re basically asking is folks who are starving for talent, and you’ve mentioned this, to say, I’m going to feed this person so that they can go and feast in other places. I think there are systemic things that need to change in order for folks to see that there is more of an abundance mindset rather than the starvation cycle, if you will, that many nonprofits, and again, this isn’t just only in the Jewish community, are operating under.

I think you still have a lot of leaders who do not see that one of the things that we want to do is build a pool for the Jewish community that is going to enable us to thrive as a people, and as a planet. They see it as, oh, thank God, Yehuda started. He should have started 90 days ago. Here you go, Yehuda. And, you know, please make my life easier, says whoever the manager is. 

That’s a way of management, certainly. And also like there’s proportionality to the professional development, you know, like it doesn’t have to be, necessarily, like from day one, here is your leadership development path I’ve curated for you. You know, that kind of thing. No, 70% of a person’s own leadership abilities come from just day in, day out, the grind of work. Sometimes it’s awesome. Sometimes there’s a stretch thing that you can be creative at. Sometimes there isn’t.

But at least once a year you gotta have a checkup and be like, Yehuda, how’s it going. You know, that kind of thing. And giving an opportunity for employees to give feedback so that nothing festers and you’re not surprised by it as a leader. 

Yehuda: It’s a heretical question, which is, there’s been a huge growth in the market of fellowships and professional development opportunities for Jewish communal professionals, for rabbis, et cetera. And we’re in this business. That’s why it feels heretical to talk about it. But I am genuinely curious to know whether it’s actually helping because there are so many. Right, they are, by definition, far less competitive than if there was only a handful of them. And I’m starting to notice that there’s just a kind of rite of passage of, well, I, you know, I did Hartman and I did AJS and then I did M2 and then I did this and I did this.

And I’m curious whether that system of paraprofessional work that in theory should raise the talent level, is actually creating a kind of redundancy if they are not actually differentiators in the field. Is there any way to know whether this kind of ecosystem of fellowships and training and professional development, aside from the fact that they’re probably very enriching to people, is actually creating differentiation within the talent pool?

Gali: So we don’t know. We don’t know. What we are seeing is exactly what you’re seeing, which is like, you know, you’re seeing one person who did Wexner, who did the Schusterman Fellowship, who did M2, who did, you know, our, you know, own CEO onboarding program and, you know, half a million dollars later of leadership development, they are CEO of an organization and are thriving. And, you know, was the bang worth the buck, kind of thing. 

We don’t know how those are. I can tell you this, one of the things that we really moved away from it within our own theory of change was this august, elite, you know, we have to train the best of the best and be very precious about 20 leaders every 15 months that we’re going to invest a crap load of money in. I feel like to your point, there’s scale. We need scale in order to turn the tide in ways that can be administered in a minimum viable dose, that we can hit a lot more people, that were able to really elevate. And also the price tag is not going to be as scary and the frequency with which will be able to churn out, you know, let’s say officers, if you will, is going to be greater.

The ecosystem of fellowships is really interesting because there has been an explosion over the last 10 years. On the one hand, like you said, it’s incredibly enriching for an individual. On the other hand, the place where we have a challenge with it is what is the place of the individual within the Jewish community or the Jewish communal organizational landscape. You can’t just take one person from an organization of 50 and say, okay, you’re a change maker, change everything. No, right. We know that. 

So there’s something here about scale. There’s something here about minimum viable dose. And you’re right. We’re not expanding the pie. That’s, there’s no incentive to, and frankly, like, just like it is, it’s much more expensive to get a new customer than it is to retain an existing customer. It’s really expensive to go beyond the pale, if you will. And that’s, that’s the biggest barrier that we see in terms of fellowships that hit the same people who are in the know, perpetuating kind of the same sort of cycle. 

Yehuda: I remember a conversation about this a number of years ago with someone at Wexner about the lay leadership program and Wexner lay leadership, the Wexner heritage program has had a huge effect on thousands of people in incredibly interesting ways. But there is always a risk and a number of people experience this risk of, wait a second. You pulled me out. You put me on a mountaintop with Yitz Greenberg. That Torah changed my life. And then I go back to my board chair around the table of my local JCC, and A, nobody else was on the mountaintop with Yitz Greenberg with me, and B, this work feels like totally banal, and as a result, the exciting leadership development program actually repels a person from entering back into Jewish communal leadership. 

So that’s another paradox of leadership development is that you actually move people out of the stratosphere of the places they actually can lead. 

Gali: Absolutely. And if you track some of the alumni of different fellowships, whether it’s, you know, the Wexner Heritage Fellowship or the Schusterman Fellowship or some of the other fellowships, you look at a lot of alumni who, after they complete the program, actually leave their organizations and feel like, okay, there’s something better. I can be, you know, better utilized in a different context. 

Yehuda: I’m curious to talk to you a little bit about gender as relates to some of these questions, because I think it’s unavoidable and necessary. You know, there is a dangerous theory about the Rabbinate, that one of the things that happened to the Rabbinate was what happened to pediatricians. When women entered into the workforce, it became a feminized job. And therefore, because of the kind of cyclical nature of patriarchy, it became a degraded job, a less respected job. It diminished the entry into the field. 

This is one of these places again, where a commitment to equity and equality winds up having all of these effects that you were trying to create equity and equality.

It succeeded in a particular sphere of the workplace, but it actually didn’t take hold in the general public, all it did is diminish the workplace. How do we think about, again, the relationship between those two values? Or is our job basically to say, I don’t care. I’m going to get excellent rabbis regardless of gender. And I’m not going to worry about the fact that like, you know, to quote a great modern thinker, the haters are going to hate. Like, I’m just gonna, I’m just gonna let it, let the chips fall where they may. It’s fine. This will be basically the people who want to be rabbis will be rabbis. How do you think about this?

Gali: Oh, I think we should absolutely care. I don’t think that we should just be like, oh, whoever’s going to come is welcome and that’s it. And we shouldn’t try. And it goes back to the question that you asked before about, can we make some of those serendipity moments really meaningful that then shape the path and like kind of an invisible hand of people.

If you don’t see yourself in your role models, or in your co workers, or in your leaders, or in your volunteer leaders, or in your constituents, you’re just not going to want to take that path. I mean, I saw that in tech. I was the only woman in a tech company with a bunch of younger dudes who didn’t know what the hell they were doing, by the way, and it was a grind. There would have been a lot better experience, and again, this is kind of a focus group of one, but we know what you described as the feminization of a sector is real. It’s real when it comes to the pocketbook. It’s real when it comes to prestige. So going back to that, are we able to have the kind of value proposition where if your kid coming out of school was to say, Hey, dad, I got a job at a JCC, would you be proud? Or, as a non-Orthodox rabbi, would you be proud? 

And that, to me, seems like we need to build a sandbox where we can see everyone, and that includes, you know, the difference in gender, the difference in race, the difference in socioeconomic classes, certainly, different backgrounds. 

And I worry about this a lot, Yehuda, to tell you the truth. I mean, my team right now, we are a team of 23, and there are three men on there. Now we have some nonbinary folks and we do have a truly diverse team but I, I see that as something that is concerning to me because we get a lot of applications for every open position and the most qualified and, frankly, dazzling ones are women who come and show up better and put their best foot forward and I think that this is something that our community really needs to address and frankly, right quick, so that in 20 years when we’re looking around and there’s a new pipeline problem, you know that we’re trying to solve it, you know, this flavor will not be part of it because we will have seen the breadcrumbs along the way.

Yehuda: So the one other piece in terms of seeking new leadership, because ultimately the way that the leadership pipeline will be resolved or solved is partly through the kinds of interventions you’re talking about and partly through, not just moving people through our system to be able to take over positions, but that the Jewish community gets perceived, and that the causes that the Jewish people care about are perceived as powerful places that people will laterally and at the early part of their career say, I want to go there.

And I also think it’s just going to require a much greater appetite for risk than the Jewish communal system tends to be comfortable with. And I’ll give you an example. The example is about the question of whether talent is rooted in expertise or experience. And I tend to think that there’s a huge bias in our system to, towards experience as opposed to expertise.

You know, as an example of a number of years ago, when a colleague of mine was leaving an organization that they had played a founding role in and by the time they left, because they were like way better now than the organization. The organization’s budget was, I don’t know, in the single digits of millions of dollars, and they went out to look for jobs and couldn’t get interviews at agencies with much larger budgets.

The person’s argument to me was, this makes no sense. They think that I can’t do the job when I just view it as a matter of economy of scale. I know how to fundraise. At the time, I needed to fundraise for an organization of this size, but you think I can’t fundraise with more staff and with a bigger value proposition for an organization of another size? In other words, experience mattered and expertise didn’t. And the result is that sometimes our most talented people can’t move up that jungle gym of organizations. 

So how do we, again, use an outfit like yours to not only address the internal cultural dynamics, but even change the larger conversation for hiring committees and for the field about what they should be seeking. How do they spot talent, even if the person doesn’t have the exact resume or CV that would make it seem obvious that they’re the right candidate to do the job. 

Gali: Yeah. Well, the answer is in what you just asked in the question, there is an opportunity for us to recruit the best talent that doesn’t meet all the checklist that is on the job description because no one will.

And we know, by the way, when a woman looks at a job description and a man looks at a job description, you know, the woman’s like, no, I can’t, you know, apply for this because I don’t have all 10 things. I only have nine. And the man’s like, I’ve got three, I’ll figure out the other ones. And they’re both right, by the way. They’re both right. Because in order to do it, you need all 10. And that means that for the manager, for the actual, like, culture of the organization, you need to know, okay, Yehuda is really good at these three things. There are seven things that I’m going to need to support them on or complement them on. Like, let’s bring in the cavalry. Let’s think about some of the ways in which we can complement one another. 

Now, this does have to do with risk. It does have to do also with just a break of how traditionally talent acquisition has been done. If you look at headhunters, they’re incredibly risk averse. There is no incentive for them to take any sort of risk because you know, they want to make sure that you’re going to be in your role for three months. They’re going to collect their fee and they’re like, you know what? This person is going to do a great job. They’re going to do an excellent job. They’re not going to be groundbreaking.

Some of it is systemic. Some of it is certainly mindset. And I would argue that especially as we think of organizations, not just doing, you know, copy and paste year in, year out, we’re going to do the same thing, but what’s going to be around the corner? What can we build together? What is that culture of ongoing learning and ongoing improvement? You’re going to need people who have different types of expertise and experience. 

Yehuda: I guess I have one last question. You’ve been really generous with your time, and it’s so thoughtful, I guess. I don’t know if this is much of a question or a confession, right? I think a lot about because the work of the Hartman Institute is about people and leaders, right?

Right now, I’m recording from Jerusalem. We have 175 lay leaders here. Next week, we’re going to have 165 rabbis here. We see people come through and we hope that they are enriched and even sometimes by their own reporting transformed by the learning here. And we try to remember as an organization that our biggest set of constituents and stakeholders are actually the people who work here. And sometimes it’s actually easy to forget that you’re serving the clients and you’re forgetting that this is actually an engine in and of itself around Jewish talent and Jewish leadership. 

Well, when we’re good at it, I feel very proud of it. You know, we have like, when people leave our organization to move up into a different organization, we celebrate them, glean what they learned and what they took. I have a dream one day of an alumni association of our organization, which, you know, probably won’t happen. 

But I’ve noticed that, Gali, it’s so slow. It’s so personalized. It takes a really long time. I’m so proud of when somebody in my organization, when we help them move and grow, as a teacher, as a scholar, as a professional, it’s amazing when it happens. And I just feel like it’s hard to scale. So help me wrap my head around, like how we can collectively think about that work as scalable. Cause if it’s one person at a time, we’re not going to solve this. 

But how do we do this in a way that enables any bit of that work that’s taken place to feel like it’s part of something bigger.

Gali: Yeah. It’s very meta. Very meta. For you and for us too, as we also strive to be a great place to work while helping organizations be a great place to work. I will say we’ve learned from our research that the best managers and in many ways, the best leaders are educators. And I would posit that we can look at the business of developing employees, professionals in a variety of ways is education. We’re trying to help people maximize their potential and really grow. 

That happens differently for different people, but there is a baseline. It’s not like you have a class of 30 students and you’re going to individually go to every one of the students all the time in order to make sure that they’re getting to a certain baseline. It’s very much the same. You have a team of 50. All right. So maybe five of these need a certain level of intervention and it’s unbelievably dynamic. It’s never going to be the same because we change every day and we have moods and we’re hangry and blah, blah, blah. 

But education is one of the areas where we see a lot of parallels and see that the best managers are, in effect, educators. They give opportunities for people to grow and fail and fail fast and learn from that in ways like the great teachers do, and there are breakthroughs and there are times when you can see folks really like getting it in ways that, you know, light up a teacher. So that might be. Yeah. I mean, 

Yehuda: So last, last question, which is, in terms of what you said, the single best piece of feedback I ever got from my team was as a 360 that I did five, six years ago. And the reason you, what you just said made me remember it, which was the main thing that emerged was that a number of my colleagues said to me, you don’t manage us the way you teach. I was like, oh, I know. It was intense. It was really intense. And it led to a magnificent conversation around what that dynamic feels like differently of, in the classroom your goal is to help people think and help people to grow. And we’re managing is much more narrow. And I think about it basically every day and in going into, especially the most difficult meetings. 

So I’ll give you a chance here, too, Gali, also, what’s the, given you talked about feedback, you talked about growth, it’s been a personal conversation in ways that I think there are more than what we talked about because you and I are both were lifers for this kind of work. What’s the best piece of feedback that you ever got in a workplace? 

Gali: The best that comes to mind right now, it was right at the beginning of leading edge and it was one of my mentors who said, there are going to be times when you are going to have to choose between being right and being effective. It’s your choice. And I remember one of the forks in the road, and it was early on in this journey where I said, it’s better for us to be effective here rather than me winning moral points or whatnot.

So yeah, let’s think about, do you want to be right or do you want to be effective? I made my choice. 

Yehuda: Well, thanks so much to all of you for listening to our show and special thanks to our guest this week, Gali Cooks. 

Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman with assistance from Miri Miller, Shalhevet Schwartz, Sarina Shohet, and Yoav Friedman. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silversound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis. Gordon, Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative, and our music is provided by Socalled. 

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically a week after the episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at We’re always looking for ideas for what we should cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you’d like to hear about or comments on this episode, you can write to us identity [email protected].

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