Preparing Our Next Professional Leaders: It Takes a Community

It is the responsibility of communal organizations to mentor young professionals, with the understanding that they will likely take those learned skills take those to their work in a different organization.

As nonprofit recruitment consultants, we spend our days working with clients who are in the midst of leadership transitions. While recruiting a new CEO or executive director or head of school is never an easy task, we find that most search committees begin their work skeptical that they will find a pool of talented professionals who have the complex skill set required to lead, and who also have the desire to do so. They also ask if they need to consider candidates from other fields or the private sector in order to find the caliber of professional leadership their organization or school requires.

What is driving our clients to ask these questions? Most lay leaders and senior executives tell us that the challenges of leading a nonprofit organization have changed significantly in the last decade. As these challenges become more complex, the need for the professional to have expertise in a number of areas is more critical than in years past. Challenges of funding, government relations, serving diverse constituencies, fiscal management and organizational strategy, vision and governance all require an arsenal of skills and knowledge. In a majority of senior leadership positions, professionals are forced to develop new skills in real time or “on the job.” In addition, there is evidence that many talented professionals shy away from the top slot because of the enormous pressures and endless demands of senior level positions.

In order for the nonprofit community to address this challenge in a significant way, agencies, professional organizations and movements need both to strengthen their capacity for developing future executives and attend to their ability to plan and act strategically in anticipation of inevitable leadership transitions.

The leadership “crisis” has come to the forefront at this moment in time largely because of the significant demand for new executives. A 2011 survey of nonprofit executives conducted by Compasspoint and the Meyer Foundation found that more than 40% of current CEOs plan to leave their positions during the coming five years. Nonprofit management graduate programs in schools of business, public administration, education, and social work are trying to address the burst of interest amongst the millenial generation, but they do not address the immediate need.

In the Jewish community, the crisis of leadership is even more acute. Hundreds of Jewish organizations will, in the very near future, experience a significant turnover in their leadership. A recent survey commissioned by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies found that the expectation for executive turnover is also above 40% in the coming five years. However, only 25% of executives at Jewish nonprofits surveyed could identify an “up and coming star” who could run their organization after them. In addition, the majority of executives could not think of where their successors might be found. This leaves the field confronted with a sense of uncertainty, frustration, and concern about the capacity of a next generation of professionals who have the skills and experiences to serve in senior leadership roles in the coming years.

Perhaps what is most disconcerting is that the Jewish community’s concern about future Jewish community professional leaders is not new. The Council of Jewish Federation’s Commission on Professional Personnel issued a report in 1987 entitled “The Developing Crisis.” The chairman, Morton Mandel, wrote, “We confront a crisis in personnel that poses a threat to the effectiveness of the Federation. Even more basic, it puts the quality of Jewish community life at risk.”

In order to change the future landscape of successful executive transitions In the Jewish community, the development of a strong pipeline of professionals needs to be grounded in the notion of collective responsibility. It is the responsibility of communal organizations to mentor and train young professionals, with the understanding that they will likely take those learned skills and apply them down the road to their work in a different organization, but with the hopes that the cycle of leadership will land them senior professionals who have been trained elsewhere, and are now applying learned skills at their organization.

Likewise, it is the responsibility of current senior executives to prioritize and enable an organizational infrastructure which incubates young talent. Executive development is not just about coursework, seminars and conferences but in having the opportunity to handle executive responsibilities. This is a widely appreciated notion, but as many senior executives tell us, the work at hand is often overwhelming in scope, and to allow for a professional structure which provides successful outcomes for the organization will at minimum require additional funding, and will most certainly remove professionals from their day-to-day responsibilities.

Lastly, it is the responsibility of the lay leadership to recognize the limits of human capacity and to make sure that executive leaders have the appropriate professional support and access to their own professional development opportunities, which are a prerequisite for a successful and appropriate tenure in a position. This is most critical, since the professional demands placed on senior executives make them vulnerable for early burnout.

Working with Jewish day schools during periods of senior level transition presents additional challenges. In addition to being the chief executive, heads of school also work with a complicated and diverse combination of constituents including parents, teachers and students. Often times, heads of school are public leaders in their Jewish community, in many cases setting the tone for making the case for the value of formal Jewish education, in a day where concerns about cost, competitive marketplace and the goal of high academic achievement reign supreme.

In addition, successful professional leadership in Jewish day school demands mastery of a complex set of management and business administration skills which are often not acquired in the traditional higher education programs, from which many heads of school graduate. The community of stakeholders in the Jewish community must continually be thinking about strategies like distributed leadership, which can help to train and mentor young professionals to strengthen their acumen in all areas of leadership required running a successful and thriving school.

These issues and realities inform so much of the work that we do. In the short term, we are working to address the crisis in leadership by probing our clients to think broadly and strategically about where new models for leadership may be coming from. We are aggressive in counseling our clients to strongly consider professionals both from other nonprofit disciplines and from the private sector and women for executive positions In each case, when working with our clients, we work to identify, recruit and vet candidates by looking at their overall leadership capacity, their areas of experience and expertise, and their motivation and preparedness.

In the longer term, professionals, foundations and community stakeholders need to think strategically about the need for developing a sustainable, broad based model which will lead a next generation of senior leadership to be both sophisticated and skilled in the areas that they will require in order to lead the Jewish community over the next 30 years.

A successful search is at its core a direct outgrowth of the notion of collective responsibility in both the Jewish and nonprofit world. By gaining a complete understanding of the all the stakeholders involved in a particular search, they all feel invested in the success of the transition in each of their particular roles. This “discovery” phase is critical in information gathering, and it also sets the stage for the last part of the transition—the “successful conclusions” phase, when new professionals begin their work. Successful conclusions begin with the placement of a candidate in a job, who can thrive when stakeholders from the “discovery” phase provide coaching, mentoring and supporting of their new hire during the first years of their tenure. A culture of investing in a new executive with the expectation they will learn and grow in their position is encouraged.

It is the responsibility of the community to pay attention to developing the pipeline of executives who are prepared and motivated to assume executive leadership roles. We encourage the various stakeholders in the Jewish community and in the nonprofit world to think strategically about how we can collectively be successful in cultivating the leaders our organizations need in the coming years. ♦

David Edell, president of the national firm DRG Executive Search, has consulted with hundreds of organizations in the Jewish community and throughout the nonprofit sector on executive transitions. He can be reached at

Dara Z. Klarfeld, a consultant at DRG, works with organizations, camps and schools during periods of executive transition. She can be reached at

Rabbi Josh Elkin is an executive and leadership coach, former day school head, founding director of PEJE, and consultant to DRG. He can be reached at

David Edell, Dara Z. Klarfeld, and Josh Elkin
Attending the Crisis of Leadership
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership