HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Hot Buttons: Improving Professional and Lay Leadership at Jewish Organizations

by Interview with Deborah Grayson Riegel, author of The Little Book of Big Ideas for Jewish Professionals and The Little Book of Big Ideas for Jewish Volunteers. Issue: Taking Measure

Deborah is a communication and behavior expert who helps corporations, Jewish organizations, and individuals achieve personal, interpersonal and professional success, and she serves as a lecturer of management communication at the Wharton Business School. This interview is published in partnership with the Jewish Book Council. headcoach@myjewishcoach.com

Tell us about the needs you saw that inspired you to write these books.

In my role as a coach, facilitator and consultant to nonprofit Jewish organizations for more than a decade, I kept noticing common themes emerge as challenges to both the professional and volunteer workforces, ranging from dealing with difficult personalities and creating a culture of trust to empowering and motivating others to asking for money. I also kept noticing that there was no one source for the professional and volunteer leaders of these organizations to tap into to learn to get better at these skills and competencies. Of course, I also knew that any source needed to be easily accessible, highly practical, quick to read for busy people, cost-effective, and be rooted in the Jewish values and traditions that serve as the foundation for our work and our organizations.

Not so long ago, Jewish organizations often conjured the image of “not so professional” (whether fairly or not). What changes do you notice in the world of Jewish nonprofits?

I am happy to report that many of the Jewish organizations that I work with are becoming more rigorous and professionalized in certain ways: a greater commitment to identifying KPIs (Key Performance Indicators); measuring outcomes; engaging in more formal project management; elevating the role of supervisor to include coaching skills (a personal mission of mine); identifying high-potential professionals and developing them. I also notice that sometimes the assumed “niceness” of working for a Jewish organization can get in the way of Jewish professionals and volunteers making hard decisions and having difficult conversations. At the end of the day, however, you’re operating a business and need to regard it as such, which means that you can still uphold Jewish values like rachmonos and chesed while doing what’s right for the organization and for its people.

In your work consulting with a variety of organizations across the Jewish world (and beyond), what differences and similarities stand out in your mind regarding professionals and lay leaders at day schools?

I see that the commitment to mission, vision and values is the same for many professionals and lay leaders in day schools as it is for those in Federations, JCCs, Hillels, agencies, etc. What has struck me about the lay leaders in day school in particular is that they often have a personal attachment to the outcomes of their decisions that goes beyond what they think is right for the institution. It’s rooted in what they think is right for their child/children and their family. On one side, it makes them deeply passionate advocates, ambassadors, donors, stakeholders, etc. On the other side, it can make them so attached to a particular outcome that they have trouble keeping their minds and options open to other approaches.

A difference that I notice between day schools and some other Jewish organization is a hunger for and willingness to adapt to best practices from outside the Jewish world.  Some other Jewish organizations that I consult with are interested in what I’ve learned in my corporate consulting practice, but then tell me why “it won’t work here.” Jewish day school professionals and lay leaders may struggle with feelings of “it won’t work here” and then work hard to figure out what parts of it they can adapt for their school.

“Change” is a big concern for day schools, as elsewhere. Tell us some of the main difficulties you’ve observed among Jewish organizations attempting to make substantive change.

The biggest challenge I find among Jewish organizations trying to make substantive change is focusing far too much time and energy on the T and W of a SWOT model (Threats and Weaknesses) than on the S and O (Strengths and Opportunities). My favorite patriarch of modern day coaching, Tim Gallway, writes that Performance = Potential – Interference. Too many Jewish institutions try to improve their performance by focusing on how to reduce or eliminate the interferences rather than on identifying what areas of potential they can tap into and grow to make a powerful, positive change. As someone who is certified in Appreciative Inquiry, a change management model that helps people to identify what is working well, analyze the sources of the successes, and then create conditions for more of those successes to happen, I help organizations focus on possibilities more than problems.

Connecting to our issue theme, measurement, what advice do you have for Jewish professionals and lay leaders as they assess and self-assess their work?

Self-assessment is valuable in that it forces you to step back and take stock, and it’s limiting in that your self-assessment is only as strong as your blind spots permit. I do a lot of work helping professionals and volunteer engage in peer coaching and peer assessment, which adds another level and layer of distance between you and your blind spots while adding another level and layer of closeness, investment and trust between you and your peers. Rabbi David Teutsch once commented that decisions should be made by the people who will feel the pain of those decisions. Work should be evaluated by those who will feel the pain of that work—and the pleasure of that work as well.

How can school leaders assess the culture of their school?

I think that one of the challenges that school leaders have in assessing the culture of their schools is thinking that there’s one culture because they want it to be so, or they think it should be so. The fact of the matter is, there are likely multiple cultures (or subcultures) in the school: the parents, the students, the faculty, the professional staff, the board, the hands-on volunteers, the clergy, etc. Ignoring the fact that there are multiple cultures co-existing is turning a blind eye to what’s often really going on. If culture is “how we do things around here,” it must follow that there are as many cultures or subcultures as there are groups of “wes.” Part of the work of a school leader is to help the school decide where there needs to be consistency across cultures—deal breakers—and where variations in culture can peaceably co-exist.

One piece of advice that I often give to professional and volunteer leaders is this: culture change is long, hard work—and something that you may not see happen in your lifetime with this institution. What is faster and more doable for everyone is to engage in climate change. If culture is “how we do things around here,” climate is “how I do things around here,” and each person’s climate contributes to the overall culture. Figure out for yourself and your team the kind of climate you’d like to create—sunny? warm? variable? temperate?—and commit to communicating that to those around you, and to aligning your behaviors, attitudes and beliefs with the climate you’re committed to creating.

Thinking about the relationship between professional and lay leaders, what are the biggest challenges you’ve seen? What advice do you have for improvement?

The biggest challenges I see are when one or both partners doesn’t give enough focus, time or attention to both the task side and the people side of working together. Even if both partners tend to be “doers” or both partners tend to be “feelers” (or some other combination), in order to get work done and done well, you need to create the space and time for both people to contribute to conversations about what Daniel Pink calls the 4 T’s of Autonomy (Time, Task, Technique and Team) as well as to how we’re going to partner well together. Another challenge I’ve seen is a reluctance to discuss who is ultimately accountable for decisions—before a big decision needs to be made. Only one person can be accountable—have veto power or make the final choice—and you run into trouble if that hasn’t been discussed and negotiated ahead of time.

Here is my favorite game of 20 Questions, and I suggest that lay and professional partners (or anyone who works closely together) discuss these with each other as soon as possible in the relationship.

  1. What do I say or have said in the past that you have appreciated the most?
  2. What do I say or have said in the past that makes you uncomfortable?
  3. How do you argue or disagree most effectively?
  4. What disagreement approaches won’t work well between us?
  5. What happens if we can’t agree on something important that involves both of us?
  6. What should I never say to you, even in frustration?
  7. What might I say or do to get your attention about something urgent if other approaches haven’t worked?
  8. How might our relationship evolve and change over time?
  9. How much room or license do we have to ask each other to change?
  10. What will be the early warning signs that our work or our relationship is in trouble?
  11. What can I do to make your day?
  12. How do you like to receive both positive and constructive feedback?
  13. What are your “hot buttons”?
  14. How would you like me to remind you about my “hot buttons”?
  15. What’s the biggest lesson we might be able to learn from each other?
  16. Who do I remind you of?
  17. What do we do if we’re both having a bad day?
  18. What happens if I get discouraged about our work or our relationship?
  19. What about our work together is likely to give us a recurring problem?
  20. What about our work together is likely to change both of our lives for the better?

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Taking Measure

Assessment is a critical function at all levels of day schools. From the classroom to the boardroom, the faculty to the head, every stakeholder and every aspect of school operations stand to benefit from evaluation. Nonetheless, thinking about assessment, and the vehicles for achieving it, are changing in many ways parallel to other aspects of school design. This issue offers reflections about assessment, various and novel ways of achieving it, and discussion of outcomes that can result from successful measurement.

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