What Rose to the Surface at the Foundation’s First-Ever Leadership Convening
September 24th, 2018
The Foundation is pleased to share reflections and learnings from its two recent convenings on Leadership Development (below) and Educator Training, respectively, both of which stemmed from the Foundation’s first open RFP last year.
Last month, the Foundation was fortunate to bring together 50 leaders in Jewish education organizations to the Catskills for 48 hours of learning, connecting and reflecting, with the goal to advance our collective thinking about how to run effective Jewish leadership development programs. Participants included CEOs, senior executives and program staff from Jim Joseph Foundation grantee partners; a handful of foundation professionals investing in Jewish leadership development; and a research team from the Center for Creative Leadership to help facilitate and document our time together. Participants included representatives from the Foundation’s 11 grants that resulted from its open-RFP process last year, along with 15 additional grantee partners working in the nebulous space of advancing Jewish leadership.
While we are still reflecting on our time together, and grateful for the opportunity to be with such a diverse group of Jewish leaders, one of the Foundation’s major takeaway is how uniquely positioned we are – as a national funder of Jewish education – to weave together such networks of leaders. As one colleague responded when asked what her/his biggest takeaway from the convening was: It is absolutely the networking, which is absolutely critical for the success of our collective work. Along with network weaving, here are other key takeaways from the convening—from the planning of it, to the issues, topics, and challenges that hit home for participants:
Embracing the Unknown
What would it look like to bring together professionals who run leadership programs to share ideas and best practices, challenges and frustrations? What topics would emerge? What collaborations would develop? We structured the time in a way to bring out open, curious and courageous conversation, with a set of rich topics, networking time, and wellness activities. And we let the participant-leaders facilitate. As someone remarked after:
I think it’s rare to be at a retreat where you don’t outsource the learning— the experts were also the learners, and it was great to see people in their element as facilitators, and then continue the conversations with them in adjacent sessions.
Cultivating Positive Organizational Culture
The sessions around culture, including the role of a CEO in defining that culture, and how leadership programs can influence the larger organizational culture, clearly resonated with participants. A remark that stood out centered on the definition of culture, which is an inherently fuzzy term, but that could be thought of as the “personality” of an organization. So why does this matter, and what does leadership have to do with culture? It starts with modeling what kind of culture you want to have, and what kind of change you’d like to seek. One participant remarked, As leaders, we need to model more vulnerability. It has the opportunity to change the culture of an entire ecosystem. Another response focused on leadership as a process, as opposed to a focus on a single leader, and leadership as culture shaping.
Finding the Right Mix of People
Another key takeaway for the Foundation was the importance of bringing together the right mix of people and organizations. Each grantee-partner was invited to bring two representatives, increasing the institutional knowledge that they were able to bring back to their team. The diversity of people and nonprofits added to the eclectic nature of the conversations and the spontaneous ideas and connections that were made. As someone said in the post-convening survey,
[The Convening] was a mash up of orgs AND roles, which is rare.
Beware of Burnout
Finally, another interesting takeaway – obvious to many but perhaps not all – is how much burnout is challenging the growth and sustainability of our Jewish education leaders. One small breakout session discussed the idea of sabbaticals as an opportunity to mitigate this risk, whether through a 3-month sabbatical where there is no work email or phone calls; a longer sabbatical focusing on a research question or challenge to be addressed; or some time-frame in the middle to stop doing certain aspects of one’s job while focusing more heavily on others. The free-flowing exchange of ideas – and fears – underscore the comfort in the room.
Could we improve the convening and change it up next time? Of course! More open space and peer assist, more time to intentionally network with those we don’t know and learn about each other’s programs, and a heads-up about the lack of wifi and cell service are easy tactical changes. A colleague remarked that it was a pleasure to think about the big questions in Jewish leadership without necessarily having to come up with the answers. Another shared,
The casual nature of the convening combined with the seriousness of purpose was almost magical. I felt comfortable talking about important things with important people in a way that was less hindered by some of the professional trappings that sometimes impede communication.
This sums up beautifully what the Jim Joseph Foundation hoped to create, a place in which ideas, connections, and renewal were cultivated. While it remains to be seen what exactly will come from this, we can count as a success that our friends and partners relished the opportunity to be together in a beautiful setting – notwithstanding the humidity and buggy outdoors – and we look forward to our shared work in the months and years ahead.
Seth Linden and Jeff Tiell are Program Officers at the Jim Joseph Foundation. Read the piece on the Educator Training Convening here.