Masa Israel Journey is a non-profit that provides long-term, immersive experiences in Israel. Leading Edge, also a non-profit, was founded to build the leadership pipeline for the Jewish nonprofit sector. Both have a lot in common – including that their CEOs are female.
Liran Avisar Ben-Horin (Masa) and Gali Cooks (Leading Edge) run multi-million-dollar organizations that serve tens of thousands of people a year, yet people are still surprised to see them at the table. Women at the top remain rare—even in the philanthropic sector.
Out of interest in each other’s experiences, the two leaders recently arranged a call to share ideas and support with each other, with Ms. Ben-Horin querying Ms. Cooks for her take on the current challenges and opportunities in the Jewish nonprofit space in North America, including leadership turnover, the gender imbalance in leadership, and the professional value of spending time in Israel.
For a peek behind the scenes at great female CEO role models, we asked permission to publish the transcript—and these trailblazers were all for it.
Liran Avisar Ben-Horin: Why was Leading Edge established and what problems is the organization trying to solve?
Gali Cooks: There are a lot of people who want to create positive change in the world and who choose to work at mission-driven organizations. Unfortunately, sometimes working in the nonprofit space squashes the inner fire that could be so powerful in igniting change-making, because the work environments themselves can discourage the introspection and the open communication needed for creativity and leadership to flourish. There’s no way to cultivate talent in these constrictive spaces.
Funders have recognized over the years that there weren’t enough qualified people ready to assume leadership roles in Jewish nonprofit organizations, and our community has been bracing for an exodus of CEOs as a generation of leaders prepare to retire from the sector. These funders ended up asking, “Why do we have a leadership pipeline problem?”
Their questions was answered in our founders’ Leadership Pipelines Initiative report in 2014, which revealed that the Jewish nonprofit sector is (1) not developing the talent we already have in our pipeline, and (2) that we have an image problem. Jewish organizations are overwhelmingly governed by older, white men and we tend to be risk-averse as well as increasingly political and bureaucratic.
After this report, we realized the severity of this structural problem in the Jewish world and we were inspired to change it. Leading Edge’s work today is about shifting the way funders and organizations think about talent, leadership, and culture in the nonprofit sector.
Ben-Horin: According to the report that you just mentioned, among the 9,500 Jewish organizations in the U.S., three-quarters of their leaders are turning over within 5-7 years. That means we need a steady pipeline of emerging Jewish leaders to keep filling these roles. How does Leading Edge build and maintain that pipeline?
Cooks: First, we work on culture change in order to make every Jewish organization a great place to work. Over the past four years, we’ve conducted employee experience surveys at around 250 organizations across the United States, asking their employees about the level of connection, pride, motivation, and commitment a person feels for their work and how likely they are to stay or leave their place of employment – and the Jewish nonprofit sector as a whole.
Then, we help organizations make sense of the findings and provide resources to support their growing edges. As it turns out, employees care more about psychological safety and quality management than they do about their salaries. Insights like these help us create more appealing workplaces, and better workplace environments will attract top talent and leadership-oriented professionals.
Second, we support new CEOs through our CEO Onboarding Program. This is a comprehensive leadership development program for 15 CEOs who have held their roles for two years or less. We provide a cohort of peers, a professional coach, and extensive development opportunities to help leaders feel empowered to not just remain in their jobs but engage in transformative work at their organizations and the Jewish community as a whole.
Third, we facilitate partnerships between lay and professional leaders. Board members are the co-pilots of CEOs, and they need as much support as professionals do. Leading Edge has held convenings to bring CEOs together with their board leadership. We have created resources that examine the role of boards, provide a blueprint for hiring and onboarding CEOs, and offer pointers on how to make board-staff collaboration maximally effective. One of the most important things an organization can do is invest in its people, whether they’re collecting a paycheck or volunteering their time, and then help those people work together effectively for a purpose that’s larger than themselves.
Ben-Horin: Masa believes that immersive, long-term experiences in Israel serve as a learning lab for leadership. Do you subscribe to a similar sentiment?
Cooks: We certainly do. In fact, there are many Jewish community organizations who want to see their leaders get a sense of what’s happening in Israel as well as how to navigate politics surrounding Israel. Leaders have a lot to learn from Israel because it’s a country that’s never in ‘maintenance mode’ or satisfied with the status quo. It’s always evolving and adapting. That’s why we bring CEOs on our CEO Onboarding program to Israel. Because it is a leadership laboratory.
People who spend a meaningful amount of time in Israel end up interfacing with various thought leaders who are on the forefront of cutting-end change. Israel is just 71 years old and so many of its citizens are leaders. The people of Israel are in a constant state of trying to create an innovative society which can strike the often-elusive balance between tradition and modernity. American Jewish leaders can learn a lot from that Israeli mentality.
Ben-Horin: The Jewish nonprofit space is composed of employees who are 70 percent women and 30 percent men, yet women make up only 30 percent of CEOs at these organizations. How can we work to change this drastic imbalance?
Cooks: Leading Edge is working to apply a more focused gender equity lens to all of our work. Since 2018, we’ve integrated questions into our Employee Experience Survey that shed light on women’s experiences in the workplace. It’s important to show key stakeholders some of these stark statistics, and then having those individuals react to the data and ask reflective questions about it.
But we need to address the root cause of the problem as well. For example, we know that interviewing protocols affect male and female employment candidates differently such that women perceive job descriptions differently than men. That’s why Leading Edge is working to encourage search committees to look at their composition and encompass structure interview protocols and even change language in job listings that’s often geared towards attracting male candidates.
We also try to teach organizations that if you have a great place to work, it will be impactful for everyone. Organizations should have clear policies on flextime, parental leave, sexual harassment, and other important employee benefits and workplace issues. Leading Edge is excited to dig more deeply into this work in the coming years.
Ben-Horin: If there’s just one piece of advice on hiring that you could give a Jewish organization today, what would it be?
Cooks: Stop looking for the ‘unicorn’ candidate — those mythical creatures or perfect employees. That person just doesn’t exist. Instead, focus on finding the highest-quality candidate available to you at any given time, and then figure out what they need to grow and flourish in the position. Most importantly, find the best fit for your organization. This may sound obvious, but so many organizations behave otherwise.