Hillel International is a member of The Talent Alliance, a community of practice focused on talent and culture, run by Leading Edge. This past year, Hillel asked the question: “Can we use a systems-coaching approach to improve the culture at the Schusterman International Center, with a focus on communication, accountability, and feedback?” The answer led to them to engage an organizational coach and undertake a process that could be relevant to any organization.
The Schusterman International Center (SIC) serves as the headquarters of the Hillel International network. Over the past three years, SIC experienced rapid staff growth, jumping from 50 to 180 employees employees. This population explosion created challenges for the organization, most especially for the staff housed at SIC’s Washington, D.C. headquarters.
In 2017, Hillel participated in the Leading Edge Employee Experience Survey for the second year in a row. The results indicated that the staff was largely mission-aligned and satisfied with their departmental management, but also feeling undervalued by both senior professional and lay leaders. Staff morale was low on certain teams, and there were significant opportunities for improvement in the areas of internal communications, transparency, accountability, and feedback.
“We knew we could do better, and that it would require doing things differently,” Vice President and Managing Director of SIC Jamie Schiffman told Leading Edge.
A New Approach
A few months later, senior executives had an opportunity before them to put funds from the Talent Alliance into practice. Hillel tossed around several ideas, including coaching. Coaching is a very big part of Hillel’s culture, and many staff take advantage of professional coaching. But leaders felt that the big issues at play were less about coaching for any specific individual and more about creating new leadership and cross-team structures. Rather than simply investing in coaching senior leaders or managers, or pursuing a staff-wide retreat, they chose to think bigger and hire a systems coach—someone who would focus on the organization as a whole and work to develop structures that would increase trust between staff and senior leaders in a sustainable way.
Hillel engaged Pearl Mattenson, a consultant for Jewish communal organizations over 30+ years and a Director at Rosov Consulting, as their facilitator and thought partner for the project. The goal for the systems coaching was to make sense of the organizational system rather than fix spot challenges. Pearl would coach Hillel to better work through conflict and establish healthy work cultures, clarify roles, and improve communication.
Never before had Hillel engaged a coach to look at the big picture from a systems coaching perspective—it was just what the organization needed.
Building the C-Team
In summer 2018, Pearl organized a day-long retreat with a newly organized “C-team.” While Hillel leadership convened regularly as a broad executive team, consisting of the 14 heads of the major departments and programs at the organization, Hillel was not separately convening its senior most C-level executives. These C-level executives were in charge of their own pillars of work and were coordinating with one another primarily through one-to-one communications . As Pearl’s first order of business, she worked to create an infrastructure that would define and engage the organization’s senior leadership.
Together, the new C-team used the Leading Edge survey data as a “north star” to guide their work. Pearl also conducted informational interviews with 25 key people from across the organization in order to understand work culture issues from their perspective and ascertain what they viewed as the ideal outcomes of the systems-coaching work.
There was no denial or pushback on the part of senior leaders regarding the changes that needed to happen. Though some of the survey data challenged leadership’s prior assumptions and approaches, they were open to hearing critical feedback and enthusiastic about exploring new approaches.
In order to ensure that staff felt supported and could thrive through the entire life cycle of their employment, Hillel had recently invested in a new, full-time position to nurture the work. Sara Stesis, an 8-year Hillel employee who had just completed her Masters in Organizational Development, took on the new role of Director of Organizational Development. With Sara on board, and a new C-team established, Pearl had dedicated partners on staff to help drive the process of making meaningful shifts in organization culture.
Pearl’s work on the ground in that retreat paved the way for the new C-team to meet regularly, with Sara and Jamie moving forward conversations and developing new models for trust-building and internal communications. They recommended a series of interventions—for instance, each member of the leadership team hosting a small group conversation on a topic of interest when visiting SIC; earlier career coaching conversations; monthly meetings of a broad, 40-person interdepartmental committee; and increased alignment between operations and development teams. Listening to the Leading Edge survey data, the organization also established a new compensation philosophy—including new salary bands and title competencies—using a very deliberate process with ample transparency and staff buy-in.
The work advances when you create space for it. It wasn’t an easy decision to invest time and resources in the organizational HQ with staff at HQ so focused on advancing culture and work in the field. Questions around the culture at SIC were always on people’s minds, but everyone had overflowing portfolios focused on supporting the field, so it was easy to relegate these internal HQ issues to the bottom of the list. Through this process, however, Hillel brought persistent SIC issues “back into the light” and recognized that if they didn’t nurture the capable and committed people at HQ, it wouldn’t get the organization to the end goals it needed.
Having internal and external consultants is a unique benefit. Hillel benefited from having individuals from both inside and outside the organization to spearhead changes. Pearl and Sara had a tandem relationship that allowed each of them to drive different aspects of the work. They were also able to determine who might be the best messenger for various aspects of the conversation. “In talking with the C-Suite, I held the voice of the coach and the voice of the employees,” Sara said. “I approached conversations with curiosity, and offered a different lens by which they could view various challenges.”
Aligning their C-team eased their CEO transition. With the departure in summer 2019 of CEO Eric Fingerhut, Hillel would have been in a different place if the C-team wasn’t aligned and trust-building hadn’t happened. None of that infrastructure existed before last year, and now the organization is able to lean on it. As a result, the transition has been incredibly smooth, with confidence in the ongoing work of leadership and optimism as Hillel exists in this transitional moment.
Leading Edge survey data helped underscore the value of the process. The 2017 survey data drove Hillel to take action. Leaders now report that the greatest area of growth in their 2019 survey data is that people say their feedback counts and they feel something will happen as a result of it. Hillel has also seen significant improvements in their scores around how staff view senior leaders, how respected staff feel, and how they rate open and honest two-way communication.
By all accounts, systems-based consulting was a success for Hillel, especially in combination with a full-time staffer to focus on organizational development and harness the collective wisdom of its leadership team. Hillel notes that while they’ve adopted healthier habits, especially around internal communications, the work continues. The organization is now investing its own dollars to engage Pearl in a number of different capacities.
“Culture is going to happen whether you do something about it or not,” Sara noted. “The challenge is to acknowledge the opportunities to intervene, adopt best practices for a great place to work, and stay focused.”