At the end of 2019, Sandy Cardin steps down as chair of the Leading Edge board of directors. Our staff sat down with him to glean his insights on how the organization has impacted the field, how he has been impacted by this leadership experience, and what stands out for him as he prepares for a new professional challenge. Here is some of what Sandy shared with us.
On his success as board chair…
First and foremost, it is important to say that all we have achieved at Leading Edge these past few years is a direct result of the strong and effective working relationship between our board and management team. When you combine an outstanding board with an extraordinary group of professionals, you drastically improve your chances of success, especially when you also have the financial ability you need to pursue your agenda.
And that is exactly the situation at Leading Edge. We are fortunate to have been founded by people with extensive knowledge, experience and resources willing to contribute at the board level. Other organizations would be envious to have the all-star lineup that Leading Edge has been able to assemble around our board table since its creation, a group of people passionate about supporting the activities of the organization and benefitting the entire field of leadership development while staying true to our original mission and vision.
Our board has also been very intentional about changing Leading Edge from a donor-dominated, donor-led initiative to one governed by a board that is much more representative of the Jewish community as a whole. We are an enterprise started by a consortium of major funders who noticed a gap in American Jewish life that needed to be addressed and took action. But rather than maintaining control of Leading Edge, those major donors have taken a step back and are encouraging the organization to move beyond the funder community, to invite new people to the table who embody the rich diversity of our community, and to establish Leading Edge as an important star in the constellation of Jewish organizations.
And, as important as this shift in board leadership is for Leading Edge, it is the kind of transition we need to see happen in many other organizations as well.
On the perception of the role of funders in Jewish American life…
While no one can deny just how much large foundations have contributed to Jewish life in the past 30 years, those who worry about those same funders having too much influence in our community also have a legitimate concern. As we have learned from Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility. The challenge of finding the proper balance is one we take seriously at Leading Edge, particularly because it is essential for our success that the field see the hard work of developing leaders and ensuring safe, respectful and equitable workplaces as vital for their own sake, not because it is the pet project of some large funders.
It is important that most donor-driven or donor-founded initiatives navigate that kind of evolution, and Leading Edge is in a great position to serve as a positive example of how it can be done successfully. We at Leading Edge have benefited greatly from the support, attention, and incubation of major foundations but recognize that our long-term effectiveness and influence will depend on our ability to become a broad-based, community-engaged initiative.
On how his own leadership shifted as a result of his time with Leading Edge…
I cannot tell you just how much I have learned during my time with Leading Edge, personally and professionally. My time with the organization is truly one of the highlights of my career, both because the mission is so important and because of the relationships I have enjoyed with everyone associated with the initiative.
Looking at our community through the lens of Leading Edge provided me with a very different perspective than when serving as president of the Schusterman Family Foundation. As a foundation professional, you try to be aware of all that is around you but understandably focus most on the issue areas and organizations you support. During my time with Leading Edge, I gained a much deeper and wider appreciation of the American Jewish community, one filled with incredibly talented people and in which so many wonderful opportunities abound.
On the opportunity for Leading Edge to serve as a model for other nonprofits…
Everyone at Leading Edge recognizes and embraces our responsibility to serve as a positive example to others, especially in the areas of leadership development and workplace excellence. It is not enough for us to talk the talk; we have to walk the walk.
And we try to do so with a deep sensitivity to the fact that our initiative received generous seed-funding from major funders who already prioritized workplace culture. We’re also aware that as a small start-up we have the advantage of being flexible and nimble; we can easily implement new systems and demonstrate what we feel are best practices. We openly acknowledge and appreciate that not every organization is in a position to implement an array of best-in-class changes all at once, especially when they are expensive. But we hope to serve as a model, explain why these shifts are important, and inspire others to work toward changes over time.
On the transition to the new Leading Edge Board Chair Scott Kaufman…
Leading Edge has all of the preconditions for a successful transition. We’re extraordinarily lucky to have someone like Scott as incoming chair, with his significant lay and professional experience, including his successful tenure as chief executive of a large Federation. In addition, Scott has been Leading Edge’s vice chair and served on our Executive Committee, so he is fully knowledgeable regarding all of the activities of the organization. Not every board has someone who is exposed to the innermost work of the organization for a long time—learning and participating in the highest levels of decision-making—before taking over the reins. It’s certainly a best practice for succession planning. And it’s also important to note that we have outstanding, stable professional leadership in place as Scott takes over.
On what initially attracted him to his new venture as CEO of Our Common Destiny…
One of the most exciting elements of both Leading Edge and Our Common Destiny initiative is that they are doing work of great importance to virtually everyone in the Jewish world. Our Common Destiny is addressing the essential issue of the unity and strength of Jewish people and our connection to the state of Israel; Leading Edge is focused and developing and supporting the absolute best in lay and professional leadership for the American Jewish community. The breadth of both projects is important because it opens the door to meaningful partnerships and collaborations with virtually every Jewish organization, the best way to build and maintain the kind of deep connection that will allow the Jewish people to flourish in the years ahead.
At both Our Common Destiny and Leading Edge, we are trying to engage as many people as possible, to create platforms on which everyone’s voice is heard, everyone’s voice is valued, and everyone’s voice counts. What could be more fun, fulfilling and attractive than that?
On the impact Leading Edge has had on the Jewish nonprofit sector since its inception in 2014…
I think Leading Edge’s impact has been even greater than those of us who were there at the inception expected. While we know we have merely scratched the surface of the leadership challenges facing the American Jewish community, we are thrilled with our achievements so far.
Our CEO Onboarding program is going very well and, thanks to its careful stewardship by Mordy Walfish, is poised to climb even higher. The response to our Employee Experience Survey has also been remarkable, especially considering the incredible number of organizations and employees involved. The fact that so many have been willing to take the survey on a repeat basis allows us to compare data from year to year, as well as over the life of the survey, and to provide them with important information about their own teams that was previously unavailable. And the fact we can buttress those findings with the keen insights of Amy Born has proven to be a real contribution to those organizations working hard to improve. Equally as important, the aggregation of that same data allows us to trace and track the enhancements and improvements taking place in the field generally.
Our communications have also been well received, especially our publications on CEO search committees and CEO transitions.
In short, as I head out the door, I am proud to be able to say with the utmost confidence that Leading Edge — under the remarkable leadership of its president and CEO, Gali Cooks — is extremely well-positioned to continue contributing the kind of invaluable assistance and resources the American Jewish community needs to succeed in our collective and holy work of helping repair the world and ensuring that Jewish people everywhere find meaning, fulfillment and connection in the years ahead.