We have all heard the phrase, read about it, uttered it ourselves -- we're "thinking outside the box" in looking for a new Federation or JFNA CEO. Given the trending today, best I can tell, "thinking outside the box" in 2013 would mean looking for a new CEO from within the ranks of sitting federation chief professional officers because "the box" today means anything but one of those men or women.
There is a "pack mentality" that did not exist at the predecessor organizations, a mentality characterized by groupthink and self-censorship. To be part of the pack demands absolute fealty to its leaders; troublemakers (that's another word for anyone who pushes back) are pushed aside. It is that pack mentality that has lined up federation after federation playing "follow the leader" in their pursuit of "anyone" other than one who has actually faced the fire of federation professional leadership. And the "pack" has been pushed at the apparent direction of that mystery woman, the highly paid, rarely seen, Deborah K. Smith, someone called JFNA's "Consulting Partner...for Human Resource Development" who helps to steer federations away from federation professionals when seeking a new CEO. If you read Deborah's CV in the JFNA Annual Report, you will be duly impressed with a deep body of professional experiences -- none in the federation system.
The obvious end result is that JFNA has become no more than a bunch of strategies without a framing narrative, without core purpose -- how could it be anything else when, until the hiring of a new COO (apparently imposed on Silverman by the Chair), the JFNA Senior Management "team" had only one continuing member with any federation experience? Sure, its leaders talk about the centrality of federation, but there is nothing to suggest they even know what that once meant. Have they read the seminal works of Woocher or Phil Bernstein, z'l, or Irving Bernstein, z'l? Do they even know who they are? How does one who has no experience in or with the federation system lead the development of a framing narrative for and of that system? Evidently it can't happen because after four years we have seen no evidence of one. You will recall that on the cusp of the installation of the new Co-Chairs last year, CEO Jerry promulgated a so-called "Strategic Plan" (under some other Brand. but of course) that was nothing more than the old wine of UJA/CJF in new bottles. And, even that worn-out piece of fish-wrapping has not been implemented.
As far as JFNA is concerned, its apparent advice to federations is "don't hire from within the federations" -- from Deborah Smith on down to the Mandel Center for Leadership Excellence, the message is clear -- "time for a change" and, thus, "outside the box" thinking of yesterday has really become nothing more than the "inside the box" practice of today. On rare occasions, it works -- but only with those who have had some exposure to the federation system -- a Michael Horowitz, or a Jay Sanderson for two. But, in the main, federations have failed when reaching into academia or into the marketing milieu for a new CEO.
So, what might be done? How about eliminating the cost of Mandel/Deborah K. Smith from the Budget, negotiate an annual contract with the best of the Jewish organizational Search firms -- David Edell or Korn-Ferry or one of the others with the credentials to do the job(as many federations already are doing) -- and expose our communities to the best and brightest from within and from the outside. Then let us see how that works out.