"There's No Success Like Failure; and Failure's No Success at All"
Enough "insiders" have hinted to me that Jerry Silverman has been (or soon will be) given a contract extension that I have to believe it's true. The reasons are no doubt far more complex than "there's no one out there other than Jerry who would take this job;" but that's the sole reason that has been articulated. This extension if true is the ultimate abdication of lay leadership responsibility; for certainly this Board Chair knows that this decision is not in the best interests of JFNA, not in the best interests of the federations and not in the best interests of the Jewish People. As our friend Daniel Gordis recently wrote (in a far more sobering context): "Masks and pretense were for Purim, but Purim is behind us." I, like you, want a CEO who is filled with Big Ideas and the management skills necessary to the office -- instead we have...
As you regular readers know full well, it was not difficult to predict almost 5 years ago that Jerry Silverman would struggle mightily in the role of JFNA CEO. And to say that he has struggled would be a gross understatement. Clearly, he relishes the paths down which he has taken the organization but, rather than putting an end to the professional debacle he inherited, CEO Jerry has merely continued the downward spiral unabated. Rather than a paradigm for all of the positives that one hired from outside the federation professional ranks might (emphasis on "might") bring to the this most critical role, Silverman has evidenced all that can go wrong when the person hired as the lead professional in an organization of such complexity has neither any familiarity with that complexity nor, apparently, the ability to comprehend it.
I was reminded of the values experience can bring several weeks ago by a piece on 60 Minutes Sports on Larry Brown, a proven winner as basketball coach supreme, who returned to coaching at age 73 as the Head Basketball Coach at Southern Methodist University where he resurrected a moribund college program to the level of a Top 25 team. One of his SMU players attested: "...he has been there before. I understand now that if I just listen to him, great things will happen." When Larry Brown arrived at SMU, the cupboard wasn't bare but close, SMU had been on an epic run of losing seasons...and within two years an experienced professional and a proven winner did what almost everyone thought impossible. Rooting for JFNA's success at this point isn't like rooting for SMU; it's far more like being a fan of the Chicago Cubs. It's the clash of reality vs. hopelessness. JFNA has proved over the past 8+ years to be beyond hope without new professional leadership. Year-by-year I have watched as the future of JFNA, the promise of JFNA has receded from us until there is neither future nor promise, only the failure of the present. Friends, what has emerged is a dystopian version of CJF or UJA, take your pick. It sure isn't what any of us who voted for the merger ever intended.
The current CEO was/is no Larry Brown. From interviews with many who served on the JFNA Search Committee back then, Silverman was hired because (a) he gave "a spectacular interview;" (b) the Search Committee Chair (and Chair of the Executive at the time) demanded the hire as Jerry was an "outside the box" candidate and she wanted to "break the stranglehold" that the LCE held on the position; (c) the cadre of federation executives (I think we all know who they are) offered no alternatives; and (d) there was no experienced candidate with whom to compare Silverman. Jerry's credentials -- a successful term as CEO of a small national agency, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, and a successful sales and marketing executive at Dockers. Even today I am not familiar with Jerry's educational background. All in all, these experiences that the Search Committee believed were sufficient to rationalize hiring Jerry have proved to be a flimsy foundation for someone being paid close to $700,000 a year to lead our complex organization with almost no return on an investment in him of about $3,000,000 after 4+ years. And, now, without any real hope that things will be better, without any hope that he will be better, he is granted an extension.
I don't know about you but the rationale that "no one else would take this job" just doesn't fly. Who was asked? The usual group of "best and brightest" -- Nasatir, Hoffman, the retiring Ruskay, Jay Sanderson, Jacob Solomon, Mark Terrell (some or all of whom may believe that they are already "running" JFNA without any need for accountability inasmuch as their fingerprints rarely appear)? And, among the Large Intermediate and Intermediate City CEOs are many women and men, brilliant professional leaders, schooled in all that federations of every City-size need from their Continental organization -- none considered? What about an interim CEO who has proven leadership credentials who might, for a two year period, step in on an interim basis and attempt to right the sinking ship? A Darrell Friedman, a Bob Aronson, Bobby Pearlman or a Mel Bloom? And, what about the professional leader of another organization who has demonstrated that he is at the top of his game -- Russell Robinson, David Fisher, Jeffrey Solomon? And, surely, there are women and men in addition to these. Yes, I know that these leaders may have no interest and that all may have the fatal flaw of being their own person. of not being totally beholden to or subject to the control of the LCE, but do we want an organization in which we can take pride? Or do we want a continuation of the failure that JFNA is today?
What the Co-Chairs have done is to create some greater professional depth -- the hiring of Matt Gurvis and Renee Rothstein was done at their demand, certainly not at Silverman's initiative. Yet, as many who Comment on these Posts have observed, these two fine and exciting professionals are now mismanaged by the mismanager in chief. We are all aware of the mantra we hear in every quadrennial -- "...are you better off today than you were four years ago?" If you frame that question in the context of our national organization, the question suggests its own answer: "JFNA is in a worse place by far today than it was four-plus years ago." In fact, JFNA is in such a terrible place -- there is a Stygian gloom over 25 Broadway.
Isn't extending Jerry's contract a statement that we're happy with the status quo? And, why would that be? When the best (only??) reason to renew the CEO's contract is that "we can't find anyone else to take the job," doesn't that tell you all you need to know about the organization in which we have invested about $650,000,000 to date? What is required today is a professional leadership capable of "unleashing the greatness" that is within the federation system. If all we are about is the "brand" without reference to either the values or the core principles that the "brand" must be about, we will continue to fail and fail and fails.
While I say with you that we can do better; that we can be better, our leaders have determined to take the easy way out and reward failure. Yes, in the face of constant failure and embarrassment, our leaders have decided to reward CEO Jerry with a new contract. Shame on them; and shame on us.