Commentary: All in the Family?
Organization as family offers a culture that is heavily weighted towards relational orientation. It’s understandable for a Jewish organization to be drawn to the model of family—it is squarely in our DNA—part of the larger narrative of being Jewish. However, in framing an organization as family, the script that we provide is one that champions relationships above all. Relationships are a key ingredient to any healthy culture, but in an organizational setting it must be measured and balanced with task orientation. The consequence is that the focus on relationships eclipses the focus on outcomes. Additionally, a family focus can impact the way we hire, fire and develop leaders. In this way, on account of the relationship or sense of family obligation, we might make an inappropriate hire, or keep a colleague on staff longer than they are able to positively perform.
Rabbi Andrew Kastner, “We Are (‘nt) Family: What Netflix Can Teach Us about Organizational Culture,” eJewish Philanthopy
Daniel Alter, Head of School, The Moriah School, Englewood, New Jersey:
I fully agree with Rabbi Kastner; nevertheless, I will continue to describe my school environment as a family, even as I am cognizant of the challenges he describes. Every faculty survey I have administered has shown that relationships are a primary motivator for my staff. They live and breathe pride in their school, in part because they feel like part of a family. I recognize that in some ways this complicates my extensive efforts to focus on results, but the tradeoff is worth it. As we say in Hebrew, Yatza secharo behefseido. The value of ceasing to describe a school as family may be far less impactful than the cultivation of an environment where all stakeholders are willing to give more than one hundred percent and commit to our school for the long term; because that is what you do for family.
Shaye Gutenberg, Head of School, South Peninsula Hebrew Day School, San Francisco:
I recently had the privilege to tour the corporate offices of Netflix with one of their senior product researchers to learn about their famed culture and how it might help my school. It could be debated how much of what I learned could be useful management techniques for a Jewish day school. However, there was one Netflix statement that really drives home a mantra I use in my school every day. Netflix’s Courage statement challenges with the following: “You say what you think, when it’s in the best interest of Netflix, even if it is uncomfortable.” At our school we say: “Schools are made for children, not for donors, teachers, board members, or administrators—just children.” Standing by this statement is not always comfortable and certainly not always what others want to hear.
Many schools are frightened of being too familial and heimish or too corporate and cold. Struggling to find the right path for the right school in the right community can be like a seaman navigating in stormy waters. Keeping the mantra of “Schools are made for children—just children” as a compass can very possibly help find our way out of the stormy, narrow straits.
Jon Ben-Asher, Head of School, Tucson Hebrew Academy:
As we pride ourselves and cherish the closeness we feel as a Jewish day school “family”—and we constantly refer to ourselves this way—these feelings do not eclipse the reality that this family has a boss—a parent, if you will, who must stay objective and do what’s best for the school. Who is this parent? It’s our mission, vision and values. Community is in there, in big ways. We love and value our community, like family. And, we must honor the mission and make mission-driven decisions, even when it comes to difficult conversations and outcomes. While we care about one another like members of an extended family, our community looks to us to be professional and deliver a great program and amazing experience for our children. To do our best work at this, we must carefully tend to our relationships and maintain a loving yet professional perspective and approach. Balance and keeping the mission front and center help us to continually build a vibrant school culture and climate for all.
Beth Cohen, Head of School, Friedel Jewish Academy, Omaha:
When people ask what I do for a living, I say that I multitask. Few people understand all that the title head of school encompasses, but everyone understands multitasking. As an agent of culture in a school with fewer than 20 employees, one of my roles is to develop a feeling of family—of care, concern and the desire to help bring out the best in everyone—among faculty and staff. But my job as supervisor requires that I put those feelings aside to effectively manage staff with the same care, concern and desire to help bring out the best in everyone as I work toward the best outcomes for the institution.
Kastner speaks to the development of a team that is “built, curated and crafted” different from a family, and that is also my job. My role is to hire exceptional employees and to create a trusting and caring staff culture, to take the best of the family feeling and marry it to the professionalism needed for leading an organization focused on building the next generation of leaders and thinkers. Multitasking: That’s what I do.