Cultivating Relationships, Within Schools and Across the Field

At the end of a recent board retreat, a school vice president approached me with his frustrations. A CEO in his professional life, he felt like he understood exactly what work the board needed to do and was aggravated at the disconnect between this vision and what was actually happening. The new resources and tools that he learned at the retreat helped him articulate what should happen next, yet he was stymied by how to navigate the board dynamics to bring it about. How could he hold his peers accountable? How could he have difficult conversations with fellow volunteers? As a successful CEO, he felt like this volunteer role should have been easier; yet it turned out to be more challenging and more demoralizing than anticipated.

Volunteer leadership, like professional leadership, can be incredibly meaningful—and intensely vulnerable. What works in the corporate suite doesn’t always work on the school board. Setting up the proper structures, committees and responsibilities is an important first step, but when the board members make commitments—to fundraise, lead committees or fulfill other roles—and fail to follow through, the ensuing conversation with one’s peer can be extremely uncomfortable. When those board members are big donors or well-connected in the community, discomfort often gives way to complete avoidance. Decisions and conversations are fraught with politics even under the best of circumstances and with good intentions. In day schools, they are both political and personal.

Heads of school know this well. I remember a conversation with a new head of school, whose hire brought energy and excitement to the school because of his potential to effect change and background as a strong educator. Eager to make an excellent impression, the head also feared making a mistake. His board chair was surprisingly harsh, and his willingness to make changes became subsumed by his unwillingness to err. Though the head and the board chair both believed the expectations were fair and transparent, they didn’t invest in developing norms for their relationship, and the head didn’t feel safe being open and vulnerable with the board chair about his decisions and the areas in which he wanted support. Actions that fell between the expectations frayed a relationship that had not even had the chance to develop properly.

As day school leadership gets increasingly complicated, lay and professional leaders are faced with navigating new territory, setting new policies for unprecedented issues, and developing productive relationships under stress. None of this comes easily or naturally, not for the successful CEO who volunteers as board chair and not for the dynamic educator who is now charged with running a more complex operation than most companies of much larger size.

We need to invest in our lay leaders to help them understand their unique roles in school. And we need to invest in our heads to give them the tools, resources and capacities to lead complex organizations. And perhaps most importantly, we need to invest in the sensitive, critical and multifaceted lay-head relationship for our schools to thrive and for our leaders, both lay and professional, to experience the kind of success and satisfaction that will continue to attract others to these otherwise unenviable roles.

At Prizmah, we recognize that in order to deepen talent in the field of Jewish day schools, we need to keep people and relationships at the core. Our vision for deepening talent is about strengthening and supporting critical relationships among school leaders and creating conditions where individuals and the schools they lead can thrive.

Strong relationships require the implementation of norms and practices that affirm constructive partnerships. From our survey of more than 700 board members from 50 Jewish day schools, we discovered that, while over 80% of board members and heads rate their work in developing a climate of trust with one another and developing a constructive partnership as good or excellent, 33% of board members didn’t know whether their school had a formal head support and evaluation committee or process in place, and only 42% of board members reported having a formal structure in place. Feeling good about the lay-head partnership without structures and systems devoted to the practice of relationship building, giving feedback and working towards shared strategic priorities is like building on quicksand.

Prizmah is committed to moving the needle to ensure that our schools are able to leverage better governance practices to improve school outcomes. We will work to ensure schools have strong head support and evaluation committees and strong processes for delivering feedback, both of which can serve as a foundational tool to advance healthy and strong lay-head partnerships and ultimately strong school outcomes.

A sense of isolation contributes to feelings of vulnerability and can lead to individuals feeling disconnected or alone in the work. Prizmah provides access to networks, knowledge and data to strengthen our leaders and enable them to make their schools vibrant centers of learning and Jewish community. As part of our new strategic plan, we will continue to:

  • Connect leaders through role-specific communities. The Prizmah Reshets are designed to meet the needs of leaders who are seeking a safe space to turn to peers around the challenges that come up in their unique roles.
  • Develop a cadre of lay-leader mentors who can provide one-on-one support for volunteer leaders.
  • Share knowledge, expertise and research through our Knowledge Center. In partnership with Rosov Consulting (thanks to the generosity of The AVI CHAI Foundation), we will publish our latest study on the Lay Leadership Landscape (coming Fall 2019).
  • Convene lay-professional leadership teams to work on building trust and strengthening their effectiveness as partners in leading their schools, deepening knowledge in leading governance practices and developing shared strategic outcomes for school success.
  • Use the leadership framework developed in the Learning Leadership Landscape study ( to develop shared understanding and ignite conversations sector-wide around the capacities and dispositions needed to lead Jewish day schools.
  • Work with boards to utilize Board Self-Assessment as a tool for growth and development.

While individual leaders bravely step into their roles, we recognize that as a field we need to develop a strong pipeline of leaders. There is often high turnover in the headship, and this year alone has witnessed an increased number of veteran heads transitioning out of their roles. Jewish day school boards are not yet boards of choice, and deep understanding of what effective governance looks like is not the norm. It is often challenging to find individuals, especially those who are not also current parents, to serve.

Prizmah has committed to growing the talent pipeline for school lay and professional leadership through the following initiatives:

  • Support the rising stars in our schools and promote their continued growth and education through our YOU Lead program, designed to provide highly personalized support and professional development to address leaders’ most pressing priorities.
  • Launch a Coaching Institute to provide coaching for heads of school and school administrators by well-trained veteran heads and senior leaders. The Coaching Institute utilizes a unique approach to coaching that recognizes the complex ecosystem of schools and builds capacity for professional leaders to succeed.
  • Partner with BoardSource and the Board Member Institute for Jewish Nonprofits at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University to ensure lay leaders develop the knowledge, skills and tools to lead effective boards.

And we know we cannot do this work alone. In partnership with other national organizations, we aspire to:

  • Support heads of school across the field to create successful school cultures and ensure our day schools are great places to work and attract top talent. Our partners at Leading Edge, the Alliance for Excellence in Jewish Leadership, administer an employee experience survey to day schools. This year, in partnership with Prizmah, over 25 schools elected to participate. Through this data, we will learn about school culture, the professional workplace and how educators feel about their work and work environments. We will work together to identify the gaps and chart a course forward to meet the needs.
  • Grow a pipeline for careers in Jewish day schools, ensuring our students today can see themselves pursuing meaningful careers in our schools. This aspiration will require the partnership of schools, funders and agencies across the Jewish community who are committed to strengthening Jewish day schools as the critical incubator of Jewish knowledge and leadership.

Prizmah envisions strongly connected and networked school lay and professional leaders who feel equipped to succeed in their roles, who understand the relational context that governs their leadership and who invest in deepening those relationships and practices characteristic of healthy schools.

Ilisa Cappell
Deepening Talent
Knowledge Topics