Cover Story

The OU: Investing in its People

Photo: Daled Studios


With more than 3,000 full-time and part-time staff members worldwide, the OU is taking significant steps to make sure its current and potential employees see a future for themselves within the organization. 

“Our professionals are the lifeblood of our organization,” explains Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the OU. Addressing staffing challenges is therefore vital to the organization’s overall health—and to the wellbeing of its many programs.

“The central question is: how do we make sure our team members are having positive experiences and want to grow with the OU?” Rabbi Joseph asks. “It begins with a talent management strategy and framework.” Rabbi Joseph believes that no one wants to feel “stuck” at work, and he is committed to ensuring that the OU becomes known for “growing its people.”

To reach this goal, the OU recently switched from once-a-year performance appraisals to a more frequent cadence focused on goal setting and achievement, “so people are getting more consistent feedback,” he says. The organization now offers professional development training across diverse levels as well as executive coaching for senior leaders. Such opportunities, he notes, are fairly standard in the for-profit world, but are not the norm in the Jewish non-profit sector. 

The next step of the plan, Rabbi Joseph says, is to provide team members with more clarity as to where they can hone their skills to grow their careers. Working to “upskill” staff members, Josh Gottesman, the OU’s associate director of human resources and director of talent development, initiated a talent assessment program. “We engaged talent management professionals, who interviewed more than forty-five OU senior leaders to identify the knowledge, skills and abilities that are necessary for success at the OU,” he says.

Once the assessment is complete, the data will be used to create a talent management strategy focusing on developing employee careers. “The dream is to have a personal professional development plan for everyone at the OU that details the skills needed for them to excel in their current role as well as the skills needed to advance their careers. The idea is to move people along a continuum from leading themselves to leading others to leading teams to leading departments to leading organizations,” says Gottesman. “In an ideal, transparent world, we would have a talent map across the organization,” Rabbi Joseph explains. “This would allow individuals to know where they are and how to advance.” Well-defined levels and titles would provide employees with an understanding of what skills they might need to work on to be ready for a promotion.

“We’ll know this is working when a supervisor can look around and say, ‘I have a level-7 position open; who is knocking it out of the park at level 6 and is ready to step into this role?’” Instead of spending time and money recruiting candidates, Rabbi Joseph says, “we’ll be hiring from within.”

In order for this approach to be successful, Rabbi Joseph underscores the need to break down internal silos. “At the OU, we’re blessed with a wide array of distinct and distinctive programs as well as geographically diverse opportunities,” he says. “We need to be better about showing people the opportunities across the greater organization.” For example, someone may start out as an NCSY advisor, but then move into a marketing role, and ultimately lead a team in development. “We need to embrace that and help them along a pathway that works for their skills and talents.”   

Ultimately, these efforts will achieve dual purposes. “If we can do a better job of retention, we’ll have an easier time with recruitment,” Rabbi Joseph says. “This strategy isn’t original—it’s well documented in corporate America. If our employees have good experiences working here, others will hear that and the OU will become known as a great place to work.” The added benefit to this approach is “to build a leadership pipeline from within the organization.” 

The OU, like all non-profits, recognizes that in order to grow its programs and services, a pipeline of professionals and leadership is critical. To better understand the recruitment and retention challenges facing communal organizations, the OU has engaged a consultant to study the landscape and the underlying issues. 

“We are well aware the consultant may report back that the primary issues are salaries and benefits, and that growth and career development are merely ‘extras,’” Rabbi Joseph says. “But our sense is that more people are looking for purpose in their work, for an aspirational mission. Regardless, if we learn that all our efforts won’t improve retention or recruitment—well then, we invested in our people, and that can only be a good thing.”

For the most part, Rabbi Joseph suspects, the Jewish non-profit world hasn’t been quick to adopt the latest management practices or consider new approaches to attract talented individuals. “Smaller organizations don’t tend to have the time or energy to focus on this,” he says. “There’s a ‘get-it-done’ mindset, because there are budgets to meet and jobs to do.” However, the OU’s lay leaders felt that as a large organization, the OU is “in a position to be thoughtful about this and take a leadership role in this area,” he adds. 

“We are advancing best practices to develop leaders who will serve the klal,” Rabbi Joseph says. “Ultimately, we believe our efforts will result in an elevation of the Jewish non-profit field overall. It’s time to invest more in our most precious resource—our people.”

Rachel Schwartzberg is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.

More in this Section:

In Search of Talent: The Future of Jewish Communal Work

In Their Own Words: Why I Work for the Klal

This article was featured in the Fall 2022 issue of Jewish Action.
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