Exploring the Next Step in Your Leadership: From Organizational Change to Systems Change

November 8, 2017

  • Leadership Development

The following remarks were delivered by Lisa Eisen at an event for Schusterman Fellows on September 13, 2017 in Jerusalem, Israel. 

Good afternoon. It is so good to be with you here in Israel. 

As you know, the Schusterman Fellowship program was designed to be an intentional journey. By looking inward, you could develop your own personal leadership strengths and then apply those to the needs of your organizations.

There is one more topic, however, that I would like to cover and that is the change you will make as “systems change leaders,” working together to effect change on a broader scale.

You have looked inward, you have looked outward and now we are asking you to look onward.

Many of you have heard me speak about my own leadership journey. Finding my authentic purpose and moving to the core of my passions— reshaping the Jewish future by making Jewish values, life and Israel relevant and compelling for young people; that has meant helping build leaders; helping build and grow organizations and, the most challenging but important, helping change the systems of Jewish life.

This is why I want to speak to you about systems change. Systems change means solving complex problems or unlocking new opportunities by understanding and shifting the entire system in which they sit.

Indeed, there is an emerging trend across virtually every sector to approach complex problems not from the lens of any one organization but, together, as symbiotic pieces of a larger system. The challenges of our time demand it. The more complex the issues we hope to tackle, the more integrated, orchestrated and far-reaching our solutions must be.

How does systems change happen? I want to share five ways.

1. Creative disruption: Creative disruption takes an age-old practice and shifts the form. Uber fundamentally disrupted the transportation industry. Birthright disrupted the Israel experience. Jewish services are another example. For centuries, Jews brought sacrifices to the Temple. Then it was destroyed and the sages sat in Yavneh and reinvented Jewish worship. As a result, for millennia, Jews have attended religious services in the same way and in the same kind of places. Today, rabbis and community leaders are disrupting the model and helping to shift the landscape and offer more diverse spiritual opportunities. Rabbi Sharon Brous and what she has built with IKAR in LA is a great example of what is possible when you disrupt old models. Or the Fellowship’s own Rabbi Lizzi Heydeman and the work she is doing with Mishkan Chicago and Brett Spodek at Beacon Hebrew Alliance.

2. Collective impact: Collective impact has been a focus in the non-profit and philanthropic worlds, especially when it comes to health and education. While no one organization could combat AIDS or increase high school graduation rates, funders and nonprofits working together are able to move the needle and effect change on the ground. For example, Strive in Cincinnati, or Fellow Brachie Sprung working with the Jerusalem mayor and businesses, non-profits and philanthropists to reinvent and reinvigorate Jerusalem.

3. Pressing on a lever of change: Another way to effect systems change is to focus on one particular fulcrum. Pushing on the lever of leadership is one example. This is what Aviva Jacobs is doing by hiring top talent for Teach for America or Sam Margolis at AIPAC. Organizations like Leading Edge and programs like this Fellowship are hyper-focused on leadership. Our theory is that, by investing heavily in leadership, we will raise the bar of the entire Jewish sector, and the Jewish community will become more compelling, resonant and well-positioned to serve the needs and priorities of 21st—and 22nd—century Jews.

4. Field building: Is there a blank spot out there, a missing piece, a gap that needs to be filled? That is what many of us thought when they looked at Israel education. There was no system, no standards, no training, no professional field. We looked at the space and saw both the need and the enormous possibilities. We created the iCenter. Today, the iCenter is leading the way in the burgeoning field of Israel education. David Bryfman has played a key role in this change. They have created a new language and made Israel education an integral part of Jewish education and engagement. No doubt, other fields are ripe for expansion.

5. Finally, movement building: Movement building is a hallmark of today’s times. On multiple political and social issues, individuals and organizations are coming together to form movements that are much larger than the sum of their parts. Movements are not just masses of people, they are organized, goal-oriented, growth-oriented and the champions of new narratives. Take the Women’s March. Multiple sponsors came together to tell a story of women’s rights, and through grassroots connections, millions of women associate with the cause. When I look at what Liz and Mordy and Ben and others have been building through Repair the World, and at Suzanne Feinspan and others here like Gina in South Africa and Gary in Australia, I believe they have been catalyzing a movement for Jewish service and social justice that is rapidly gaining momentum with young Jewish adults and families.

All of these types of systems change are apparent to different degrees in the Jewish world today, but our work is far, far from over.

And that is why we need to you to consider now: how will you apply your skills as leaders to make transformational change possible?

The deep changes necessary to accelerate progress against society's and our community’s most intractable problems require a special brand of leader—the system leader, a person who catalyzes collective leadership.

As Jeffrey Walker wrote in a recent article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “The message is clear: Our focus should be more on solving problems through creative collaboration, and less on the establishment and perpetuation of new institutions. In addition, we need to develop and employ system entrepreneurs who are skilled in coordinating systematic approaches to addressing the complex, large-scale problems of our time.”

We are counting on you to be these system entrepreneurs. That means flexing new muscles, pushing your comfort zones past where you have already pushed them and committing to working on a full range of new leadership skills.

What skills does systems change require? Again, there are five specific crucial competencies that experts have identified:

1. First, an ability to see the whole system. Thinking beyond your leadership and your organization by getting “up on the balcony” and taking a broader view—and then helping people see the larger system—is essential to building a shared understanding of complex problems. This shared understanding enables collaborating organizations to jointly develop solutions not evident to any of them individually and to work together for the health of the whole system rather than just pursue symptomatic fixes to individual pieces. It requires creating the space for deep listening, for generative thinking, for helping yourself and others understand different perspectives and for developing collective solutions. 

This requires opening the heart (to be vulnerable and truly hear), opening the mind (to challenge your own assumptions) and opening the will (letting go of pre-set agendas).

Part of why we are creating the Fellowship and this alumni network is to help you have the space for broader and deeper collective thinking about the shared challenges and opportunities in the Jewish world.

2. And this leads to a second vital skill: a willingness and ability to partner with others: The most important job of any transformational leader is to identify and recruit partners. Major systems change can never be carried out by one individual, organization or funder. Even Bill Gates cannot eradicate malaria alone.

As Walker went on to write, “Having a great idea for solving a social problem is just the beginning. You also need to identify the collaborators who can help you translate your innovation into real solutions for the real world.”

When doing so, I encourage you to reach out deliberately and creatively. Some of the most successful partnerships may also be the most unlikely. Engaging people across boundaries leads to new thinking and new solutions. Create cross-sector collaborations. Identify the “coalition of the willing” and then go after them with a clear and gracious invitation to be part of a shared effort.

For example, we recently joined a few other foundations in embarking on a joint research project. We hope that what we learn about young Jewish adults will not only be leveraged for the sector as a whole but will change the frame of how we think and talk about Jewish identity and community.

Partnerships are not always easy but they will enable you to leverage resources—not just dollars, but shared talent, shared data, shared programming and, most importantly, shared thinking. Collective wisdom is by far the most important benefit of collective action and collective impact.

3. Third, an ability to create a long-term vision and map a clear route. Systems leaders do not focus on reactive problem solving but rather stay focused on building a positive, forward-looking vision and engaging others to co-create the future. That means striking a balance between planning and allowing space to follow the energy.

As we work to build a strong Jewish future, I always try to think simultaneously in the short, medium and long-term.  Even as we do day-to-day work we need to hold an inspiring long-term vision, anticipate future trends and plan clearly our map to the future.  

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, I read about Reed Hastings and his plan to help Netflix shape the streaming content industry. Through trial and error, he learned how to lay down and operate two tracks: one that kept current offerings robust and one that, in parallel, adapted to the shifts and trends of the media landscape. Because he thought in terms of decades instead of just years, he was able to position Netflix at the forefront of streaming technology.

Remember, focusing on systems change does not mean abandoning or neglecting your current operations. It means anticipating and, ideally, shaping what comes next.

4. Fourth, an ability to communicate and rally: Systems change is hard. Anyone involved will need motivation and inspiration to keep going. That is your role. As leaders, you need to check your ego at the door. But beyond that, you also need to don a story. Embody a story that ignites people, that brings people together and gives them a common and worthy goal. As Aetna’s CEO says, to create change, leaders must become “storytellers in chief,” which means emphasizing different aspects of the same transformational narrative to the many diverse constituencies and stakeholders.

Narrative more than reality affects people’s behavior. We saw this with the last election in the U.S. We learned the importance of the intangible narrative. If you can tap into and speak to people’s beliefs, attitudes and desires, you can create change. You have to be able to communicate and make people feel part of a collective story and to change the frame. Just look at the successful fight for marriage equality. The secret was in changing the frame.

5. Fifth and finally, an ability to balance both patience and impatience: Any goal worth achieving will take time. It is frustrating to play the long game. At the same time, you are the ones who must drive change. You are helping create the conditions in which change can happen. If you can manage to walk that tightrope between patience and impatience, you will go far.

I am sharing these things with you today because we at the Schusterman Foundation are pushing on a lever of change—​and that lever is you. You have experience, you have knowledge and you certainly have a powerful network. Our question to you now is what will you do with these gifts? What change do you want to make in our community? How will you leave a meaningful mark? Are your sights set near, far or somewhere in between?

You do not have to choose between being a change agent for your organization or a change agent for the sector. We hope, instead, that throughout the course of your career you will be both. You do not have to tackle all projects at once. We trust in your vision, in your pacing and in your resolve to create positive change.

All we ask is that you do not sell yourself short. You need only look at your news alerts to see that our world is in desperate need of repair. To be a good person who takes care of their family would be enough. But we are asking for more. You are talented, you are passionate and you are well equipped to be the heroes we need today.

To talk meaningful change is to talk systems change. My hope is that as you embark on the next chapter of your leadership journey, you hear my voice, Abby’s voice, Sandy’s voice and Lynn’s voice calling you to set your sights that much farther and that much higher. What is the change you want to make?

I can tell you what we want to see. Collectively, if we are successful, we will see a time when young people readily participate in Jewish life, draw on Jewish values to inform their worldviews and take on leadership roles in their communities. We will see their journeys supported by a global Jewish infrastructure that embraces, incubates and scales effective efforts to meet the needs and interests of a diverse Jewish people. And we will see Jewish communities around the world, strengthened by a surge of engaged young people, connected to each other and contributing to the greater world.

We are looking to each one of you to take your Fellowship experience home and help us lead the systemic change that will ensure we achieve our vision of a diverse, dynamic Jewish people deeply connected to a strong State of Israel and committed to making the world a better place.

Todah rabah. B’hatzlacha. Shana tova u’metuka.

Lisa Eisen Profile Image
Lisa Eisen

Co-President, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies