Professional feedback is hard to come by. According to Leading Edge’s Third Annual Employee Experience Survey, only 58% of respondents had a favorable response to the statement: “I receive regular feedback on how I am performing.”
And for professionals engaged in lengthy program application processes, the chances of receiving constructive feedback are likely even lower. Too often, talented candidates for programs are declined without any explanation or words of advice on how to strengthen their application for next time.
The dearth of professional feedback in the Jewish communal sector (and beyond) weighed on our minds when we designed the application process for the Schusterman Fellowship.
As a team dedicated to supporting leaders in our community, we wanted to make the most of every touchpoint we had with our applicants, including when we reject would-be Fellows. That is why, from the start, we decided that when we declined any finalists, we would offer them the chance to receive feedback from our team.
Carly Zimmerman, who is the current CEO of Challah for Hunger and transitioning into a leadership role at BBYO, was one such applicant. Carly first applied to the Fellowship in 2016. Despite her many accomplishments and innovative work in Jewish social justice, we turned Carly down. Fortunately, Carly took us up on our offer for feedback.
As Carly has told us, “The conversation felt very human, which may sound extreme, but often feedback is simply not given or is given in a few sentences in an email. The opportunity to have a conversation with someone who cares about my development as a leader was a gift.”
Last year, Carly reapplied for the Fellowship and is now an integral member of her Fellowship cohort.
Program teams like ours are in the position to turn down tens if not hundreds of promising applicants like Carly every year. For instance, when it comes to the Schusterman Fellowship, our team has learned that the “sweet spot” for the size of each cohort is 25 people. That means that at the end of every application cycle, we have to reject upwards of 50 often highly qualified applicants.
Over the past five years, nearly 60% of rejected finalists have followed up to receive feedback. Those who do tell us how rare it is to receive specific advice.
The Schusterman Fellowship team is able to provide tailored feedback thanks, in part, to our detailed selection process. We start by asking members of our network, including CEOs at grantee organizations and Senior Schusterman Fellows, to nominate potential applicants. Our team then invites select nominees to apply, runs a thorough application review process, conducts personal interviews with finalists and discusses each candidate in detail.
What this means is that by the time we reach a decision, we have a strong sense of where each finalist is in their career and what they might gain from and contribute to the Fellowship. We want to ensure that their personal and professional lives are at a point when they can get the most out of an intensive 18-month-long program.
Sometimes we turn candidates down because they have not yet reached the right stage in their career or do not hold the right level of responsibility. Other times they are not at a point in their own personal development where they can explore their strengths and weaknesses openly and honestly. Our program is one that embraces self-exploration, and we want to see that capacity reflected in their application as well. In addition to their professional trajectory, we are looking at a candidate’s ability to be vulnerable, humble and supportive of those around them.
We also take into consideration the makeup of each cohort as a whole. Not only do we select candidates based on their individual merits, we also strive to ensure that Schusterman Fellows reflect the diversity of the Jewish community, of which 15% are people of color. We want to work toward building cohorts that are diverse in race, gender, sexual orientation and more. We still have work to do on this front, but our cohorts are growing increasingly diverse.
When it comes to delivering feedback, our team strives to make it as much of a conversation as possible. We set up a phone call and allow time for thoughts, questions and reactions. We will share with the person what our team appreciated most about their application and what we believe held it back. For instance, I might share with a rejected applicant that their vision statement felt unclear, or that their application did not position them as someone who is about to step into a senior executive role. For a few special applicants, our team may also recommend them to other leadership development programs or coaching opportunities.
Still, as program teams know, turning people down is gut-wrenching. At the heart of the Schusterman Fellowship program is the belief that the Jewish communal sector is full of talented professionals who are poised to drive major change in their organizations and across the Jewish community. It, therefore, feels particularly discouraging to say “no” to many of these people. At a time when they want to learn and grow and progress, we decline them access to a best-in-class program that would help them do just that.
While we cannot expand the size of our cohorts, we can do our best to contribute to the leadership development journeys of rejected applicants. We can add value to their lives and, hopefully, strengthen a broader culture of feedback in the process.
Program providers, hiring managers and many more of us can help make feedback the norm. Rather than leave the future leaders of our community guessing what went wrong, we believe the most respectful and effective thing we can do is offer up our insight. After all, the more information and encouragement we provide to talented applicants, the stronger our organizations, our community and our world will be.
Abby Saloma is the Director of Leadership and Talent at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, where she oversees its flagship Schusterman Fellowship program.