Jewish Journal

Jay Sanderson pushes for change but some lose heart in the face of his leadership style

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

March 30, 2011 | 12:52 pm

Federation President Jay Sanderson, right, promoted Andrew Cushnir, left, to chief program officer and hired a much-lauded team of senior managers. Photos by Dan Kacvinski

Federation President Jay Sanderson, right, promoted Andrew Cushnir, left, to chief program officer and hired a much-lauded team of senior managers. Photos by Dan Kacvinski

“I want everyone to be a LeBron James.”

It’s early January, and Jay Sanderson is talking in his corner office on the 11th floor of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ headquarters about his first year as president of Federation, explaining the versatility and passion he expects of his staff.

“LeBron James is a great basketball player, because he can score and he can rebound, but he’s also a great passer and he can play great defense,” Sanderson says.

James is also nationally reviled as opportunistic and disloyal. Last year, he famously quit and dissed his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat, bragging about what he could do there.

Sanderson seems genuinely puzzled when his reference is questioned.

“Why, are you from Cleveland?” he asks.

When you’re talking to Sanderson, you can’t assume that what you are hearing is what he thinks he is saying.

In an otherwise largely successful year of bold changes and evolving vision, Sanderson has been dogged by a puzzling disconnect between his intentions and how his words and actions are received by others.

Sanderson, along with Federation board chairman Richard Sandler, has spent the past year streamlining Federation’s operation, lasering in on priorities, nurturing some programs and cutting others. He has begun to develop partnerships in the wider Jewish community and to repackage Federation to tell a more compelling story. He has questioned long-held traditions, brought in new lay leadership and restructured staff — some 25 staff members have been let go or have left, others have been promoted, and he courted and hired a team of much-lauded senior managers.

In the last quarter of 2010, he managed to bring the flagging annual campaign in above the previous year’s level — at $47.2 million — even when many other charitable organizations were in decline.

The fact that he rankled some longtime loyalists during this year of transition seems inevitable. Some of the people he let go had been at Federation for decades and were much loved. Programs and institutions once considered untouchable now look to uncertain futures.

But the discontent surrounding Sanderson among rank-and-file professional staff at Federation seems to run deeper then the standard “change is hard” fare.

Current and former staff members say blanket demands and unbending schedule restrictions have drained the passion for many. They say Sanderson operates with a brusque style and has been known to make jokes that leave both the target of the barb and everyone else in the room squirming.

And with so many people eliminated through the restructuring, the remaining staff is operating under a sense of impending doom.

“It feels like the soul has been sucked out of the place,” one former staffer said.

Sanderson is taken aback when I tell him the staff is terrified of him. He says he understands that the pace and depth of the changes affected many employees through last year, but he believes that things have settled in the last few months and that morale has picked up.

He says the clearer expectations and demands may have rubbed some the wrong way initially, but through it all he has tried to create a congenial work environment where people know they are appreciated.

“Did anyone tell you how funny I am?” he asks. “Or about the parties? I took the whole staff to the Olympic Collection after my first six months here. We had dinner and karaoke for the entire building.”

So, is Jay Sanderson misunderstood or ruthless? And in the end, if he is taking Federation in the direction it needs to go, does his personal style matter?

Leading with a mission

It’s 9 a.m. on a Wednesday in February, and after a predawn workout near his Encino home, and a couple of hours of phone calls and e-mails, Sanderson, 53, already has his jacket off and sleeves rolled up at his first meeting of the day, where he is discussing potential collaboration between Federation and the Autry National Center. The Autry is preparing a 2013 exhibition on the history of Jews in Los Angeles, and this year Federation is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

Sanderson talks about the community’s history and what is wrong and right with Jewish Los Angeles today, sharing anecdotes from his 20 years as an active observer of the community.

Sanderson’s passion often flows forth in a surge of words, and he has a tendency to cut himself off, then circle back, in his excitement to get new ideas across.

He and the Autry representatives agree to pursue joint programming that could deepen the community’s appreciation for its roots.

Partnerships with other organizations are at the core of Sanderson’s vision. He believes Federation can best serve the community by establishing priorities and then leveraging its considerable resources, clout and knowledge in collaborations with other organizations based on those priorities.

“We can no longer be just a place that takes your money and gives it somewhere else. The value proposition is that we have certain expertise and experience, and we have a big-picture view of the Jewish world. We are able to work with a number of partners, bring a number of people into the room at the same time and say, ‘Here is the issue,’ ” he said.

Federation was created a century ago as a fundraising conglomerate for a specific set of beneficiary agencies and, until a few years ago, still had a list of organizations that could count on annual allocations. While that model slowly changed over the years to include many organizations and programs, in 2008 then-Federation chairman Stanley Gold upended the system, opening up bidding to all community organizations and phasing out automatic allocations.

Sanderson has further refined the model, creating three strategic areas – Caring for Jews in Need, Ensuring the Jewish Future and Engaging in Our Community. Federation now engages an array of organizational leaders to proactively identify the needs in the community and then decides how to apply dollars and resources to best accomplish goals in its three strategic priority areas.

Sanderson spent much of his first year gathering information, developing a vision and reorganizing, and he is now starting to set those plans in motion.

Over the past few months, Federation has begun convening meetings for groups with like interests. Recently, the Ensuring the Jewish Future department held a meeting for professionals in the area of Jewish camping, and is now setting its sights on connecting with interfaith families and with organizations that might service the 15,000 Birthright Israel alumni in Los Angeles. Engaging the Community held a meeting for diverse organizations involved with Israel education and advocacy on campus.

“We don’t anymore define ourselves as an entity that solely sustains a web of specific organizations in the community,” said Andrew Cushnir, whom Sanderson promoted to executive vice president and chief program officer. “We define ourselves by our ability to respond to the community’s biggest challenges and to lead and nurture the Jewish community.”

A similar mission-driven plan was enacted in 1999 by New York’s UJA-Federation, and while there the change initially led to some uncertainty, their agencies have since come out stronger, according to John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of New York’s Federation.

“We started to ask not what do our agencies need, but what do we need to do to maintain and create a caring community,” Ruskay said. “Then we sought ways in which our agencies could make that happen.”

Once a goal is accomplished, Ruskay said, Federation can move on to the next set of issues.

Along the way, New York’s annual donations grew from $117 million to $154 million.

Sanderson said he hopes to bring the Los Angeles campaign up to $75 million in the next few years, and to double the number of donor households — currently around 16,000 out of Los Angeles’ 200,000 Jewish households. He has hired staff to reach out to younger Jews and created a position to forge innovative collaborations.

“I think Jay is doing a phenomenal job,” said Alan Rosen, a member of Federation’s executive board and president of the Valley Alliance. “I think his vision is very refreshing, and he is bringing a lot of enthusiasm to the organization.”

He is also bringing a deeply rooted Jewish identity.

Sanderson grew up in the projects outside Boston and has formative memories of a rabbi who stepped in after his father died when he was 5, and of holidays and Shabbats with his Orthodox grandparents. His strong ties to Israel were forged first on a Jewish Agency trip when he was 14. He, his wife and two almost-grown children usually attend Rabbi Naomi Levy’s Nashuva congregation, but Sanderson still maintains the habit of shul-hopping he developed when he was one of the compilers of Newsweek’s Top 50 Rabbis list.

Sanderson was not an obvious pick for the job of leading Federation, having spent the previous 20 years running the Jewish Television Network. Even at its height, that organization had maybe a dozen employees — far from the approximately 160 he now manages.

A typical 14-hour day for Sanderson might include a senior staff meeting with Executive Vice President Carol Koransky.

Just kidding?

It’s the Wednesday before Super Sunday, the phone-a-thon that kicks off the annual giving campaign, and around 20 senior managers file into the executive conference room for the weekly staff meeting.

As the vice presidents and department heads gather around the table, Sanderson bangs on the table and yells, “Damn you, John!”

It’s a joke — for my benefit.

I had asked Sanderson earlier about rumors that he yells at people at staff meetings — an allegation Sanderson said is unfounded — so he and his staff have been practicing their lines. John Magoulas, senior vice president, is in on the antic and appears amused when Sanderson repeats the refrain several times.

The atmosphere at the staff meeting is comfortable and friendly, with a good dose of playful banter and joking. But the senior staff members are all people hired by Sanderson, or have risen to the top as others around them have fallen. They are in on Sanderson’s vision and for the most part have grown accustomed to his style.

“Jay is a bluntly honest leader, and that works better for some people than others,” said one senior staffer, who wasn’t comfortable talking about Sanderson on the record. “He says what he says very directly, and not everyone is used to that. But there is integrity to the way he communicates that is missed in the perception of his being rough around the edges.”

Sanderson said he often starts meetings with jokes and stories to warm people up, but current and former staff members — none would speak on the record, fearing retribution — told me that the teasing often gets personal, and the jokes and comments border on inappropriate.

To give me a sense of his interactions, Sanderson invited me along on a stroll through the building, a daily habit that he sees as a good way to connect with employees.

We stop at the graphics department, where he compliments some new invitation designs on the bulletin board and talks for a minute with a designer. Then he asks her — with genuine concern — “Is something wrong with your feet? It looks like you’re walking funny.”

We walk by two women working at adjacent desks.

“Oh, I got your e-mail about moving you far away from Christina. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” Sanderson says with a laugh.

On another floor, he jokes with a woman in a cubicle: “This is your last day here, right? I’ll come by later to help you pack.”

A few weeks later, Sanderson tells me he regrets that remark, that he realizes the topic may be a little too raw for joking.

Even his walks through the building are a source of misunderstanding. Sanderson sees them as a way to connect with the people who work there. The people who work there see it as Sanderson checking up on them to make sure they are at their desks and hard at work.

During my interview with him, Sanderson commented about the challenge of hiring young women who take months of maternity leave. Two former staffers said they’ve heard him make similar comments.

Later, Sanderson told me by way of explanation that, in his first six months on the job, several valued employees were gone for months on maternity leave, and their absence was deeply felt. He says he was merely expressing frustration at missing effective employees, not prescribing any hiring policies.

Sanderson says that over the last year he has learned to monitor himself more carefully.

“The truth of the matter is, I never ran a company with 160 employees before, and I never ran a company as complex as Federation,” he said. “My entire life is completely different than it was 18 months ago. … I have to think more about what I am saying before I say it.”

But Sanderson said being open and demonstrative is part of who he is. “I have a personality, and even though I am more thoughtful and more deliberate and more process-oriented than I have ever been in my life, I am not going to sacrifice who I am.”

Federation chairman Sandler said that he and the board recognize that there needed to be a transition period for Sanderson to get used to working with large numbers of lay leaders, while lay leaders had to get used to what one donor called Sanderson’s “brusque Hollywood style.”

Julie Platt, chair of Ensuring the Jewish Future, said she has admired Sanderson’s hard work and clear vision, and she has seen him work to understand the players and figure out the best way to communicate with them. Both Platt and Sandler say that Sanderson has a remarkable ability to hear criticism and adjust.

“I knew from the process we had a smart guy who knew the community and cared about the community and wanted Federation to be successful, but I also knew we had a guy who had been a major critic of Federation in the past,” Sandler said. “The thing that has really impressed me about him is he learns every day and he listens. … He’s a much different person today in style than he was 12 months ago, in very positive ways.”

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