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Chaim Y. Botwinick

Yeshiva/Day School Consultants: Bags of Tricks or Serious Engagement ?

Photo from Unsplash
Photo from Unsplash

Over the past several decades, our yeshiva  and Jewish day school community have expended tremendous resources by engaging “consultants” to help guide, assist, facilitate and encourage school change and improvement. The assumption here is that schools by-and-large do not always possess the human capital or expertise required in order to invest in these important activities; but, they do have the financial resources to outsource these challenges to specialists in the field.

The hiring and engagement of consultants by our Jewish day schools dates back over decades. To be sure, many consultants have contributed to the impact, structure, effectiveness and viability of our schools. They also provide a relatively unbiased perspective for the school and bring a series of fresh and important  suggestions, recommendations, thought-leadership and strategic perspectives to the table.

This blog will not focus on any one particular area of consulting, but rather on the wide array of consultations which our yeshivot and day schools now avail themselves. As a disclaimer, it is equally important for me to posit that in no way does this blog  attempt to market or promote this writer’s role as a strategic planning consultant  or executive leadership coach. To do so, would diminish or minimize my motivation and professional credibility.

The sole purpose of this blog is to describe and articulate the strengths and weaknesses of consulting, its value and utility as well as areas which require due diligence, vigilance and a careful review of best practices in the field. It is my hope that by understanding and embracing these characteristics that our yeshivot and Jewish day schools will make the right choices when identifying and selecting consultants. This is especially critical in light of scarce communal resources within our yeshiva and Jewish day school community.

Finally, over the past several years (post-COVID), many Jewish day school leaders – both lay and professional – have asked me to assist them in identifying consultants for a wide variety of assignments who posses  the “right fit” for their schools. This was also in part the motivation and catalyst for writing this blog.

First, several definitions…..

As we know, our yeshivot and day schools engage consultants for a wide variety of critically important reasons  – ranging from assisting schools in the recruitment and hiring of  new heads of school or senior professional leadership to the development and identification of  age-appropriate curricula; from strategic approaches to financial resource development (fundraising) and governance models  to school restructuring and systemic organizational change. Each of these challenges (and many others) require consultants who posses laser sharp expertise, experience and proven success in the field. Anything less then these characteristics will almost certainly result  in a waste of resources, time, energy and expectations….let alone disappointing outcomes.

A school that endeavors to engage in a strategic planning or review process may want to engage a consultant with different skill sets compared to the consultant who specializes in executive search and recruitment processes. By the same token, a curriculum consultant will in all probability be able to guide a school in a comprehensive teacher training/development plan, but would probably be ill-equipped  to restructure or reconfigure a school’s physical plant.

Reality dictates that there will always be consultants who have a wide array of battle-tested expertise and experience in multiple areas  – especially those who are seasoned and experienced in leading highly effective schools. In these select cases, the school must carefully vet their backgrounds, expertise as well as past accomplishments.

The point being made here is that the school leadership – both professional and lay – must be very specific about the rational for seeking and engaging a consultant and must ensure that the consultant is the best fit for the school and for the assignment.

Characteristics of a High Quality Yeshiva/Day School Consultant:

The following is a brief listing of characteristics which consultants must possess, irrespective of assignment::

  1. Experience: The consultant must have proven experience and expertise in the area(s) which the consultant is called upon to lead or facilitate. To this end, it is critical that  the school vet the consultant by reviewing his/her past consulting assignments, references, prior results and outcomes;
  2. Honesty and Trustworthiness:  The consultant must be the type of professional who can be entrusted with confidential data and information as well as the ability and commitment to maintain high levels of confidentiality;
  3. Flexibility: Rigidity leads to failure. To this end, it is critical that the consultant exhibit utmost flexibility with regard to scheduling, calendaring of assignments, accessibility and availability. Schools want to feel assured that the consultant is flexible and willing to stretch his/her time in order to accommodate school leadership and school constituents throughout the consultation process;
  4. Persistence: The consultant must stay on task and track, and follow a course of action or plan as originally envisioned and agreed upon in the consultant’s contract (to be addressed in a later section).
  5. Creativity: Where appropriate, the consultant should provide the school with creative, innovative and cutting-edge trends in order to minimize same-old or antiquated  thinking and to advance forward thinking  and state-of-the-art approaches and perspectives;
  6. Confidence: The consultant must exhibit confidence and respect; and command a level of professional gravitas which is respected by the school’s constituents and by those impacted by the consultant’s work.
  7. Data-Driven Thought-Leadership: All consultant activity, whether they be suggestions, recommendations or proposals for moving a school forward, must be anchored in empirical data, metrics and information.

In addition to the aforementioned  characteristics, the consultant must also be an  effective communicator, a very careful listener and must posses the following skill-sets:

  • Ability to translate data into concrete action items;
  • Ability to identify and solve internal blind spots;
  • Capacity to pay close attention to every detail as presented;
  • Ability to demonstrate depth of experience;
  • Posses  a “client-first” mindset;
  • Reduces dependency on the consultant;
  • Possess strong organizational and follow-up skills.

Other Critically Important Considerations When Engaging a Consultant:

When engaging a consultant, it is critically important  that  the contract with the consultant include the exact scope of the consultation  to be conducted, expectations, timetable, benchmarks and methodology to be employed as well as roles and responsibilities – no surprises, no shortcuts;

The contract should also include a clear description  of the  methodologies which the consultant will be employing  including, questionnaires, surveys, SWOT analyses, interviews and the collection and collation of qualitative, quantitative and ethnographic  data.

As an example, if the consultant is conducting a Strategic Planning process, most processes will first  require  a SWOT analysis. This standard  analysis includes, a comprehensive assessment of the school’s  strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Once this analysis is complete, it is essential that these results be analyzed with precision. This is where many consultants fall short of expectations.

A SWOT analysis must serve as the foundation upon which to build the Strategic Planning process. Anything less falls short of a meaningful  Strategic Planning consultation.

The challenges here are not necessarily the completion of a SWOT which in and of itself is extensive, but how the results of the SWOT are interpreted and used. This is where schools must be extremely careful about how to view and  interpret results as well as their implications.

The eight phases of a credible Strategic Planning process should include:

  • Initial Contact
  • Discussion  and Approval of Methodology
  • Survey/Assessment
  • Review and Analysis of Findings
  • Implications of Findings
  • Action Recommendations
  • Implementation
  • Evaluation

It is the responsibility of the consultant to help the strategic planning committee (the body responsible for  strategic planning oversight) to review, digest and analyze each of these eight phases

In cases where an Executive Search consultant is engaged to identify Head of School candidates, the school must provide the consultant with a comprehensive job description and an extensive  description and analysis of the school’s  mission and vision as well as the culture and hashkafa of the school. The more information the consultant has prior to embarking on the search, the more it increases the likelihood that strong potential candidates will be identified.

Once the consultant has this  candidate information, it is imperative that the consultant search for the right candidate. Interviews are conducted, references are checked and candidates may be asked to submit a description regarding the candidate’s philosophy of education. . There are no shortcuts and definitely no compromises.

If the search committee sees that the wrong candidates are being suggested by the consultant on a repeated basis, it is imperative that the school send the consultant back to the drawing board. Remember, the consultant works for the school, not the other way around. The process is not about just filling a job vacancy – its about securing the next senior leader of the institution.

A third example of consultation  may relate to engaging  a curriculum consultant. In this case, its important for the consultant to not only identify and  align the curricula with the school’s curricular goals,and expectations  but to also insure effective curricular implementation.

More often then not, this later part of the consultation may fall short and schools are therefore left with a series of attractive, well developed scoped and sequenced curricula with very little idea as to how to implement, use or teach the new curriculum. It is therefore imperative for the consultant’s contract to include comprehensive teacher training, assessment and means testing. Way too many innovative pieces of curricula are sitting on bookshelves collecting dust due in part to the inability of the school to utilize or teach the curriculum effectively.

These three aforementioned examples of consultation  are presented in order to provide the reader with a  diverse perspectives. Although each may require a special area of consultation requiring specific areas of expertise, the one commonality between the three is that they all require significant, serious and rigorous engagement and planning..

Unfortunately, I have had the distinct  misfortune of being called into schools in order to correct, rightsize or clean up the mess left by a prior consultant’s visit or assignment. These were the result of sloppy, careless attempts to engage in shortcuts and frankly smoke and mirrors in order to fulfill their consultation assignments.

In an outstanding  paper entitled ” Consulting Is More Than Giving Advice”‘ (Harvard Business Review, September-October, 1982), Dr. Arthur N. Turner presents the following eight fundamental consulting objectives arranged  hierarchically,

  1. providing information to the client;
  2. solving the client’s problems;
  3. making a diagnosis which may necessitate redefinition of the problem;
  4. making recommendations based on the diagnosis;
  5. assisting with implementation of recommended solutions;
  6. building consensus and commitment;
  7. facilitating  client learning; and
  8. improving organizational effectiveness.

Highly effective management consultants will aspire to reach levels seven and eight while minimalists will be satisfied with reaching levels one, two and three.,.

In an effort to push for higher level consulting outcomes, it is recommended that schools (the clients) aspire to reach the highest levels of engagement possible,.

Engaging serious consultants, irrespective of area of focus can be viewed as an art and a science.

On the one hand, schools aspire to engage the most inspiring, dynamic and forward thinking professionals as consultants (soft skills);in addition, we seek consultants with outstanding skill-sets, expertise,  knowledge and know-how.

The challenge for schools is to select a consultant who represents a balance between the art and the science of consulting….with the hope and expectation that the consultant provides the school with the right mix and proper balance.

Finally, at the end of the day, your school’s consultant will only be as effective as his or her reputation, past experience and reputation suggests.

Jewish Values and the Moral Imperative of Consulting

When one serves as a consultant to a yeshiva or Jewish day school, one takes on and accepts a series of moral, ethical and halachic responsibilities and obligations.

These responsibilities and obligations should not be influenced by political expediency or personal relationships, but rather through respectful dialogue, review and unbiased analysis.

This achrayut  (responsibility)  if taken seriously, is a daunting task at best. It impacts peoples lives, jobs and the trajectory of the school in very profound and serious ways.

It is with this level or derech eretz  that a school must view the consultant’s assignment, and visa versa.

Finally, in the ideal world, the yeshiva/day school consultant should not in any way be associated with the school community to which he/she is consulting. On the other hand, knowledge and understanding about the cultural nuances of yeshivot and Jewish day schools are indespensible.

Postscript:

In conclusion, I am hopeful that the information contained in this blog will help inform the practice of consulting in our yeshivot and Jewish day schools. It should also help provide our schools with a better understanding regarding a school’s  serious role and responsibility when calling upon a consultant to help guide the school in a meaningful, thoughtful and respectful manner.

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is a senior executive coach and an organizational consultant . He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami; in addition to head of school and principal for several Jewish day schools and yeshivot. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, resource development, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011