Prizmah was built from a merger of five organizations: PARDES, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), RAVSAK, Schechter Day School Network, and the Yeshiva University School Partnership. These organizations, independently and collectively, served a cadre of Jewish day schools through programs, services, knowledge, and resources in governance and development, teaching and learning, leadership development and placement, 21st century learning, field-wide data and research, and administrative support. Previously, these five separate organizations came together only once a year to collaborate on a field-wide conference. This changed in summer 2016, when Prizmah launched with signature programs already in place and with the goal to design and deliver fresh ideas and new program models to benefit day schools.
However, both before and after the official merger date, the challenges were immense. How do five organizations become one? What does that change mean for staffing, leadership, internal and external communications, role clarification, and more? Rosov Consulting and its certified systems coach Pearl Mattenson worked to address these challenges, identify others, and support the new organization as it charted a path forward.
Rosov Consulting began by taking the time to understand Prizmah’s current reality and tailor-designed a series of coaching interventions for Prizmah’s leadership and its geographically dispersed staff. It was important to ensure that all voices in the system were heard; to that end, we first fielded an anonymous questionnaire to learn what staff members saw as the new organization’s strengths and challenges, as well as to surface their hopes and fears for the future.
A major endeavor early on was to design the first-ever staff retreat for Prizmah, as a new, singular organization. Additionally, Prizmah is a virtual organization, so the organization building needed to develop relationships in that environment, and to overcome the downside of remoteness. The retreat was an opportunity to celebrate the nascent steps already taken and to create a safe space within which to begin to get to know each other beyond the preconceptions. We also knew that this precious time together had to go beyond paying lip service to a new reality. The staff would have to openly grapple with the real dilemmas and challenges they were facing. Step by step, people began to dream up new shared norms and agreed to give each other the benefit of the doubt as they worked to put those norms in place. Prizmah also had a new CEO from outside the Jewish day school field, and the retreat was an opportunity for staff to get to know him, his priorities, and his style.
There was a sense of loyalty to the five legacy organizations — each person having come from one of them, with a few exceptions. People were friends with their former coworkers who came to the new organization with them. They were excited about the new work and nervous about the leadership, what they might lose in the new processes, how we would be perceived by the field, and what would happen to the programs to which they were attached. The cultures of the five legacy organizations were quite different, and it was important to form culture for the new organization that met its design and needs, and was not simply an amalgam of what existed before.
It was critical that the senior leadership of the organization participated actively during the retreat. During one exercise, people owned up to the stance they were taking during the early months of Prizmah. Were they being bold or cynical, developing allies, or perhaps being guarded? Were they hanging out in their comfort zones or hungering for something more? They also spoke openly about what they needed from the leadership of Prizmah, and important conversations followed.
The retreat launched a year-long coaching process for Prizmah’s leadership team, building partnerships and alliances at the most senior level and working to infuse the organization with their emerging sense of one organization with shared priorities. This was at times tedious and complicated work that required stamina, seriousness of purpose, and a sense of humor.
The “aha” moments abounded for the Prizmah leadership team. In the words of one member, “we learned that we needed to work more as a team than we had and that we communicated not only by what we said but by what we did. Our relationships were critical to the culture and atmosphere we were trying to create, and transparency was a critical component to that as well.”
By the second year, when Rosov Consulting set out to design the second-ever Prizmah staff retreat, the benefits of the coaching were evident:
- Staff served as collaborators with Rosov Consulting to set the agenda of the second retreat, and of the next 12 months of the organization.
- The issues at hand were no longer related to creating cohesion among disparate cultures but to building the systems to support the new unified organization; Staff members were identified by their roles, not their prior legacy organizations.
- The administrative leadership showed up as a team — speaking transparently and humbly about their own evolution.
It remained important not to shy away from lingering challenges. One especially important exercise at the second retreat was to acknowledge that all staff in Prizmah were in a change process, for staff members to speak to each other about their personal hurdles and to begin talking about how they could best support each other. As an organization committed to building a networked field of Jewish day schools, this second retreat also paved the way for Prizmah to operate more like a network themselves — cross-functional teams met to problem solve and set new pathways for communication.