Thursday, January 29, 2009

A couple of short Jewish management stories

A Farmer’s Prayer

Zalman Pozner, who owned a large estate in Covari, was one of the rare Jews allowed to own land in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. Hoping to improve the lot of his fellow Jews, he provided several poor Jewish families with land and equipment so that they might earn their living as farmers.

Rabbi Joshua of Kotna once visited the estate and Zalman took him on a tour of the farm. Rabbi Joshua noticed a striking difference between the fields on Zalman’s estate and the fields of the neighboring Gentile farmers. On Zalman’s land, shriveled crops straggled in barren furrows, while bountiful crops flourished in the verdant fields of the neighbors.

“Why are the Gentile farmers so much more successful than the Jewish farmers?” asked Rabbi Joshua.

“You can see for yourself,” replied Zalman, “that the Gentile and the Jew both do the same work in the field. The Gentile plows and the Jew plows, the Gentile sows and the Jew sows, the Gentile prays and the Jew prays. The difference, I believe, is in their prayers. What does the Gentile pray for? That the rains should fall at the proper time, that the wheat should grow tall, that there should be a blessing upon the threshing floor. But what does the Jew pray for? ‘Please, Lord, may it be Your will that my plow should strike buried treasure, so that I no longer need to earn my living as a farmer.’”

The Unlocked Gate

The Talmud tells us that, in Heaven, the gates of salvation are never locked – they are always open to the prayers of the broken-hearted. Rabbi Simcha Bunim of P’shischa once asked his Hasidim, “If the gates are always open, then why did God put gates there? What purpose do they serve?”

He explained, “The gates keep out those who do not even try. Seeing the gates, some immediately assume that the way is barred, and they turn back. If only they would give the slightest push, God Himself would swing the gates open wide and clear the way before them.”

The Talmud on Delegation

Tractate Gittin 56a (Translation from

"Martha the daughter of Boethius was one of the richest women in Jerusalem. She sent her man-servant out saying, Go and bring me some fine flour. By the time he went it was sold out. He came and told her, There is no fine flour, but there is white [flour]. She then said to him, Go and bring me some. By the time he went he found the white flour sold out. He came and told her, There is no white flour but there is dark flour. She said to him, Go and bring me some. By the time he went it was sold out. He returned and said to her, There is no dark flour, but there is barley flour. She said, Go and bring me some. By the time he went this was also sold out. She had taken off her shoes, but she said, I will go out and see if I can find anything to eat. Some dung stuck to her foot and she died. Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai applied to her the verse, The tender and delicate woman among you which would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground."

Apparently it never occurred to micro-managing Martha to empower her servant to choose which flour to buy. Result: she became an early victim of "Management By Walking Around".

Friday, January 9, 2009

Choose a Mentor Carefully

In the mid ‘90’s, the shining star on the Jerusalem spiritual scene was Moredechai Gafni, an Orthodox Rabbi from America. His weekly lectures on the Biblical portion of the week attracted hundreds of devotees, who crowded into the Hildesheimer synagogue in the German Colony. His approach to the Bible text was innovative, literary, psychological, mystical, personal. His lectures were well-organized, and his delivery was almost theatrical, as he paced about the podium, his voice rising to a shout or lowering to a whisper to convey his message.

I was one of those devotees, making it a point to attend every lecture. Today, more than a decade later, it's hard to find people who will admit to this. Over time, Rabbi Gafni's lectures became more and more idiosyncratic, focusing on erotic themes that made most of his audience uncomfortable, and preaching a philosophy of self-fulfillment that bordered on hedonism. Eventually, he left the fold of Orthodox Judaism, and became a sort of Jewish Revival spiritual leader, with his own best-selling self-help book, a pop spirituality television series, and a cult-like community in Jaffa. A few years ago, it all came apart, as Gafni was accused of sexual impropriety with some of his female followers. He published a hasty apology letter and left Israel overnight, disappearing from sight, seeking refuge with New Age friends in Utah. Recently he has re-surfaced as Dr. Marc Gafni, a guru of "evolutionary spirituality" for the masses, complete with a sincere defense of his right as a spiritual leader to seduce his followers.

My purpose in writing this is not to skewer Marc Gafni - there are many other bloggers, such as Luke Ford, who fill this role admirably. It's a free country, and anyone who chose to subscribe to his teachings did so from their own free will. Instead, I’d like to describe my own process of leaving Marc Gafni behind, of rejecting him as an influence on my life.

One evening, I came home from a Gafni lecture visibly disturbed. “What’s bothering you?” my wife asked. “Well,” I responded, “I just heard a brilliant lecture that turned everything I ever thought about Esau upside down.” My wife was puzzled. “Sounds exciting. So what’s bothering you?” “Rabbi Gafni never mentions a single source,” I replied. “He must be basing himself on some other commentaries or teachers. But he never quotes anyone else. He always makes it sound like it’s all his original ideas, and that just can’t be. What do the Sages say in Ethics of the Fathers? ‘One who quotes a teaching in the name of the person who said it, brings redemption to the world.’ That’s the style of teaching I’m used to, where people quote their sources. Look, if I was eating a cookie, I’d check to see where it came from, what the ingredients are. I need to be at least that careful when I ingest ideas – where do they come from?” (Note: As it turns out, according to Luke Ford, Gafni was paying a student to transcribe tapes of lectures from other great teachers in Jerusalem, so that Gafni could present the ideas as his own.)

Several months later, I attended a small afternoon class given by Rabbi Gafni, at his Mila Institute. Before we got started, he went around the room, asking each person to introduce himself. When it was my turn, I said “My name is Moshe Kranc, and I am Vice President of Product Development at Accent Software.”

Rabbi Gafni interjected, “I see that it’s very important to you that you’re a Vice President.” I had to admit that his insight was spot-on – the title was indeed important to me.

Gafni continued, “You know, I also used to work in hi-tech, but I decided it wasn’t my calling. Let me tell you how it happened. I used to be in charge of marketing at a hi-tech company in Har Hotzvim, and I’d walk home every night. One evening, I passed by the Great Synagogue just as a class was finishing. There were thousands of people streaming out of the building, all talking about the lecturer's brilliant talk. I said to myself, ‘I could give a class like that! I could draw a crowd like that!’ At that moment, I decided to leave hi-tech and become a teacher.”

My jaw dropped. That was his motivation for teaching? Not a desire to enlighten or help people, just self-aggrandizement. I felt like an object, being used to further Gafni’s ego. I left the class, and never went back.

Subsequent events have proven that decision to be correct. (I’ve made lots of bad decisions as well, but I’ll save those for next week’s blog entry. :-) ) I tell this story because I think it has applications beyond choosing which classes to attend. In life, we all choose our mentors, those people who we allow to shape our opinions and decisions. It might be a spiritual leader, a professor, a manager at work. Before you “hand the keys” over to a mentor, be sure to ask some hard questions: Where do his insights come from? What is his motivation for wanting to be my mentor? If you don’t have clear answers that resonate with you, walk away, and look for a better mentor.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Taking the First Coin

One evening the students of the Rabbi Dov Ber, the Preacher of Mezritch, were sitting in the study hall. Each of them - Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev and Elimelekh of Lizhensk - would later found a great Hasidic dynasty, but in those days they were still young students.

Their discussion was interrupted when the caretaker rushed in shouting, “Kidnappers! Kidnappers! They’ve taken Yosef Isaacs!” He spotted the students and ran to them. “His life is in danger! The kidnappers demand a ransom of 600 gold coins by dawn or they will kill him! We must find a way to save Yosef Isaacs!”

“600 gold coins!” exclaimed Levi Yitzchak. “How could we possibly raise that much money? Even if every Jew in Mezritch donated all his worldly possessions, it would still not come to 600 gold coins. All we can do is pray to God that Yosef Isaacs is delivered from the kidnappers’ hands.”

“There is a way to raise 600 gold coins,” said Shneur Zalman thoughtfully. “There is one Jew in town who has that much money. Have you forgotten Velvel the Apostate?”

“Velvel?” snorted Elimelekh. “He left the Jewish people years ago. He even lives among the Gentile princes outside of town! His hatred of anything Jewish runs so deep that whenever a Jew approaches his palace he sends his pack of dogs to tear him limb from limb!”

“Even so,” said Shneur Zalman, “he is our only hope, for only he has enough money to pay such a ransom. I intend to go and ask him to help save his fellow Jew.”

Seeing Shneur Zalman’s determination, his friends insisted on accompanying him to protect him from harm.

“You may join me,” said Shneur Zalman, “but on one condition – you must both remain silent, and let me alone speak with Velvel.” They agreed and set off together.

Miraculously, they arrived at Velvel’s home without encountering any guard dogs, and knocked on the door. Velvel himself opened it. He was taken aback by the sight of the three Hasidic students.

“I see the Jews have forgotten how much I despise their visits,” he said. “I shall have to get more dogs!”

“Please, hear me out,” said Shneur Zalman. “We’ve come on an urgent mission.” Shneur Zalman explained the purpose of their visit – how Yosef Isaacs’ life hung in the balance, what a tragedy it would be for Yosef Isaacs’ wife and children if he were killed, the great reward that awaited any Jew who participated in the redemption of captives, and how the ransom was more than the Jewish community of Mezritch could raise without Velvel’s help.

Velvel was moved. “You’ve shown great courage in coming here,” he said. “Many years ago, I put something aside to donate to a worthy cause. I believe this is the occasion to give it. Wait here and I will bring it to you.” Shneur Zalman looked at his surprised friends triumphantly. Velvel returned and, with a flourish, he handed Shneur Zalman – a single penny!

“There you are, young man,” he said. “I wish you luck in raising the rest of the ransom.”

Levi Yitzhak and Elimelekh were about to rebuke Velvel for his miserliness. One penny, indeed! But Shneur Zalman silenced them with a look.

“Thank you so much,” said Shneur Zalman to Velvel. “I appreciate your effort to assist in our cause. May God reward you for your part in saving a fellow Jew’s life.” There was no irony in Shneur Zalman’s voice, only sincere gratitude. With that, Shneur Zalman turned to leave, with his stunned companions following him.

They had taken only a few steps when they heard Velvel’s voice behind them. “Wait! Perhaps I can find something else in the house to contribute.” They returned to the door, and Velvel reappeared after a few minutes to give them – two pennies! Again, Shneur Zalman was effusive in his thanks, and they turned to leave.

Velvel called them back a third time, and gave them ten pennies; the fourth time, a gold coin; the fifth time, five gold coins. Each time, Shneur Zalman was genuinely thankful, without a hint of reproof in his voice. They did not leave Velvel that night until he had donated the entire amount needed to rescue the captive – 600 gold coins.

As they walked back to town, Elimelekh asked in admiration, “How did you know that our mission to Velvel would be successful?”

“I knew that Velvel had within him the strength to give the entire sum, if only he could give the first penny,” said Shneur Zalman. “His problem was that no one was willing to take the first penny from him. Once I took it with sincere gratitude and encouragement, the wellsprings of his soul were opened up and he was able to give the entire amount.”

Moral: To Bring Out The Best In People, Expect The Best, But Be Willing To Take The First Penny

Shneur Zalman transforms Velvel because he believes that Velvel is capable of great deeds, and he understands the symbolic value of the first penny. This is the work of management in a nutshell: to take the first penny, what people think they can give, and then challenge them to meet ever higher expectations.

Think about the best manager you ever had. Was it someone who set low expectations and assigned you modest tasks that could be accomplished with reasonable effort? Probably not. That kind of manager doesn’t promote growth or stick in people’s minds. Or did your most memorable manager set high expectations, challenge you to do something ambitious, and give you the guidance that enabled you to succeed? Are you as a manager providing ambitious but achievable expectations, challenges and a sense of accomplishment to your team?

In the Real World

In his article “Pygmalion Inin Management”, J. Sterling Livingston proves that subordinates’ performance rises or falls to meet managers’ expectations. If managers’ expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent, while if their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor.

Livingston cites a number of experiments that prove this point. For example, at Metropolitan Life Insurance, salesmen were divided into a “superstaff” of high achievers and an “average” unit of salesmen who were considered merely adequate. The superstaff consistently exceeded sales goals, while the performance of salesmen in the average unit actually declined. Perhaps the superstaff’s improvement was due to their innate talent. The average salesmen’s performance decline can only be attributed to the decreased expectations from their superiors.

Another study of managers, this one at AT&T, demonstrated that their relative success, as measured by salary increases and promotions, depended largely on the company’s expectations.

As Eliza Doolittle says in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated.”


In my first performance review as a manager of Quality Assurance, I was proud to report to my boss that all the major bugs in the products that had shipped that year had been discovered in my lab rather than in the field.

To my surprise, my manager viewed my year very differently. He gave no sign of appreciation, but he was prolific in pointing out ways in which I had failed. “You didn’t build tools to speed up the testing process; you didn’t provide guidance to Engineering as to how they could reduce the number of bugs; you didn’t improve the method for tracking customer-discovered bugs.” I was flabbergasted. In one moment, my entire view of the year was turned upside down – I had been playing defense when I should have been playing offense! Obviously my manager should have told me sooner what he expected of me. And I would have liked to hear some positive feedback – he could have accepted my first penny more graciously. But, he did most emphatically ask me for the next penny, and the challenge spurred me on to accomplish things I didn’t know I was capable of achieving.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Couple of Short Stories

Here is a story about the limits of management:

Rabbi Israel Salant, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, once sat with his fellow rabbis discussing their congregations. Rabbi Israel listened as the other rabbis told of struggles with their rebellious and unruly flocks.

“I have no such problem,” he volunteered. “I have full confidence that my congregation will follow any command I give.”

The other rabbis looked at him quizzically. “What is the source of your confidence?” they asked.

“It is simple,” answered Rabbi Israel with a smile. “I never give my congregation any command I do not think they will follow.”

And here is another story that I wish I'd put in my book, from A Simple Jew:

"There's a story about Reb Meir Premishlaner – he would hike daily up an icy slope to use the Mikvah (ritual bath). Despite already being an older man, he seemed to make the trip with great ease – an act which prompted a group of youths to attempt the difficult trip themselves. They, however, were unable to successfully make the trek, and returned to the town bruised and sore. When asked how he managed to make the trip, the Tzaddik replied, 'One who is tied above does not fall below.'"

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Few Observations on Madoff

1. Everyone knew something was fishy with his fund, including the people who got burned. After all, his amazing results were totally unreproducible by anyone else who tried to implement his so-called investment strategy. Investors assumed that he was making his profits by ripping off the non-Jews (e.g., drugs, prostitution), never dreaming that he was ripping off other members of the Tribe. As my father of blessed memory used to say, "Never do business with dishonest people."

2. I asked the head of a well-known Jerusalem institution of Jewish learning whether his organization had invested money with Madoff. "No way," he responded in shock. "Our bylaws would never allow us to invest in such a fund." So, before you mail out your Yom Kippur charitable contributions this year, ask what sorts of regulations the institution has to control where the money is invested.

3. A friend asked me, "Is this Madoff guy frum (loose translation: an Orthodox Jew)?" I responded, "Unless they've removed 'Thou shalt not steal' from the Ten Commandments, obviously not ." When defining whether someone is part of the Torah-observant community, we all too often look at the external trappings (e.g., Sabbath observance, eating kosher), and give people a free pass on moral or interpersonal transgressions. We're amazed that an observant, kosher-eating, Sabbath-keeping Jew could steal, but we never for a moment consider stripping him of the title "observant". This too is an aberration that provides fertile ground for Madoffs to flourish.

4. I want to conclude with something nice about Madoff, based on the Talmud. "Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Lazar: We must be grateful to the cheaters among those who collect charity. Were it not for those cheaters, then each time a beggar asked a man for a donation, and the man refused to give, then that man would immediately be liable to punishment." (Jerusalem Talmud, Pe'ah 8:9).
אמר רבי אבהו אמר רבי לעזר: צריכין אנו להחזיק טובה לרמאין שבהן, שאילולא הרמאין שבהן היה אחד מהן תובע צדקה מן האדם ולא נותן לו מיד היה נענש. (ירושלמי פאה, פרק ח, הלכה ט)
I'd say that Madoff has given a free pass for years to come to anyone who refuses to donate to Jewish charities.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Hasidic management story I wish I'd put in my book

One day, as the Ba'al Shem Tov was strolling through the town square, he came upon Mendel the water carrier, struggling under the burden of two full barrels of water. “How are you today, my friend?” asked the Baal Shem Tov. Gasping for air, Mendel responded gruffly, “How could I be anything but terrible? Look what a miserable profession I have! I must carry these heavy buckets for miles from the river, uphill all the way. Then, when I get to town, I have to haggle with customers to earn a few kopeks. And I’m not getting any younger. Soon I will be too old to carry water. What will become of me then? What a cursed existence!” And with that, Mendel shuffled by the Ba’al Shem Tov, looking for customers.

The next day, the Ba’al Shem Tov again saw Mendel in the town square, carrying buckets of water. Undeterred by yesterday’s tongue lashing, the Ba’al Shem Tov inquired “How are you today?” Mendel smiled and replied, “Thank G-d, Rebbe, I am fine. And why not? The sun is shining, I have been granted the health to pursue an honest living, and I earn enough to support my family.” And with a spring in his step, Mendel strolled through the square.

The Ba’al Shem Tov called out, “Mendel, I want to thank you, for you have taught me a great lesson.” Mendel put down his buckets and listened as the Ba’al Shem Tov explained. “On the one hand, we believe that G-d grants a person his livelihood for the year on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. On the other hand, we pray to G-d every morning that He should grant us our livelihood. How are we meant to reconcile this contradiction? Observing you, Mendel, I now understand. G-d indeed grants us the amount of our livelihood for the entire year on Rosh Hashana. But, how will we earn that livelihood? Will we suffer through every moment, hating our lot in life, wishing the day was done? Or will we enjoy the effort and be glad for the opportunity to do an honest day’s work? For that, a person must pray for G-d’s grace every day. Mendel, I want to bless you – may you merit, each and every day, to earn your livelihood with the same joy that you feel today.”