The Chabad MBA: Lessons in Starting, Growing and Sustaining Successful Teams and Organizations
The success of the Chabad movement is undeniable. From the very first house for university students that was opened at UCLA in 1969, Chabad has expanded its global presence to 3,600 institutions in 100 countries led by roughly 4,700 emissaries.* Impressive growth for any kind of organization, let alone one built around religious outreach and for the purposes of spreading “wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.”
So how do they do it? What’s the secret sauce behind the phenomenal growth, success and staying power of this operation? And most importantly, what lessons can we leverage to start, grow and sustain our own organizations and teams? Let’s take a closer look.
One thing you discover relatively quickly about Chabad if you’re fortunate enough to regularly engage with them is that they have a “one size fits all” life manual called the Tanya. The Tanya is the philosophical “bible” of the movement which lays down the practical and mystical fundamentals of the Chabad philosophy. It was authored by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the “Alter Rebbe”), who founded the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in the mid-18th century.†
For all intents and purposes, the Tanya was the world’s first (and in my opionion, best) self-help book. It delves into the depths of the human condition and promotes a life of transparency with and accountability to oneself and to G-d. While it was originally intended to serve as a substitute for 1:1 “coaching” sessions with the Alter Rebbe (which became increasingly rare due to overwhelming demand), it contains many teachings similar to those found in literature on Organization Development. For example, the Tanya addresses a number of key organizational/team development objectives, such as confronting problems instead of neglecting them and effectively managing conflict. While it does this on a more spiritual level, its teachings are certainly practical to everyday life and highly applicable to teams of people who work together.
Another critical point the Tanya surfaces is the need to stop thinking about business/professional guides as separate from those driving our personal life. The Tanya itself is a great example of this. It’s fundamentally a “religious” book but has so much to teach about other aspects of life, such as professional development, which I’ll discuss a little later. These lessons have undoubtedly played a role in the growth and success of Chabad as an organization.
My amazing coach, Ben Brooks, stressed this kind of unified approach to me during our recent work together. He didn’t push traditional career development ideology but rather had me focus on more current thinking, like Adam Grant’s “give and take” philpsophy (more on this below), which stress the importance of being a good samaritan in both our professional and personal life.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Have a business plan and a handful of books which constitute the canon of your organization/team and ensure that they are mandatory reading for everyone. A portion of this mini-library should be dedicated to titles which stress a strong moral compass.
REQUIRED READING: My favorite translation of the Tanya is Rabbi Chaim Miller’s Practical Tanya. It’s an incredibly fresh and modern perspective on this classic piece of Chabad philosophy.
A flat organizational structure
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880–1950) established much of Chabad’s current organizational structure, founding several of its central organizations as well as other Chabad institutions, both local and international.‡ Starting in the 1950s, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994) sent many thousands of emissaries (known as “shluchim”) all over the world, often to remote locations, to bring Jews closer to Judaism through Chabad’s efforts to assist Jewish communities worldwide in their religious needs.§
It was this “emissary” model that really helped Chabad expand its global footprint. By finding capable and passionate “soldiers” (almost always as dynamic spousal duos), the organization was able to spread far and wide across the globe in a relatively short period of time and with an extremely flat management hierarchy.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Ensure that your organization is structured for success. Build a culture of transparency and accountability and try to keep the hierarchy as flat as possible, especially in the early days. Dependence on a management infrastructure will only slow you down and drag along unnecessary bureaucracy and friction.
REQUIRED READING: Dan Pontefract’s Flat Army
Skin in the game
Most leaders will tell you about the importance of employees having “skin in the game” and this is another area where Chabad really shine. Being selected as an emissary is a tremendous honor and all emissaries are responsible for raising the funds to operate their Chabad house. So it’s very much a high-stakes sink or swim undertaking.
Chabad does provide a substantial amount of resources to help make their emissaries successful, including a handbook (which includes everything from religious motivation to tax guidance), again stressing the importance of have the right kinds of playbooks for your organizations/teams. They also provide a tremendous amount of marketing content, including a world-class digital presence.
KEY TAKEAWAY: There’s no substitute for properly aligned and motivated teammates. Chabad clearly have an advantage in that all the stakeholders are motivated by their belief in and connection to G-d. Still, it’s critical to ensure that your vision and mission resonate with everyone you bring into your organization.
REQUIRED READING: Andy Stanley’s Making Vision Stick
In today’s crazy busy world, it’s easy to get complacent about our professional and personal lives and feel like we are sleepwalking through life. However, I can tell you through personal experience that this a very bad idea which can have a detrimental impact on how satisfied and, ultimately, happy you feel in your life. This is why the Alter Rebbe dedicates 3 chapters of the Tanya to the dangers of becoming apathetic and shows how “checking out” can easily lead to feeling depressed. While he focuses on the spiritual aspects of apathy, many of his teachings are highly relevant to our personal and professional development. Yehuda Ertel sums this section up nicely:
The Alter Rebbe proposes a three part solution for dealing with apathetic depression. First, always remember that you are here for a reason, your very existence is proof of your worth. Had you not be meant to be here you wouldn’t be. Secondly, remember that any trials and tribulations you experience are simply obstacles put in your way to test your mettle. G-d never puts an obstacle in someone’s way that they are completely incapable of overcoming. Thirdly, remember that G-d cares about you and that he understands everything you are going through and shares your pain, after all he created you, He is you, and you are Him.‖
KEY TAKEAWAY: Always be pushing yourself professionally (and personally). Don’t put off networking or other career development best practices and don’t give up the chance to help others. Be curious and never stop learning!
REQUIRED READING: Adam Grant’s Give and Take is a must read in this regard. He provides empirical evidence of how going the extra mile to help others without any reciprocal expectations generally comes back to reward the giver.
I hope that I’ve provided some insight to the Chabad movement and the incredible success story which they represent. My association with them and study of their Tanya has fundamentally changed my outlook on life and in the process, made me a much happier and fulfilled husband, father, son, friend, volunteer and professional. Don’t underestimate the impact that they can have on you.