“Curiosity is the Best Approach in Almost Every Difficult Conversation” Words of Wisdom With Jane Taubenfeld Cohn

“Curiosity is the best approach in almost every difficult conversation. I have learned that the other person makes sense to him or herself and my job as a leader is to understand what makes sense to him or her.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jane Taubenfeld Cohen I work for Prizmah: the Center for Jewish Day Schools. I have been a founding head of school in a Jewish day school, I am a leadership coach and mentor that has the opportunity to be deeply involved in day school leadership, and I get to incorporate my own learning into my teaching in various day school leadership programs.

Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I am deeply invested in helping people realize their potential. That is kind of the theme in my work throughout my career, as a teacher, as a leader and as a teacher and coach of leaders. That means understanding who the learner is (in as many ways as possible) through deep listening and observing, building capacity, and reflecting as a foundation for what comes next.

Yitzi: Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

For me, the most interesting project is that we are beginning a Leadership Academy at Prizmah that looks at leadership in both the lay and professional arenas and through program, through research, through individual work, through reflective practice and more, helps our field focus on the needs of leaders and helps leaders grow.

Yitzi: So, tell me a bit more about your organization?

Prizmah started as a merger of 5 day school intermediary organizations that were all successful in their own right. Almost two years in, we have emerged as the central organization working with Reform, Conservative, Modern to Centrist Orthodox, and Community day schools in North America, both from the perspective of what we have in common, the challenges we all face, and what is unique about us because of who we educate, where we are geographically, how small or large our school is, who our leaders are, and more.

Yitzi: Can you tell me a story about a person that you helped?

Every day, it is my job to help people- as a leadership coach. It is not about me sharing wisdom but it is about me helping people realize that they have it within themselves to reach their goals. So, this is the story of a leader who was getting unspecified negative feedback from the people who reported to him. And so, I went to his school with a colleague and we interviewed 14 people. We were able to give him direct and honest feedback and help him with a plan for how to work better with his team. I am now working with him directly on this plan. So often, our leaders either receive no feedback or do not have specific direct feedback. We then wait for them to change and they do not even know we are waiting. I try to shift that to candid and direct feedback that might hurt in the short term but helps them succeed.

Yitzi: This obviously is not easy work. What drives you?

I care so deeply about day school education and the people who dedicate their lives to the work. I am constantly inspired by that commitment and dedication. And now we are day school grandparents.

Yitzi: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

So so many. I will start with my very first full time teaching job when the director, Mildred Gelbloom, taught me to understand deeply the perspective of children. And then add Rabbi David Mogilner, may his memory be a blessing, who led a counselor training program at Camp Ramah, gave me the foundation for what is unique and special about every person and how to pay attention to that. And third, (of so many), my father who taught us that it is our job to make a difference in the world.

Yitzi: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. That I could be authentically me and still be a leader. (when I first started as Head of School, I constantly heard that I was too nice, or too caring. But, when others saw that our teacher retention was amazing…

2. That being transparent was a culture builder and not a sign of weakness. (When I worked at the YU School Partnership, our funding was no longer available. We had to transform our work to a fee for service model Transparently talking about that with the entire team meant that we were truly all in it together and that is the only reason we succeeded.)

3. Creating what Simon Sinek calls a Circle of Safety is one of the most important parts of the leader’s work. ( I remember once as Head of School when I was worried that our enrollment might go down and that we would have to cut our budget, I went to the teachers, and openly told them what was going on. They volunteered to take pay cuts so that no one would lose their jobs. It was so clear to them that we were a team that looked out for each other)

4. For those of us who are or were school leaders, we are still teachers- just our students have changed. They are now our teachers or our staffs, or our teams. (that means that we should be thinking about teaching and learning in our leadership)

5. Curiosity is the best approach in almost every difficult conversation. I have learned that the other person makes sense to him or herself and my job as a leader is to understand what makes sense to him or her.

Yitzi: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see just see this. :-)

Oy I am a big Boston sports fan so I would say Brad Stevens who takes all of the 5 lessons and puts it into practice as the coach of the Celtics.


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If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.

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