If the head of the team cannot pull themselves together, unclear with their goals, and cannot appreciate deep human connection, everything will be in disarray. Jordan Levin sits down with Steven Ingber, the newly appointed CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, to share his own ups and downs in effective leadership. He explains how he keeps himself motivated when facing the many challenges that come being at the top of an organization, and why there is no other way to go but forward. He reflects on the many risks he has taken along the way and why each one is important in his professional development. Steven also talks about choosing the right people to work with and how a responsible leader must connect with them on a personal level.
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I have Steven Ingber with us. He officially became the Chief Executive Officer of Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit. It is quite an honor to be in that category and I’m sure you’ve worked very hard to get to that position. Thank you for being here. It’s been an honor to have you. How did you get to that point and how did you get involved in the Federation?
Thanks for having me, Jordan. It’s an honor to be asked. How I got here is a strange ride. We can go in-depth as you want to. I was in the for-profit world all my life. I had always been a donor of the Federation, but I would call it a donor out of obligation. “Here’s my $180.” I want to be part of the community, but not really involved. I had started as a board member of Hebrew Free Loans, and I enjoyed it. It was a great organization. We were making things happen.
I was working on their Danto Loan Program, which helps businesses started by young Jewish entrepreneurs who wanted to start in the area. I had enjoyed that. I was working for myself and doing my own business. It was great. The business changed and I decided to exit. At which point in time, I was 37 or so and I decided, “I still got a lot more years. I’m probably too young to retire.” I saw a listing, literally a posting like everybody else on LinkedIn for Chief Operating Officer at the Federation.
I’m good at operations. That’s what I pride myself on this. At that point in time, that was my wheelhouse. I said, “Let me make a few calls.” I call some of my friends who are involved in the Federation and they said, “You absolutely do not want that job. Run away.” I said, “Why?” They said, “You’re used to working for yourself, which I had done for over a decade. You’re going to be working for 10,000 people.” I said, “That’s okay. I’m a people-person.” They said, “No, don’t do it.” I’m like, “Let me put my application in.” I sent my application.
I interviewed for the better part of 2 or 3 months. This was not a quick hire. What we learned is that I was not their ideal candidate. I had not come up through the ranks of nonprofit. I had not spent years working at the Federation. All of a sudden, I’m coming in at a sideways in what was then their number two position. There were some hesitations to, I would say not to give it to an outsider, that’s not a good term, but to give it to somebody who hadn’t spent years in the nonprofit world.
I’ll never forget this and it’s probably my fourth interview. They had me tested and met with everybody. I said, “This is a sign of this. You are looking for a business position. A Chief Operating Officer should be somebody who has ran a business and has business principles. We can talk all we want about the non for profit in the Jewish side of it, but this position is for a businessman.” I left. A day later, they called and said, “We’d like to make you an offer.” For whatever reason, it worked. I was the Chief Operating Officer for almost five years.
We had a CEO, Scott Coffin, who left here about 1.5 years ago or so, a couple of months before COVID. COVID then came in. Everything came to a screeching halt. The national search came to a halt. Basically, we were trying to figure out, “House is on fire. What are we going to do to make sure we provide for the community?” Coming out of that over a year later, I was asked to throw my hat in the ring because I’ve been doing this CEO job for quite a bit of time. As the chair, at this point in time, I would much be interested in. I put my hat in the ring, got interviewed, and here we are talking days after my appointment, so I’m super excited about it.
I can’t imagine because it’s been shifting. When someone told you the word, “No,” that you might not be an ideal candidate, you literally flipped that switch and said, “What am I going to do to make this happen?” You have such foresight. In the beginning, you were working towards something where basically someone said no. A lot of people in the business do a disclaimer and sometimes they don’t. It is my personal opinion out of everything that I’ve done through the years is instinct that drives you to do something like that. I don’t think anybody can teach that to you. That’s not something you learn. That’s something you develop.
I don’t want to say it’s a challenge when someone says, “No, you can’t. You shouldn’t.” It’s like, “Challenge accepted. Let me see what I can do with this.” You shouldn’t listen to what other people say. That’s the moral of it. In my gut, I was like, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity. Let’s take it.” Nothing’s forever. Let’s see what the world brings you and one day at a time. Here I am, a few years later, I’ve gone from the number two position to the number one position. It was a similar track.
Good leaders shine when they go in a certain direction and bring everyone with them, leaving no one behind.
It was a, “Are you sure you want this? You’re a good operator. Are you sure you want to be the Head Executive?” I said, “Yeah, I do.” It’s that quality that’s allowed me to succeed to the point that I’m at. It’s, “If you want it, go get it. If you don’t, that’s okay.” If you want it, go get it. Don’t listen to somebody tell you no. It’s not what happens to you in life. It’s what you do with what happens to you in life. We’re all dealt the cards. Some are worse than others. Some are better. We have our own ups and downs. We don’t control that. My father likes to say, “If it happened yesterday, it doesn’t matter, because it already happened.”
I absolutely loved that. That’s important because what’s happening right now is the current pressing moment. What happened in the past, you cannot change. You change going forward. I move my battle. All good things start with you. It’s all about taking action and how do you respond to the reaction is what makes people successful.
It’s a huge thing. It provides you with a much more positive outlook on life, not only in business but in personal life. You should learn about what happened and maybe you made mistakes in the past, but you can’t undo those mistakes. You can’t undo what was done to you, so you can only learn from them and figure out how I am going to move forward. I find people, oftentimes, keep thinking about what happened and why they were there. Could have, would have, should have, or imagine if this didn’t happen. It’s great but it did happen. It’s, “Now, what are we going to do with it?” People who are quick to realize that are much more successful in life and much happier in personal life because they don’t sit and say, “I got screwed.” You did? There’s nothing we can do about it. Let’s move forward. That’s the way I look at everything in life. Life’s too short to keep worrying about what happened. Let’s keep going forward.
That’s a great lesson. I’m pretty sure you’ve instilled that into everybody that works at the Federation. There are many different avenues, many different people and many different organizations that you were involved in. By understanding that, you were able to train individual tasks and to train the individual to give you the information that you’re looking for, but also make the best possible decision to help everybody. What are you here for? You’re here to serve the community. You were able to take that information and absorb it and say, “This is most likely going to be the best course of action.”
It’s up to the leaders to empower their staff to look at it that way and say, “We are an outward-facing organization.” I like to say that we have nothing to sell. We want to make people feel good. When we ask people for money, we need to make sure that we’re doing the best thing we can with that money in making the world a better place. You don’t get a widget. You may get a high five when you give to us and you may get that good feeling.
I would encourage everybody to have that good feeling and to want to be part of the community. It’s up to us to lead that community and say, “Here are the needs, and here’s how we’re going to fix them. Here’s our plan forward.” It’s not here’s how we did it ten years ago or here’s why I had a bad experience that one event or I was left off or fill in the blank. It’s, “How we are going to do going forward and what are we going to do to make people feel that they’re part of this community?” That’s what this is all about. It’s about taking care of the needs of the people and building a community.
I cannot imagine. You said that three months before the pandemic started, you took over two different positions. I cannot imagine how nerve-wracking that is because of other people that are coming at you but if I’m going to learn anything from what we’ve talked about is you take that for what it is and decide what information. My question is, how did you prepare? What were some of the changes you made? What are some of the changes you were planning on making, if you’re allowed to talk about it?
We’re open about it. Let’s go back to March 13, 2020. We had a board meeting at 8:00 AM. It ended at 9:30 AM. I asked every agency executive in this town to stay, and I said, “We’re getting into something. I got no idea.” I’m no better than anybody else. I’m not a doctor nor do I play one on TV. We’ve got an issue coming up. I don’t know what it is. I want everyone to be ready. We’re going to do this and we’re going to do it together.
From that point, that was our rallying cry. We met every single morning at the beginning of the pandemic, and then it went to twice a week, into once a week, and into every other week. With every agency or Federation agency, and in this case, I said, “Even if you’re not a federation agency, JARC and Kadima. The threshold into coming to this morning meeting was, if you offered services to Jewish Detroit, you are welcome at this meeting.”
We sat and brainstormed. We dealt with, every single morning, what house was on fire, and who needed money. In the beginning, it was, “I have masks.” We’re like, “This person needs masks. Let’s send a truck right over there to get them over here.” “I don’t have enough people. I want to shut this down.” “What are we doing for hazard pay? Do we need to pay people more to come into work?” We did this as a community. It made our community much stronger.
Detroit weathered this much better than most other communities because we did it together. We checked our egos at the door. I didn’t say that I’m Steven Ingber. I’m leading this organization. I know what’s best. I said, “There’s upwards of 10 to 20 to 30 or less, depending on what meeting we’re discussing. Let’s come up with the best outcome.” Another phrase I like to use is, “The best idea wins.” Meaning, it doesn’t have to be my idea. If you got a better idea, phenomenal. Let’s do that. We’ve done that and we’ve pivoted.
First of all, we had to raise millions of dollars to help the community. We gave away millions of dollars. We had to raise PPE. We had to find PPE, we had to buy and move it. We had a tremendous food issue. I remember going back a year ago in 2020, I bought $50,000 worth of chicken for Passover. We didn’t know and I said, “Passover is going to come in three weeks. Let’s make sure we have enough food for everyone to celebrate the holiday.”
We are still delivering meals to seniors who are not comfortable going out. We’re giving care packages to children throughout the community on a weekly basis. Some of this stuff will stay, some will go away. We’ve opened up the Federation building as a vaccine center for Oakland County. We have vaccinated over 2,500 people in our building. It’s great. We are Jewish and non-Jewish. I need to be careful in saying that. Every program we run is open to the community.
Is it predominantly Jewish? Yes, but nobody has ever turned away from any of the services we offer. We pride ourselves on that. It’s, “How can we raise the harbor, so it raises all ships?” Oakland County said, “Can you partner with JARC and do a vaccine clinic?” I said, “Sure. Why not? What do you need? How do we get it done?” We mobilized within 24 hours. We were inoculating hundreds of people on a daily basis here. We’re still doing that. I’m super proud. That’s where we’re at.
I’m proud to say that we’re going to continue to do that. One of the slogans we like to say is, “We’re here for good. We’re built for this moment.” I pride ourselves on, “We’re built for this moment.” What does that mean? It means we don’t even know what the next moment is going to be but we know collectively, we’ll be able to solve it. It was the case on point in 2021. A few months ago, nobody was readying for the pandemic. We would have all that we needed, but we got through it. We figured out what we needed. We did it together. If you want to go far, go together. I’m a big believer that the community runs this. This is not one person.
You’ve got such a wonderful job of bringing the community together and also, utilizing these support systems that are literally in front of you. That’s huge. That’s one of the things that I’ve been learning in helping people and in serving people. It’s to ask a lot of questions to rule out what’s the best route to get to what you want. Not specifically what you want to be done but what each organization wants to have done.
You’re leading the way to let them know, “We are open to everybody. We’re not going refuse anybody. We are going to do our best.” The biggest thing that I am gathering is you’ve brought people together in such a unique way by pivoting with the pandemic. You created a better sense of community because, as some people are like, “This is great, but this isn’t what you said.” “Let’s take the best idea. Let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, let’s try something else.” You have to be willing to do that.
That’s a huge quality of a good leader is being willing to make a decision? At the end of the day, it’s my call and we have to move forward and make a decision. Also say, occasionally but that’s rare, but every once a while, we all make mistakes. We have to back up and say, “That wasn’t the right one. We’re going this way.” That’s where good leaders shine is when they say, “Let’s go in this direction. We’re going to go together. If it doesn’t work, we’ll figure it out then.”
If you don’t take a risk, you don’t grow.
Oftentimes I see this as paralysis by analysis. You’re overthinking and overthinking. What if this and what if this? You don’t know. We can’t worry about yesterday. We can worry about tomorrow. We can only do so much worrying because tomorrow is coming whether we’re ready or not. I can assure you, the sun will rise tomorrow. It always has and always will. We need to be best ready to go and greet it tomorrow.
If we talk about helping somebody, you set your own systems of how you operate. Where did you learn that from? Did you learn that from somebody? Did you learn that from the school or was there somebody that helped you and explained what it really means?
There are some hands-on learners and there are some classroom learners. My mother will not like knowing this but I was not a classroom learner. I went to the business school in Michigan. I’d say 99% of my class either went to investment banking or consulting. That was the time I graduated. You did one of the two tracks. You were granted a huge salary in a big firm on one of the coasts or Chicago. I said, “No, I’m going to stay here.” I dismantled cars, literally, with a college education. I went to work for my grandfather. I took apart cars. I learned more by doing that by watching his work ethic and learning on the job.
That’s where I became like, “Trust yourself. You learn on the job and don’t be afraid to take a risk. If you don’t take a risk, you don’t grow.” That’s how I grew my business. When I started my own business, I used to make deals, and oftentimes, some people wouldn’t buy a deal until they had it all pre-sold. By that point in time, you may not be offered the deal. It’s now or never. You had to be good. In my gut, did I think I can make money on the deal? Yes or no, I buy it.
Did I have the money to pay for it? It almost didn’t matter. How fast could I buy it? How fast can I sell it? How fast can I get the money back in and make everybody happy? That’s pressure. Learning that and being responsible. I know that in my previous life, I was responsible to make sure that all my employees got paid. If I didn’t sell enough or move enough product, we weren’t getting paid. I wasn’t okay with that. Having to let other people down.
I’m not too proud to say there were times that I didn’t get paid. There were times that I had to bring money into the business and say, “It’s been a slow week, but everyone’s getting paid.” I’m going to take money out of my savings. I never missed a payroll in the ten years I operated and I insisted on that. You have to be willing to take risks, and entrepreneurs need to take calculated risks. Don’t get crazy, but you got to be able to take it.
What I find important is you got to have somebody in your corner. For me, it was my father. Whether it’s a financial backer or whether it’s a mentor or somebody to talk to, you need somebody who’s removed who can say, “Hold on, is this the right way to go?” I look and then after a while, you switch from that mentee to not meeting the mentor to being the mentor. That’s a big thing that people need to be able to take risks and be able to lead.
People say it all the time, “Every coach needs a coach.” We are part of something and be able to do everything to the best of our ability. We get too caught up in trying to deal with it ourselves and there becomes a point in time you have to learn how to delegate. Do not go to X, Y, Z. If you cannot go to A, B, C, delegate it. Let them do the work, they will pop out to you and say, “This is what I think,” and you are showing your trust in person A, B, C. That’s where the entrepreneurship begins to change form and actually increases in that capacity which allows you to grow as an individual to help companies excel truly.
Leadership is putting the right people on the right seats on the bus. We’ve all worked for organizations where we thought we had the right people. Sometimes they’re not on the right seats on the bus and you get them there. People need to be able to stretch their wings. The same way I say, “I like to make my own decisions. I make them.” You have to trust your employees and your team to make those decisions, too or else you’re a team of one with some other people helping you out. With that, they also can make a bad decision and that’s okay. It’s how do we move forward from that bad decision, but you have to empower people. One, you won’t grow. You’ll be as big as whatever you can do yourself. Two, it doesn’t create a team feeling. To me, a team feeling is so important because that’s where the magic happens. It’s when we’re all working together moving forward.
As the CEO, you are now in a position where not only are you trusting the person that’s underneath you. You are trying to make everybody equal in their position, you are both on the same page. Once you have that, then you create that common bond and taking the chance.
The Federation is a very flat organization. Meaning, my door is always open and everyone’s allowed to come in. You don’t have to report up to your supervisors to come to talk to me. No, come talk to me. I like to be 24/7 available to my team. That’s key and paramount because when a good idea comes, we need to be able to act on it. It doesn’t matter where it came from or who brought it. Is it a good idea? If so, let’s run with it. You have to have a culture of, “Let’s share ideas,” not, “Let’s keep them all to ourselves or take credit for everybody else’s ideas.” Let’s throw everything against the whiteboard and see what works.
That’s a big lesson that people who are starting out who put in the business for a long time and be positive where they are and keep looking forward. I look forward is to reverse engineer what your thoughts are and you might actually get where you want to go. That took me a long time to understand what that means. Now that I’ve gone back, I’ve been able to do that with my coaching as well as my individual speaking career that I’ve been building. I have a couple more question for you. What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue their careers such as yours?
“Do it,” and I say that jokingly, but it’s, “Go out there. Find the job that you enjoy doing.” I don’t want to use one of these old quotes, “If you find a job you love doing, you’ll never work a day in your life.” That’s great and there is some truth to that. Find something that you enjoy, that you don’t hate going to and the world will work out for you. I’m a big believer in that. I am a case in point. I had a great business. We changed and all of a sudden, I was looking for something to do. Who would think that many years later, I’m running a huge organization and having the time of my life?
I made this statement, “This is the dream job I never knew I wanted.” That’s important. Have fun and don’t worry about it. As far as trust, don’t do what people tell you you’re going to be good at. They think, “You’re going to be a good operator or a good speaker or a good writer,” or whatever. Be what you want to be within reason. We all like to play in the NFL. We’re probably not all destined for that. It’s important that we find something that we enjoy and try our hardest to do it. That’s what makes a happy person. Happiness is the key.
Everyone wants that not only in business but in life. Life sucks some days and it’s okay to admit that. The one when it doesn’t, put a smile on your face. Enjoy it and find meaning in what you do. I like to say no matter how bad my day is here, I know with all the great work that we’re doing that I made a difference in somebody’s life somewhere somehow. It may not be directly. I didn’t provide a direct service but I’ve made it easier for people who are providing direct services to provide their services. Be part of the change that’s happening and be a productive member of society.
That’s an important point. My second to the last question is, what did you do to recalibrate?
I trusted myself. I knew that I was a hands-on learner. I knew I didn’t want to go back to school. When I close my business, people say, “Why don’t you go get an MBA? Any big six-figure salary, you needed to get an MBA.” There’s nothing wrong with getting MBA, but it’s not my style. I learn on the job. It’s trusting yourself. My feeling was, “If I get the interview first, I could get the job. If I get the job, I knew I could figure out what to do. I can learn on the job.” It’s not over weeks, months, or years. It’s a couple of days. Give me a couple of days to figure out what we need to do. That’s what I’ve always done to be successful. I don’t read up about it. I always listen, always observe and watch what everyone’s doing. Before you know it, you can do whatever you need to.
The next question is, what brings you joy? What makes you happy?
When life doesn’t put a smile on your face, continue enjoying it and still find meaning in what you do.
I would say that my kids bring me joy. They bring me grief, but they bring me joy. I have four boys. They’re the love of my life and my wife. I want to make them proud. I want them to not want for anything within reason. I want them to have a happy life. My goal is to make the world a better place for them and give them what they need to get what they need to in life. That’s what I’m here for is to make them happy. I don’t have a hobby. I don’t play golf. I don’t play tennis. I exercise. I’ll do anything.
It’s all about friends, family, and human interactions. The key is to surround yourself with friends, family and just go and be you. We have a saying here in the Federation, “Do Jewish.” Don’t let anyone tell you what being a Jew is or what you should or shouldn’t do. It’s the same reason I will tell you about being yourself. Be yourself. Whether you’re comfortable doing X, Y, or Z, that’s fine or A, B, C, it doesn’t matter. You do what you want to do and life is a much better place.
That’s a wonderful story. You being Jew is hard for a lot of people to understand what that means truly. I appreciate that one. That’s a good lesson for everyone to learn. It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for being on the show. I hope we could do it again sometime soon.
I will come back anytime, Jordan, because you are willing to interview me as a COO. You got the first interview as a CEO. I will take it anytime you call.
Stay well. Thank you.