The Executive Series: An Interview with Allen Fagin
About The Executive Series: Through ‘The Executive Series’, The Commentator provides its readership with access to the thoughts and experience of highly accomplished individuals in the business world. The column has a conversational style and expresses the individual journey of each business leader, including their motivations, struggles, successes and failures.The Executive Series also serves as a forum for a broader conversation about leadership in business and in life.
About Allen Fagin (Adapted from OU.org)
Mr. Allen Fagin currently serves as Executive Vice President and Chief Professional Officer of the Orthodox Union. He practiced law at Proskauer Rose, LLP, one of the leading international law firms, beginning in 1976, where he specialized in employment law, co-chairing Proskauer’s Labor and Employment Law Department for many years and served as Proskauer’s Chairman from 2005-2011. Mr. Fagin is a graduate of Columbia College (1971); Harvard Law School and the JFK School of Government at Harvard, where he received a JD and a Masters Degree in Public Policy, both in 1975.
Tell me about your first leadership role. What experiences did you take with you throughout your career?
Two of the earliest experiences I had in a leadership role were on the communal side. One as Chairman of the Board of Yeshiva Dov Revel, which, at the time, was going through all kinds of significant transitions. The second as President of the Queens Jewish Center in Forest Hills. Probably the most important lesson from both of those experiences was how to manage the process of change. Anyone, whether in a management or highly entrepreneurial role will constantly be faced with the challenge of managing new and different circumstances. Managing change, the change process, and expectations with respect to change is the hallmark of a good leader, because circumstances will almost never be steady. You either learn to adapt or you fail.
Could you talk about some of the changes you saw in the dynamic of business throughout your career?
Every enterprise goes through significant changes in the ways it does business. When I was a young lawyer, we sent messages to clients either by fax or by messenger and made copies using carbon paper. Modern technology virtually didn’t exist and so the demands that came with modern technology didn’t exist. If you received a message you had time to think of a response and weren’t expected to reply within 30 seconds having received it. The corollary of that is the expectation of 24/7 availability. Clients started expecting that you have one electronic device or another constantly at your side, so that at any hour, day or night, you would be responsible to respond to any issues that arose.
Also, when I first started practicing law there was very little in the way of international transactions. By the time I stopped practicing law, virtually every deal had a global component to it. We were operating across multiple jurisdictions, multiple time zones, and across multiple legal systems. Each of those changes - technology, globalization, information management and the need to further and further specialize our area of expertise - had an effect on the way our firm conducted business, how we related to clients, and how we trained our young lawyers. We were constantly adapting to business in the 21st century.
How were you able to lead that change as chairman of Proskauer Rose?
The most important element in leading change is to first understand its implications. We had to peer over the horizon, to realize where the trends in the industry were taking us. We asked: “Where do we want to be two years out? Five years out? 10 years out?” Once you do that, you can work backwards and say, “Well here is what we need to do today in order to position ourselves for what the world will look like in the relatively short run, mid-range and long run.” Sometimes those predictions would be accurate and sometimes they turned out to be inaccurate, but if you did a reasonably good job at predicting what the industry was going to look like, what clients were going to require, and what their demands were going to look like, then creating the strategy to meet that turned out to be a lot easier.
How were you able to convince others sitting around the table that your vision was the correct one?
I always felt that the primary way of leading change was to make your case as clearly and honestly as you can and let the facts speak for themselves. Using data and analytic techniques, in effect proving your case the way you would if you were representing a client and trying to have them prevail at a trial. I was talking to very smart and highly analytical people who were open to new ideas and concepts but wanted to understand the factual basis for the arguments that were being made. For me, marshalling the evidence was the most important first step. But I always mixed in a healthy dose of instinct with a factual presentation. And instinct is not a dirty word - instinct is based on your own sense of experience, your sense of history, your gut understanding of what your firm is and how the business environment within which your firm operated developed over a period of time. So if you mixed a healthy dose of instinct with a reasonable dose of fact, you could make a pretty persuasive case to people who were used to applying logic and sensibility to make careful decisions.
Could you talk a little bit about the challenges you faced as a Jew in the workplace and how you were able to overcome those obstacles?
I think I’ve been blessed during my life and throughout my career in never feeling that my religion or my religious observance stood in my way. I think that most of the professional world operates primarily on a meritocratic basis. Really what they care about is who are you and how good are you at doing what you do. When I was considering whether to run for the Chairmanship of my firm, I talked to a number of my colleagues, Jewish and non-Jewish, about the fact that I would be unavailable on Shabbos and Yom Tov. I wanted to hear from them whether or not they thought it would be an impediment, and I can't think of a single person who felt that it was an issue, because they all knew that I had found ways to compensate for that unavailability. If you’re determined enough, you find a way to marry your Jewish and professional life.
How did you get involved with the OU?
I first got involved about thirty of thirty-five years ago, in what was then the New York Region of OU and over time began to participate in a variety of other activities of the Union, including the Institute for Public Affairs, now called OU Advocacy. I was involved with JLIC and more recently with NCSY. When I retired from Proskauer (end of 2013) the OU was searching for a new CEO (called Executive Vice President) and it wasn’t long after I announced my retirement that I was approached to see if I would be interested. I hadn’t thought about becoming the CEO until then, but the role certainly fit the ideal job description of what I wanted to do with the rest of my professional career, which was to give back to the community.
You’ve dedicated a large portion of time to giving back to your surrounding community. Why has this been so important to you? And what advice can you give to young professionals about how to balance work with community service?
I think it’s an individual choice that everyone has to make. Everyone needs to figure out how to find time to do all of the things that are important to them in their life. Obviously that includes one’s professional life, family life, and social life. It includes being Koveah Ittim and devoting time to community service. The most important place to start is to think about what gives you satisfaction. What adds meaning to your life? That calculus will vary from person to person. Another factor to consider is what stage you are in your life. I think mid-career, people have more time and more resources to devote than when they are first starting out professionally. It could be particulary challenging if you have a young family to take care of. The third factor is utilizing your time wisely. The old saying “Time is a terrible thing to waste” is particularly true for frum Jews who feel a profound sense of obligation in multiple directions. You have to find ways and strategies to use your time in the most effective way that you possibly can.
But again, I think the most important component is determining fairly early on in your life is why you are here. Why are you on this planet? Why did G-d put you here? What do you want to accomplish with your life? And then you can let every decision be guided by your answer to those questions. And, almost inevitably, you’ll push yourself in the direction that gives you the most Sipuk HaNefesh.
How do you compare the management experience of a law firm to that of a non profit?
That’s a great question. Before I took this job, I would have assumed there were really significant differences, but now that I’ve been in it for a year, I actually think there are far fewer. One of the keys to being a successful manager is possessing the ability to strategically plan and mesh the goals of the organization you work for with a clear plan for effectuating those goals. The goals of a for-profit enterprise are going to be very different from the goals of a non profit enterprise, but each has goals, each has a mission, and each needs strong leadership with a plan for bringing that mission into reality. That planning process is relatively consistent - it doesn’t matter if its a law firm, accounting firm, non profit or frankly any business.
Secondly, a really good manager tries to determine how to motivate the members of the staff. What gives them satisfaction? Why are they coming to work in the morning? What are they trying to accomplish in their lives and are you giving them the tools to be able to reach their goals? The answers to these question may be different in a for-profit vs. a non profit, but the basic framework is the same. So a lot of the management skills are the same.
What intangible skills do you think are most critical to success in the business world today?
The one skill I’ve always found to be the most important is the willingness to take responsibility for for your own advancement and to take ownership of whatever you are being asked to accomplish. It’s an attitude. It says: “This is my task, this is my problem. I own it.” No one is going to write you a cookbook on how to get the job done, you’ve got to do it yourself, because it’s your responsibility. If you have that attitude right from the outset, from the first day you walk into a job, you will show through in a way that differentiates you from many people who, rather than grabbing life by the neck and wrestling it to the ground, are perfectly content passively marching through life.
What trends do you see in the marketplace that will guide the future of business? Where should undergraduates focus their efforts?
There’s probably no question that there are two fairly fundamental trends in today’s business world that are predominating. The first is the globalization of commerce. Anything you can learn about how business is conducted around the world, sensitivity to cultural differences, and sensitivity to different business practices will be extremely helpful as the world continues to contract in terms of commerce and internationalization. The second key trend is the impact of technology. Data gathering, data management, and data mining will all have tremendous influence on the future of business. Even if you’re not technically oriented, you should know what it means and how to use those tools and understand how they can be applied in virtually any field.
Having said that, trying too hard to predict what the field of the future is going to be is probably a mistake. I’m not saying that it can’t be done. But as you go through life, the more important element of success will be enjoying what you do and feeling committed to it. If you pick a field solely because it’s expanding and you don’t enjoy the work, you may find a job, but you won’t keep it very long, because it’s not going to sustain your desire to do something that you feel is productive. The most important thing is to figure out is who you are and what “tickles your funny bone,” so to speak. Try to find a profession that is expanding, but is also in a niche that you think you’ll enjoy. You should also be willing to concede to yourself, if you get to the point where you say “I’ve made a mistake,” that it’s time to move on to something that will give you personal satisfaction. All of us are devoting such a large amount of time to pursuing careers that, if you don’t thoroughly enjoy what you’re doing, you will find it to be very hard to motivate yourself to succeed.