Interview Series: Zack Block, Director of Repair the World: Pittsburgh

Zack Block, Director of Repair the World: Pittsburgh
Zack Block, Director of Repair the World: Pittsburgh

Zack Block, a life-long Pittsburgher, is the Director of Repair the World: Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that offers volunteer opportunities tailored to meet local needs. Zack is also Board Chair of the Hillel Jewish University Center, and sits on the advisory committee of the Neighborhood Learning Alliance and the board of The Documentary Works.

 First job out of college? 

 My first job out of college was working for what was Mellon Financial which is now the Bank of New York Mellon.  I was a Portfolio Administrator, which means  that I assisted people who managed high net worth individuals’ money.

 How were you drawn to nonprofit work?

 I was a tax attorney for more than 8 years and in reality it was a combination of opportunity and inertia that led me to that role and kept me there.  For a long time though I wasn’t happy and I looked at a few things that made me happy while trying to determine what to do next.  The first was my family, which I love and they are so supportive of me.  The second was my volunteering.  I spent a lot of time  volunteering in the community and it was incredibly fulfilling work.  Those two things are what really drove me to look for work in the nonprofit world.

First thing you do each day?

A corner of the Repair the World Workshop in East Liberty
A corner of the Repair the World Workshop in East Liberty

I am lucky enough to help get my kids ready for school and have breakfast with them.  In my old work that wasn’t the norm.  After I usually take one of them to school and my wife takes the other one then I head to our workshop.  I open up the space and make coffee and heat up water for tea for the fellows when we all get together to meet in the mornings at 9a.m. and really get started on the cohort’s day.

What keeps you motivated?

What really keeps me going is that I believe in the work that we’re doing.  We work in both education and food justice and in bringing the Jewish community to this work.  We believe that change can occur from either a top down or a bottom up perspective and the work that we do is much more geared to the bottom up perspective.  So, for example, our fellows mentor in after school programs and then recruit others to mentor in these after school programs as well.  This idea of building a partner’s capacity so that it can carry out its missions more efficiently and effectively also really keeps me going.

Best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Collaboration is the key to success.  I don’t remember who shared that with me but I truly believe in collaboration.  If you partner and collaborate with good people who are doing good things then only more good can come from it.

What are you reading?

I’m currently reading Robert Putnam’s latest book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.  I’m reading it with my Repair the World counterparts in Philadelphia and Detroit.  The book examines the growing inequality gap in the U.S.

What is one goal that you hope to accomplish in 2015?

I really want to work to start the process aimed at making Repair the World a sustainable program in Pittsburgh.

Best thing about the nonprofit sector in Pittsburgh?

It’s such a collaborative atmosphere.  I love collaboration and working with and meeting so many people and individuals who are interested in what we’re doing and how we can and do work together.  It’s amazing!

Spring into Action weekend: March 26 - 29, 2015


What does Repair the World have coming up this spring?

We have a litter program called Pitch In to Pitch In that we’re kicking off on Friday, March 27 with a dinner. We still have spots open for volunteers on Sunday, March 28.

Learning to be a Better Leader

A case study on the return on investment of emotional intelligence on productivity and work environment found a predictive relationship between emotional quotient (EQ) scores and individual performance.  Amadori, a European meat supplier, embarked on an initiative with Six Seconds focused on improved management and staff development through an overhaul of the organization’s leadership style.  The study showed that managers who scored in the top 25 percent in EQ also scored higher in individual performance (47 percent of the variation could be explained by EQ) and that the sites with high EQ executives also had higher levels of employee engagement.  As employee engagement was predictive of performance outcomes including motivation, retention and productivity, the factory sites with managers skilled in emotional intelligence experienced better organizational performance.

The adage claims that leaders are born not made, but the literature on the usefulness of emotional intelligence in business and its inclusion in leadership development materials, plus performance results like those in the study above, illustrate how even “born” leaders must be developed.  Good leadership can be taught in the form of theories and tools but – as other bloggers have wondered – whether it can be learned effectively is another matter entirely.

A while ago I observed a project debriefing that was one of the most tense and awkward sessions I had ever experienced. The team delivered a successful end product and yet the tone of the meeting was anything but positive.  On the surface, the group assembled appeared to be a healthy, functioning team, but cracks began to show as the session continued with member affect ranging from mildly detached to downright apathetic. The facilitator-coaxed feedback was not acknowledged by those who needed to hear it most, rather much of it was dismissed and those brave enough to allude to issues that could have been handled better were chided as unprofessional. I later heard that several members of that department had left the organization of their own accord.

Was it a low EQ, poor leadership development, or maybe just sheer stubbornness that kept the leader from acknowledging the team that day?  A little empathy and a modicum of self-awareness could have gone a long way in healing a fractured team that, despite  internal conflicts, had succeeded. In the end it was the organization that really lost – both in talent and in the time spent replacing and training a new team.  With all the talk about servant leadership and emotional intelligence, even in nonprofits who consider themselves more people-than-profit-driven, are apologies viewed as surrender? Do we secretly fear that empathy equals “doormat”?

Leadership is tricky. My first foray into it, on the smallest scale in the most benign of conditions, was a spectacular failure. For years after that experience, I successfully evaded any opportunity that even hinted of “leading” outside of my favorite type of project – the one person kind.  I was not a leader, I pshawed – nope, never would be either, that mantle was for others far grander, smarter and more charismatic than I.  It was a safe little pigeonhole to hunker down in, and I did so for years until circumstances demanded change.  My ongoing path from pigeonhole dweller to “follow me” has been a spiral not a steady ascent, and would not have happened without the people I met along the way who were (and still are) exceptional leaders. Some simply made an impression, others became mentors if not outright catalysts for transformation, and at the risk of heading completely into tweeness, I have to admit that I learned more from being a part of their teams than I ever could have hoped for at the time.

Leaders can be made. Or perhaps, as with Dorothy, we had the power all along, we just need the right tools, lessons, and people to help give it shape, focus and flight.