they sit on stage talking
Rebecca Macieira-Kaufmann talking with S.F.-based Federation CEO Danny Grossman

Citigroup exec on managing an organization in transition

At this year’s Business Leadership Council breakfast on May 5, Citigroup executive Rebecca Macieira-Kaufmann gave the audience a taste of how to manage and run an organization in need of transformation.

In financial circles, Macieira-Kaufmann is something of a legend. The San Francisco Business Times has honored her as an Influential Woman in Bay Area Business for 10 years and named her a Forever Influential Woman.

In addition to her work for multinational banks, Macieira-Kaufmann has also played a significant role in the Jewish community. She has served as president and 13-year board member of Jewish Vocational Service, board member of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and vice president of the city’s Reform Congregation Emanu-El.

At the Federation’s annual BLC breakfast at the St. Regis San Francisco, attended by about 130 donors, Macieira-Kaufmann’s conversation with Federation CEO Danny Grossman largely revolved around her approach to business and management, and the differences between her approaches serving nonprofits and working for financial institutions.

“I would say one of the biggest differences is the skill sets,” said Macieira-Kaufmann, the event’s keynote speaker. “So when I come into the nonprofit, often the issue [faced] is a business issue, not a mission-based issue.” Rabbis, for example, aren’t typically taught how to manage a budget, she said.

With that in mind, at Emanu-El she organized budget training sessions. “Most people don’t get excited about budgeting,” she said, but it’s nonetheless a vital skill in running a nonprofit.

One of her more interesting business experiences was her transfer from a position as president of a California company to CEO of a Mexican subsidiary.

“It was all male, all Mexican and everyone spoke Spanish to one another,” she said. “Everyone was very physical; it would not be like that at an American board, where everybody would shake hands … There were hugs and hugs. The culture there is very formal but very warm. My assistant when she would come in would never sit down.”

Over the years Macieira-Kaufmann has forged a reputation for transforming large organizations under crisis. As a result, teamwork is a critical part of her work.

“We have to break bread together,” she said. “It takes teamwork for people to start to trust one another, and that takes six, nine, 12 months to develop trust. … Working on common goals is the way to do it.”

While working with individuals is most important, setting up teams and getting them to work together is also essential, she said. “I’m very insistent on becoming a team.” Once the teams are working smoothly, she continued, “I set goals, and communicate the heck out of them.”

Amid the otherwise straight-laced morning, circumcision jokes became an unlikely refrain. The reason: The BLC honored Michael Jacobs, who practices law at Morrison and Foerster. Jacobs, who has won billion dollar intellectual property judgments for his clients, is also involved with pro bono litigation — and one notable lawsuit defeated a proposed San Francisco anti-circumcision ballot measure in 2011.

It also proved ample fodder for innuendo during the remarks at the breakfast.

“It’s said that [Jacobs] work in that particular case employed a soft touch and a cutting edge approach … of the law,” billionaire and philanthropist John Pritzker said of Jacobs.

The Jewish community coalition prevailed in the lawsuit, and the courts prevented the measure from being added to the ballot.

Upon taking the stage Jacobs talked about his many accomplishments both in the community and on the legal front, which include a significant judgment against the state of California, forcing it to improve failing schools. But when the anti-circumcision case came up, more laughs occurred.

“Morrison and Foerster took the case [against the ballot measure], and our secret slogan was ‘snip the tip,’” Jacobs said to a chuckling audience.

On a serious note, he talked about the importance of that victory for the community. “We won, and we won early, sparing the community a lot of money and anguish. Circ-ban illustrates the importance of the Federation and the community it supports.”

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.