Dennis Jaffe, Organizational Systems

Photograph of Dennis Jaffe

Dennis Jaffe

Organizational Systems Faculty

By the end of his senior year of college he had been accepted to NYU Medical School, and had even enrolled. But “it was 1967, and the world was getting very interesting, and I asked myself if I wanted to spend four years in a hospital when all these interesting things were happening?”

He loved the idea of being a doctor, but he loved the idea of being in the world and making a meaningful contribution more. So instead he went into organizational consulting, and then psychology – both areas where major changes were happening. “It was a very exciting time, all the things about organizational and cultural change were just opening up in those years,” he remembers.

In the 1970s he was a working family therapist … and in the 1980s he was working with companies on organizational change. By the 1990s, something clicked.

“People would hear I’d been a family therapist and start referring me to family businesses that needed consultants” he says. “Family businesses combine a lot of the psychological issues of families with the organizational issues of business, and eventually I started getting enough referrals that I began focusing on this. It just kind of evolved.”

He wasn’t the only one: at the same time that Dennis was making a name for himself as a consultant for family businesses, a group of scholars was coming together to declare that family businesses were themselves an interdisciplinary field of study and practice. Dennis joined their ranks, and has played a central role in the development of Family Enterprise Consulting ever since.

The author of over 14 books on management, Dennis served as the Deputy Director of Research for the MacArthur Foundation Network on Healthy Companies, and helped create some of the key tools for assessing family business success, such as the “Enterprising Family Sustainability Index,” “The Aspen Family Business Inventory,” and “The Aspen Family Wealth Inventory.” He’s also served as the Adelaide Thinker in Residence for the government of Australia, and helped that country develop a climate of support for small and family businesses.

Saybrook was already using one of his textbooks when he applied to teach here, and it’s been a partnership that’s lasted over 30 years.

“I was always considered a good teacher and academic, but it was never clear what department I fit into,” Dennis says. “My degree is in sociology, I’m a psychologist, I work with organizational change … universities have always tried to force me into one department or another, no matter what my research interests really were. But here at Saybrook, they’ve never tried to force me to choose a box to fit myself in. That’s one of the things that keeps me here.”

It’s also one of the things he admires most about Saybrook’s approach to education. “You are not a good faculty member at Saybrook if you’re very narrow and only know one area,” he says. “A good Saybrook faculty member is well read in a whole lot of fields and has a very good understanding of how the issues fit together. I also find it very helpful that I can work with students, many of whom are experience professionals, in a whole range of areas: that’s an incredible opportunity.”

To Dennis’ mind, the world needs more boundary crossing and fewer boxes. “Take any important problem and there’s no clear answer whether it’s a sociological problem or a psychological problem or a public health problem or a political problem,” he says. “It’s really clear that the big problems are at the intersection of all these things, and it’s an anachronism to have schools organized into fields and department that refuse to acknowledge how broad and multi-disciplinary the things they study really are.”