"Success in our company is driven by the choice of the people who join us."
In 2008, Rob Waldron was offered his dream job as CEO of Curriculum Associates, a 40 year-old Massachusetts-based education company that uses technology to help teachers and administrators.
However, there was one catch: with a long-term vision in mind, founder Frank Ferguson insisted that Waldron sign a 20-year employment contract. Trusting Ferguson’s vision, Waldron agreed, and has since quintupled the company’s revenues and turned it into one of the fastest-growing K–12 education companies in the country. But in an era of brief attention spans, rapid career transitions, and emphasis on short-term profitability, can a long-term vision truly survive? Waldron explained to us how it not only can, but why it is also a key to his success. Waldron also shared his best practices for taking over leadership at a new company, creating a great work environment, and what’s next in the education industry.
Could you tell us about your unique employment contract?
Rob Waldron: So, as we were changing the ownership structure to handle my transition, even though I had a five-year vest in my offer letter, he [Ferguson] told me that if I left any time voluntarily in the next 20, I would get nothing. That came as quite a shock; I thought he was completely insane. Then, over time, I talked to some friends and realized that this was my dream job, that we were really trying to change the world, and that I actually might be able to sign up for 20 years. With some slight modifications, I agreed to do that. I’m not an indentured servant or anything like that [laughter], but my ownership in the company is driven by these 20-year terms.
It turns out that that’s been an enormous competitive advantage. I don’t have to answer to outsiders, and people know that we’re long-term oriented in a world of short-term profiteering. In our case, we don’t have to take outside money and we just march along with this long-term mindset. It allows us to attract a better group of people. It has allowed us to make bigger bets, have longer-term product development cycles than others can have, and, oddly enough, it’s led to higher short-term returns than the rest of the sector, even though we don’t care about short returns.
I’ve learned from Frank that a 100 percent focus on the long term, in some odd way, has short-term results because it attracts better people. It focuses us more on quality, on service, and on our vision. Our margins are lower, being a “some-profit,” than they might be if we were trying to maximize them in the near-term, but we’re not trying to have higher profitability. We need to be some- what profitable — that’s why I call it a “some-profit” — but it has led to higher market share, for sure.
What sort of tools or initiatives have you used to help people become comfortable with the change that you brought as the new leader of the company?
RW: When I come into any new company, I ask for written feedback. It can be anonymous or not. Then I ask people to tell me two or three things in the past that they’re most proud of or excited about and two or three things that they find frustrating. Then, going forward, what are the one or two things that they’re most excited about and the one or two things that they’re most worried about. I read every word of everybody’s comments and ask people to be as thorough as they can. I gather all of that, and there usually are themes that come out, especially about the things that are going well. And that is the part you have to pay attention to; the things that they hold most dear.
I have found — and I’ve now done it three times — that there’s a fair amount of commonality, especially for the things that they are most concerned about. I always restate what they said back to them to make sure that I understand. Then the first changes that I make in the company are around those ideas, and I become their advocate for what changes they thought of, rather than coming in with my own ideas. I work really hard not to have my own ideas for at least six months. Just do what they think should have been done.
Curriculum Associates has been featured on many “Best Places to Work” lists. What do you believe you’re doing that is making it such a great place to work?
RW: I think we’re driven by values, and the only thing I micromanage are those values, which are not subject to debate. We measure ourselves by what we do for the classrooms, for teachers, and for children, not by maximizing shareholder return. We value high-confidence, low-ego, so we hire people who have a lot of confidence but have low-ego needs so they tend to get along better. Another value is what’s called “say it like it is,” so everyone has permission, at any level, to test the thinking of any executive at any time — or anyone else. Another is that we’re trying to get to heaven, whether you believe in it or not. I’m not trying to set anyone’s religious preferences; I’m just saying that the purpose of what we’re doing here is for the good of others. Another way to say that is, every single action of everyone in the company should be able to be on the cover of the New York Times every day.
Also, I’m the most obsessed person about recruiting that you’ve ever met in your life. Last year, we hired 200 full-time professionals, all in knowledge-based jobs. The reason that we were successful is that we hired for values first and skills second. We care more deeply that they have our values; if you can keep ahold of your values, you can ride through more bumps than people who can’t. I still personally interview everyone to be absolutely sure that everyone has those values.
It’s much easier to be an average manager and an outstanding recruiter than an outstanding manager and an average recruiter. Success in our company is driven by the choice of the people who join us.
What are the most promising things that you’re seeing that are making you believe that the education industry is making some positive strides?
RW: I’m super excited about what will happen within the next five to ten years, and am very bullish because teachers have been asked to do more and more — asked to do new standards; have a wider range of levels in their classrooms, from two or three grade levels behind to two or three grade levels ahead; have new regulations; and then they actually have more students than ever before. What technology is doing is creating productivity tools to make it easier for teachers so they have more information in the moment, so they can individualize their curriculum for a student, so they can save time on grading, on giving feedback to students right away. They can uncover skill gaps with an app that a human might not see right away.
By making learners more engaged, teachers more productive, and learning more individualized, [students are] going to have more time on tasks in what we call their zone of proximal development — exactly what they need and when. Any time you bring productivity tools to sets of hardworking people, it makes their lives better. Teachers will have more energy for children, and children are more engaged in their lessons and spending more time on tasks.