Ashley Andersen Zantop of Cambium Learning Group: “Don’t take yourself too seriously”

As a leader, it’s your job to bring voices to the table to identify opportunities and risks. If all of those voices are essentially saying the same thing because they are influenced by similar sets of experiences and perspectives, you’re only seeing and hearing part of the picture, like only seeing half of a photograph. […]

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As a leader, it’s your job to bring voices to the table to identify opportunities and risks. If all of those voices are essentially saying the same thing because they are influenced by similar sets of experiences and perspectives, you’re only seeing and hearing part of the picture, like only seeing half of a photograph. You can guess at what the other half shows, but you could be wildly wrong. This essentially becomes a blind spot in which your competitors and substitutes are free to innovate without any pressure from you, because you can’t even see the opportunity or challenge, let alone understand it well.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ashley Andersen Zantop.

Ashley began her career as an elementary school teacher and collegiate coach, igniting her passion for social impact. Since then, she has devoted her career to closing the opportunity gap and creating great outcomes in education through the power of social enterprise and innovation. She has spent over 20 years in publishing, technology, media and e-commerce for education and home, in public, private and nonprofit sectors working all over the world. Ashley is a published author of Now What? The Creative Writer’s Guide to Success After the MFA, using her talents to help others learn and grow.

Ashley holds a bachelor’s degree in education and English literature from the University of Michigan, teaching certifications K-5 and 6–8, and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Fairfield University with concentrations in fiction and screenwriting. She also has a certificate in Media Strategy from Harvard Business School, Executive Function in the Classroom from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Design Thinking instruction from Ideo U. Prior to joining Cambium in 2020, Ashley served in executive leadership roles at several companies, such as GreaterGood, Capstone, and Trudy Corporation (later Palm Publishing). She serves on the SIIA’s government affairs council and has served on the board of directors and executive committee for the SIIA’s education division and co-chaired the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. She is the co-founder and former co-president of the Fairfield University MFA Alumni Association.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In hindsight, my career path turned out to be a natural blend of the things I’m most passionate about, even if it didn’t seem that way early on.

I began my career as an educator and collegiate coach. I spent time working and volunteering in the Midwest, on the East Coast and some time in Denmark, learning about public early childhood education.

I loved working with students but felt frustrated by what I saw as infrastructure and process barriers to improved outcomes. The tools, content, and solutions we had to work with often didn’t seem adequate to the task or appropriate for the goals. When I earned the chance to craft some of my own curriculum, I took it and put in the work to align to standards and student needs. That gave me a healthy appreciation for the inherent challenges and the skill required to build educational experiences that are effective for teachers and engaging for students.

One of the very first units I built myself was a unit on money that aligned with Michigan’s first-grade state standards. Then I built a literacy unit. I was really energized and hungry to have an impact on a much larger scale. I discovered that social enterprise was a way to leverage media, technology and digital innovation for improved outcomes in the classroom and at home for more than one class, school or family at a time. That excited me. I made the jump to industry and never looked back.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Careers are such a tapestry of interesting stories, big and small, woven together by all the threads of work we do in between. One that stands out to me dates back to the early 2000s.

When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I led the launch and ultimately became President of a multimedia publishing start-up. For that business, we developed and printed digital early childhood education materials and patented some environmentally friendly media storage designs that allowed us to secure CDs and DVDs in a retractable panel embedded in book covers. This allowed us to deliver our digital content and a complete blended media experience even when readers didn’t have access to Wi-Fi or the internet — without any additional packaging. We thought this was pretty slick. Keep in mind, this was before smartphones and mobile media. Bingeing Netflix meant waiting for your DVDs to show up in your mailbox.

We had customers and suppliers all over the world. While I was on a regular supply chain and business development trip to South China and Southeast Asia, one of our joint venture partners recommended I stop in Manila to call on the National Book Store. He thought our multimedia educational content in this innovative format would be perfect for the entrepreneurial local market-leading retailer founded by Socorro Cancio-Ramos and her husband Jose Ramos.

On the morning of our appointment, Mrs. Ramos, also known as Nanay Coring, met me in the gleaming, spacious and beautifully merchandised store. She and her team ushered me to a conference room and listened politely while I presented [read, gushed about] our books and media. If I asked her three questions about her business, I’d be surprised. Where would I have found the time to ask? I was so busy explaining everything she needed to know about us and our amazing products.

When I was done, Mrs. Ramos asked me a number of exacting questions about not just the content of our products, but the weight and dimensions. She then ordered us a pizza for lunch and gave me an incredible history lesson about the National Book Store and about the socio-economics of the Philippines. She sent me on my way without an order but with a copy of a photographic journal published by her own new subsidiary, Anvil Publishing. Before I left the store, she asked me to take a look at the racking and shelving in the children’s section.

I don’t recall how long it took, but eventually, we delivered our first order. It was completely custom in all new dimensions and lighter weight to fit store racking and reduce shipping costs, allowing for an affordable retail price for NBS customers and more copies on display than in storage.

When I think back on that meeting from time to time, I’m struck by the kindness, generosity and patience Socorro Cancio-Ramos showed to me. She turned our one-hour appointment into a three-hour master class on how to listen, learn enough about someone to find common ground and tell them what they need to know in a way they are willing and able to hear it. In education we often call this meeting someone where they are. She met me where I was on the continuum of my own personal and professional development, my own understanding of the world, and she helped me take a few steps forward. I am grateful.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Aside from the series of cringe-worthy mistakes I made in that story I just told you? Honestly, I’ve made plenty of mistakes in the last 25 years, I don’t think we or your readers have enough time. I will say that what’s more important than remembering the details of every mistake you make is to learn from each of them and use the lesson you learn. If you turn each mistake into a learning experience, then each one becomes an investment in your professional development. It’s safe to say I’m heavily invested.

Here are a few of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned. I try to live and work by them every day:

Listen to your customers, your users. Listen to people who could be your customers but aren’t. They might become your customers if you take the time to understand them better. If you listen to what they say and notice what they don’t say, you may be able to solve a problem for them or improve their lives in a way they didn’t even know to ask for.

And, directly related: Empathy is the basis of all good design.

By ‘design’ I don’t just mean UI, UX or the creative arts, although that’s also true. What I mean by design is problem-solving — process and system design, organizational design, communications design. If we take the time to understand the perspectives and needs of our audience, customers, users, collaborators, colleagues, stakeholders, we will solve problems and rise to challenges in more meaningful ways because we’ll understand the challenge, the opportunity or the problem more completely.

And we’ll learn more in the process.

Kindness is a strength, not a weakness.

Especially the kindness we show to one another in challenging situations, when things are difficult or when we’re stressed. It’s pretty easy to be kind when things are going well. It’s even easier to be unkind when things aren’t. It takes real strength to show meaningful kindness and respect to others when we are stretched, stressed or facing uncertainty. But, in exactly these moments, real kindness and empathy can actually improve some of the variables of the situation (like quality of communication and problem-solving, trust, willingness to accept risk) and in so doing potentially the outcome.

Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important for a business to have a diverse executive team?

If you keep an eye on DE&I trends, you’ve seen the growing use of the statement “Diversity is a fact. Inclusion is a choice.” Diversity is most certainly a fact. In US education, for example, we know that the majority of elementary school classroom students identify as a racial minority.

If I consider your question purely through the lens of business objectives, I’ll answer it this way:

Inclusion goes far beyond a choice. The deliberate practice of it may start with a choice, in the same way we may decide to learn a language or a trade or pursue a degree. Like those things, it’s also a skill, or a set of skills that form a competency.

As a business, if you don’t invest in developing the competency of inclusion, over time your organization’s own confirmation bias will make your work less and less relevant to more and more people.

As a leader, it’s your job to bring voices to the table to identify opportunities and risks. If all of those voices are essentially saying the same thing because they are influenced by similar sets of experiences and perspectives, you’re only seeing and hearing part of the picture, like only seeing half of a photograph. You can guess at what the other half shows, but you could be wildly wrong. This essentially becomes a blind spot in which your competitors and substitutes are free to innovate without any pressure from you, because you can’t even see the opportunity or challenge, let alone understand it well.

People have a natural tendency to gravitate to what is familiar, even if it’s not optimal, yet innovation requires a constructive amount of tension to move us out of our comfort zones. The more diversity of thought, perspective, and experience we bring to the table, the more we make ourselves constructively uncomfortable, the more we can expand and explore, innovate effectively.

Lastly, for these reasons and so many more, an overwhelming amount of credible research demonstrates that businesses with diverse leadership teams perform better in all major performance metrics, including innovation, growth and profitability.

More broadly can you describe how this can have an effect on our culture?

Innovation driven by inclusion fits hand-in-glove with a growth mindset and rejects zero sum thinking.

When we approach fundamental problems with zero sum thinking, the idea that the only way for me to succeed is for you to fail, the only way I can win or keep something is for you to lose it or not have any, we start a process of consolidation and contraction. If we think of opportunity as finite, then the only way for me to have more is for you to have less.

But, if we shift our thinking to problem-solving with growth and innovation, then we begin to see we can create opportunity with innovation, that you can have more and I can have more by finding ways to create more. That is the essence of the real American dream. That’s what the best businesses big and small are built on.

Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in executive leadership?

  • People in positions of leadership are often responsible for determining or at least identifying who else may have the opportunity to be in a position of leadership. If you’re a leader in your community, company or industry, seek out and invite new voices to the table, make space and keep making space for them if they accept.
  • Promote, share and amplify the stories of a diverse range of leaders to your industry, community, even your family. The more frequently children, students and aspiring leaders see people they identify within positions of leadership, the more they will understand it as a possible future path.
  • Vote with your dollars and your time; from the products you purchase in your own household to the initiatives and causes you spend time on, get involved.

How do you define “Leadership”?

I think leadership can be defined in a number of ways, I have listed my favorites below.

  • The courage and tenacity to not just tolerate but seek out opinions different from your own and listen to those who will (constructively) tell you what you don’t want to hear.
  • The courage to empathize with those you disagree with.
  • The strength to be kind when it would be easier not to.
  • The generosity of time and spirit to help others see and develop their value and power.
  • The curiosity to ask ‘why’ like a four year old. The study of root cause analysis tells us that by the time we get to the fifth ‘why’ we’re at the real root cause of the situation.
  • The willingness and ability to laugh at yourself.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. It’s not your job to have every answer— it’s your job to bring the right voices to the table and to make a decision.
  2. Listen more than you talk (or, if you really enjoy talking, at least listen as much as you talk).
  3. Being right matters less than what you achieve and much less than what you help others to achieve.
  4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have the self-confidence to be humble, to hear others out, to recognize and admit your own mistakes so you can learn from them. This improves your decision-making and shows others how to do the same.
  5. Continuing on that theme: Some of the most powerful learning comes from mistakes. When you make them, acknowledge your mistakes. It’s really tough to learn from your mistake if you don’t look it squarely in the eye, admit you made it and commit to doing better. Then move on.

The irony of this is, even if someone had told me these five things (likely many wonderful people along the way did tell me some version of these), would I have been ready to hear them? I’m not sure. Again, since some of the most powerful learning comes from retrospection after both successes and failures, I needed to have broad experience with both to understand and embrace real leadership.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Read this with a belly laugh: “Don’t ask for something or you just might get it.” I say this at home and at work regularly, and usually I’m laughing out loud.

The way I use this expression, it’s about enjoying irony. It isn’t about not striving for something because you might be disappointed when you get it. In fact, I mean exactly the opposite. I’m a big believer in committing to and striving for something important, something bold — even if you miss, you’ve probably done something great along the way.

This is about how we invest our time and energy: When we wish for something different, we have to put in the work to make something different, or we’re left with what others define for us.

When I catch myself wishing for something, I try to do a couple of thought exercises like this:

○ The grass over there likely isn’t as green as it looks, and if it is, it might require a tremendous amount of maintenance to keep it that way. Furthermore, you can make your own grass greener if you really want green grass. Do you? Chances are good the thing you’re wishing for will be imperfect and require just as much care and feeding as anything else. Do you really want to commit to that maintenance?

○ If you do want something, ask yourself how hard you are willing to work for it.

■ If the answer is as hard as it takes, then go for it — chances are good you are already building a bridge to what you want. When you look at your calendar, take stock of how you spend your time, are you investing it in the things you value?

■ If you’re brutally honest with yourself and the answer is ‘not that hard,’ then satisfy yourself that you’ve given it sufficient thought and you can set it aside, so you can concentrate your time and energy on what you do really want.

It’s easy for organizations to chase too many things at once and execute none of them exceptionally well. An important hallmark of professional leadership is to continually ask: What are we going to do for whom better than anyone else? When you answer that, commit your energy and resources to make that happen.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

The first people who come to mind are my family. The pandemic has forced us to be physically apart for too long. At this point, of all the people in the world, I’d love to share any meal with them.

The second is Ibram X Kendi. Reading “How to be an Antiracist” was an incredible experience. Listening to him narrate the audiobook in his own voice was life changing.

Kendi’s narration is a work of art: He has the gift of an orator so listening to him read his work is as beautiful as it is inspiring. His prose takes on a poetic quality in his own voice. His raw honesty about his own experiences and the evolution of his own thinking and bias is moving.

It’s also an intricate work of logic. I admire his skill in methodically and logically breaking down a series of incredibly complex issues and then building them back up by scaffolding one on top of another until the combined meaning is both lucid and durable.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I would love to connect with readers on LinkedIn. Also, be sure to visit Cambium Learning’s website or follow our social pages on Twitter and LinkedIn as well.”

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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