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Rob Waldron: “Be humble and open-minded”

A workplace is only as strong as its weakest link, and that’s why I devote more than half of my time to recruitment and getting the right talent on board. To the educators we serve, each individual in our organization represents the whole of who we are, and it’s critical to ensure that each person […]

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A workplace is only as strong as its weakest link, and that’s why I devote more than half of my time to recruitment and getting the right talent on board. To the educators we serve, each individual in our organization represents the whole of who we are, and it’s critical to ensure that each person truly embodies your values and commitment. But recruitment is only a piece of building a strong team — you also need to focus on retention. Listen to your employees, their collective and individual needs, and meet them. Whether that requires an internal culture shift, providing flexible working options, or reassessing your pay structure, create a purpose-filled workplace that enables your employees to thrive.


Aspart of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rob Waldron, CEO of Curriculum Associates. Rob joined Curriculum Associates in 2008, bringing leadership experience from both the for-profit and nonprofit education worlds. Under his leadership, revenues have increased more than seven-fold, making Curriculum Associates the nation’s fastest-growing K–12 education publishing company.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Itook a winding path to find myself in education. My first job after college was actually at Morgan Stanley in NYC. This was during the height of the crack epidemic, and outside of work I spent time volunteering at a homeless shelter called Covenant House, located just blocks from my office. The contrast of Wall Street excess juxtaposed with the fact that basic human needs were going unmet right down the street stuck with me. In my business school admissions essay, I questioned why companies weren’t held accountable for bettering society, and I wrote about my hopes to mesh the traditional definition of business success with philanthropic social entrepreneurship. Over the years, I found myself most drawn to the education world, where I felt my impact could be most meaningful. I led both for- and non-profit ed companies, and one of the main reasons I ultimately joined Curriculum Associates in 2008 was because of their conscious focus and mission orientation and commitment to making business decisions that serve the best interest of students and teachers.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

When I first became CEO of Curriculum Associates, it was a sleepy print publishing company that had been deeply impacted by the recession. It was a very scary time for the industry — we kept seeing businesses go under, and I kept thinking “What did I get myself into?” As I came aboard, our revenues dipped well below our forecasts. Banks stopped giving out loans, and customers (schools and districts) ran out of funds to purchase anything. I worried we were going to run out of money in as little as six months, and I feared the 40-year-old company I’d just assumed leadership of wasn’t going to make it.

Most companies during the recession were focused on keeping their head down and staying the course while cutting expenditures as much as possible. However, I saw an opportunity for change. After all, the status quo certainly wasn’t working, so why double down on something that’s failing? Instead, I took a long-term approach and decided to invest our product development resources into digital. Every bit of sales money was funneled into building our tech program. In the meantime, I became a relentless recruiter and gathered the best tech talent. At a time when most employers were only thinking short-term, our long-term focus set us apart and attracted world-class tech talent searching for a stable place that would allow them to reach their full potential and see their projects through.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

I’d say it was our long-term, conscious approach and focus on recruiting the best of the best.

I’ve learned first-hand through leading Curriculum Associates that taking a long-term view can drive huge gains for your company and the people you serve. It put us in the ideal position to break new ground in the education industry, bringing us back from the financial brink and full-force into the digital age. Add a conscious mindset to that, and you’ll be surprised how many win-win opportunities emerge when you shift your mindset from “How do I make the most money” to “How can I best serve those around me?” Through actions such as voluntarily raising our minimum wage to 15 dollars/hour and donating majority shares of our company to charity, we’ve seen an increase in employee retention and remarkably high rates of employee satisfaction. And with our focus on recruiting the best of the best, we certainly want to do everything we can to retain our talent! After all, if you don’t have the smartest people working with you, you’re never going to win.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

1 . Be humble and open-minded.

In my first management position at a test prep center, I found myself assigned to a task I had no idea how to start. I realized that my employees’ first-hand knowledge of the center was a huge asset, so sought them out. By simply listening to their suggestions, we doubled sales.

If you want to succeed as CEO, you need to admit that your ideas aren’t always going to be the best in the room.

2 . You’re only as strong as your team.

A workplace is only as strong as its weakest link, and that’s why I devote more than half of my time to recruitment and getting the right talent on board. To the educators we serve, each individual in our organization represents the whole of who we are, and it’s critical to ensure that each person truly embodies your values and commitment. But recruitment is only a piece of building a strong team — you also need to focus on retention. Listen to your employees, their collective and individual needs, and meet them. Whether that requires an internal culture shift, providing flexible working options, or reassessing your pay structure, create a purpose-filled workplace that enables your employees to thrive.

3 . Continuously seek out feedback

Oftentimes, becoming CEO means you no longer get performance reviews. Sounds nice, but trust me when I say it’s the last thing you want. My advice? Solicit feedback from your employees!

In my case, I invite all 1400+ of my employees to rate my job performance in an anonymous, company-wide survey every single year. The results are then reported to the entire company with no filter. This isn’t always easy, but it holds me accountable and keeps me growing into a more effective leader every day.

4 . Keep Your Eyes Set on the Future

Don’t get me wrong, short term goals are important, but long-term goals are even more vital. Instead of quarterly earning goals, focus on long-term sustainability, talent management, and innovation investment, and you’ll find yourself standing tall among the ruins of challenges that would have toppled companies with short-term mindsets.

5 . Remember that Profit isn’t Everything

Curriculum Associates is heavily mission-focused, and this attracts employees that are truly driven and committed to making a difference through our work. When you have happy, dedicated employees, profits follow. So put people before profit, be charitable, and focus on all of your stakeholders, not just your shareholders. You’ll find your customer and employee loyalty grows by leaps and bounds, leading to much more success than a myopic profit focus would yield.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Spend the majority of your time hiring the right people. I once heard someone say it’s easier to be an outstanding recruiter and an average manager than it is to be an outstanding manager and an average recruiter. Hiring is the most important decision a CEO can make, and prioritizing it will do wonders to prevent the burnout that comes from the stress of constantly having to oversee every tiny detail for less stellar employees.

People forget to do the math around the cost of recruitment. For example, if I have a company with 100 people and they stay with the company for five years on average, that means I will need 20 new employees each year. If the company is growing at 10%, I’ll need not only the 20 replacements for those who left, but also another 10 new employees to account for the company growth the first year. That only continues to compound. After only 2 years, almost half the people in my company will be new, and it’s critical those are the right people, or else your company will be fundamentally changed in a very short amount of time.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

The superintendent at my high school really helped me to focus on the future and set goals for myself. One day, he was honest with me and told me I was smart but underperforming, and that he knew I could do better. His mentorship and high expectations changed me from a difficult student to a straight A, Dean’s List student at Northwestern University, and altered the trajectory of my future.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

Personally, my wife and I deeply believe in the power of early education, as it is such a key time of development for children. We continue to do whatever we can to support the early education sector and the teachers and others who serve it.

Professionally, I’m deeply interested in the cross between data science and how it can inform discrete moments of instruction to create more equity in the world. We’re not there yet, but the goal is to drive the company to point that we can identify things as granular as, for example, boys on free lunch in Massachusetts are not doing well with this specific piece of content. We can then determine how best to adjust that content to make it more equitable.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

K-12 education is both a great challenge and a great opportunity. While the government is mostly responsible for improving and educating children, there is so much that entrepreneurs can do to help. Through Curriculum Associates, I hope to leave the legacy of a business that truly helps children to succeed.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

I believe character and integrity are the most important qualities in a society. For all of us — but especially for those in a leadership capacity, we need to aim for 100% integrity in everything we do.

For CEOs and those in similar positions, one way we effectively steward the power and influence we’ve been given is by serving others with integrity, making this our primary motivation. We need more leaders who stick to this goal instead of cutting corners at the cost of others. Profit and generosity are not opposites, but instead should be complementary.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Curriculum Associates Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/curriculumassociates

Curriculum Associates Twitter: @CurriculumAssoc

Curriculum Associates Instagram: @curriculum_associates

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NORTH BILLERICA, MA - OCTOBER 20: Curriculum Associates CEO Rob Waldron poses for a portrait at the company's offices in North Billerica, Mass., October 20, 2015.  The company voluntarily increased the company's lowest hourly rate to $15/hour. (Photo by Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
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