Originally published in Psychology Today – July 18th, 2023.
“I would rather sign a great recruit today than win a $1 million order.”
- Many leaders focus on the “things” that appear urgent and allocate most of their time accordingly.
- Others choose to focus on “who” is on the team, allocating most of their time to hiring and developing people.
- CEO Rob Waldron shifted from “chasing the what” to “solving the who,” achieving extraordinary results.
In 2008, Rob Waldron joined a small workbook company with a big mission—and big challenges.
When Waldron joined as CEO, Curriculum Associates (CA) was a print-only educational workbook company. He said, “A few concerns reared up immediately: We only had 82 days of cash left. We were entirely print with no digital offerings in a world that was rapidly digitizing. And the products that we had were based on standards that were going away—that meant the materials we’d created were going to be obsolete due to new Common Core Standards.”
Like many CEOs, Waldron had a calendar filled to the brim with meetings about products, customers, operations, and finance—all the normal categories you would expect to find on a CEO’s planner. He had been obsessing about the “what” in operations on a daily basis: tracking goals, progress reviews, process design, process management, and of course winning new customer accounts.
“Execution was my focus back then—making sure things were getting done. We had a bold vision for our company: to make classrooms better places by providing the very best educational tools to students and teachers nationwide. But I had this pit in my stomach. I knew my current approach to managing the organization was not going to allow us to fulfill our full potential.”
Waldron was searching for a better way to reach more students and teachers and fulfill the mission of CA.
In 2008, Waldron attended a Young Presidents Organization (YPO) keynote speech by consultants from ghSMART, the global leadership advisory and analytics firm I founded in 1995. “It was a lightbulb moment,” Waldron said.
He recalled, “Your team said it’s easier to be successful as a CEO if you are an outstanding recruiter and average manager than if you are an average recruiter and an outstanding manager. It’s a decision to focus less on the ‘what’ part of the job and focus obsessively on the ‘who.’ That day, I decided to shift my focus away from the endless things that take up time and instead to focus intensely on getting the talent right. I knew we had extraordinary goals for the company, and we needed more extraordinary talent to achieve them.”
Solving the Who
In the 15 years that followed Waldron’s shift from “what” to “who,” the positive social impact of his organization has expanded tremendously. The company now serves 12 million students and their educators, supporting meaningful learning gains and advancing more equitable outcomes for over a third of K–8 students nationwide.
Employee count has grown from 100 to over 2,000, and Curriculum Associates has been honored for their culture by being recognized as a Top Place to Work by the Boston Globe for nine years running. This growth in impact mirrors the growth in the company’s value—from 2008 to today, CA’s revenues have increased 25-fold.
So how did Waldron and Curriculum Associates succeed? Practically speaking, this meant making three shifts.
1. Shift from “managing” to “recruiting.” Waldron said, “I changed my focus 100%. It went from focusing on the many things going on in the business to focusing intensely on the next three hires. Getting those three right became all that mattered.”
Waldron has countless stories of critical team members whose decision to join CA advanced the organization’s impact, and the efforts he went to in finding the just-right fit. “As we were moving into the edtech space, I interviewed a CTO candidate who was about to become CTO at a large, known company. During the interview process, the candidate said, ‘Let me get this straight: You want me to take this workbook company and make it a tech company. And you don’t have any money?’ Despite this, he was convinced that he should use his life for purpose, and I hired him to oversee our transformation into an educational technology leader over the next decade.”
Over the years, Waldron has developed creative ways to identify top talent. “With many senior leadership candidates, I invite them to go on a walk on a dirt road with me. And the better they are, the longer we walk. If I’m turning around before the two-mile mark, they are not the right person. But if we go to the four-mile mark, I know I want to hire them.”
2. Shift from “deciding” to “delegating.” In focusing on the “who,” Waldron had to overcome his micromanaging tendencies. By shifting from deciding to delegating, he could allocate a great deal of his time to sourcing and hiring talented colleagues, embracing an “always be recruiting” orientation.
Going forward, he decided, “I’m only going to micromanage two things: the first is approving every single hire myself. I did 438 interviews last year. Weekends, whenever, I am always interviewing. Second, I micromanage the values of the company. I came to see, as this really started working, that if I was intensely focused on the next few hires, they would make the best decisions. The next three people—that’s the mantra. That’s what matters most.”
3. Shift from “process-building” to “culture-building.” Waldron knew that a prerequisite to attracting and hiring top talent is ensuring that CA is a place they’d want to join. This means fostering a culture of belonging and a connection to mission, upholding strong values, and focusing on inclusion.
Building culture through hiring means taking the time to genuinely understand what a person wants and needs at work, and hiring people who will likely achieve their personal goals at the company. Supporting that momentum by creating opportunities for professional learning and career growth has been critical to retention efforts and ensuring team members are fulfilled, challenged, and engaged.
In building a strong culture, Waldron points to other tactics that matter. “When you interview thousands of people, you have to treat everybody well—that means the seven out of eight people you don’t hire. Tell people where they stand in the selection process, and be professional throughout—no ghosting people. It goes a long way, and word travels about your culture.” Indeed, based on hundreds of anonymous reviews, Glassdoor has awarded CA a “Best Place to Work” top spot, two years in a row.
Reinforcing culture occasionally means making hard decisions swiftly, and in keeping with the company’s values of integrity, transparency, and honesty. Waldron said, “For example, if somebody lied, they would not get written up. They would be removed immediately.”
Waldron was named a “Best CEO for Women,” among other distinctions, for building a healthy, successful work culture. He said, “Being a great employer means you have to be a great place to work for all of your employees and treat people with grace.
“An emotional shift for me happened when I realized I would rather sign a great recruit today than win a $1 million order. Sustaining our growth and increasing our impact is all about prioritizing talent.”
Fifteen years after committing to this shift, Waldron’s focus on talent continues to power the company’s growth. Today, the company’s 2,000-plus mission-focused team members are delivering world-class products and service to more and more students each year, fueling industry-leading R&D reinvestment and advancing learning outcomes for children nationwide.
How common is this “extreme talent-focused” approach to management? Waldron said, “I would estimate that only 10% of executives manage this way. The shift happens in not only your calendar and how you spend your time, but in your heart. You know you are doing it right when you are more excited to hire a superstar recruit than close a new account. The superstar recruit will do much more to help you fulfill your vision for the company and make a positive impact than any sale.”
About Curriculum Associates and Rob Waldron
Curriculum Associates is the K-12 edtech publisher of programs like i-Ready that personalize learning and support measurable gains for all students. CA’s Glassdoor ranking is #1 in the edtech industry. Rob Waldron has served as CEO since 2008.
About ghSMART and Dr. Geoff Smart
ghSMART is a global leadership advisory and analytics firm. It exists to help leaders amplify their positive impact on the world. ghSMART’s Glassdoor ranking is #1 in the Consulting industry. Geoff Smart is chairman and founder of ghSMART and is the New York Times bestselling author of Who and Power Score