4 lessons from a decade as CEO and how to apply them to your own company
In the current business landscape, the chief executive seat is often held by leaders with short-term outlooks who move from one company to the next. According to a recent Equilar study, the median tenure for CEOs at large-cap (S&P 500) companies was just 5 years at the end of 2017.
This year marks a milestone in my career—10 years as CEO of Boston-area education technology company Curriculum Associates. When I started during the financial crash of 2008 (a likely indicator of a short tenure if there ever was one!), the company’s chairman presented me with a contract with 20-year terms. I thought he was insane. Today at the halfway mark, I realize how wrong I was, as this long-term commitment is our company’s strongest competitive advantage.
I’ve identified a few lessons to help other leaders rethink the urge to play musical chairs and instead focus on making meaningful impact by digging in for the long haul. If you’re starting out in a new leadership role or thinking about making a move, here’s some perspective from a 10-year (and counting) veteran:
1. Hire (and keep) good people
One of the most important things I’ve learned from leading with a long-term lens is that hiring one stellar recruit is far more exciting—and valuable—than landing a massive order. I’ve seen time and time again that our people are our most valuable asset and key to sustainable success. This lesson was hammered home for me when chatting with a district superintendent (with whom we have a multi-million-dollar contract) who told me plainly, “I love your company, but if [my account manager] Mike leaves, I’m going with him.” Our people and the trusted relationships they nurture are what set us apart, and I’ll choose a Mike over a million dollars every time.
I believe in hiring people, not filling positions, so I spend more than 50 percent of my time as CEO recruiting and hiring talented individuals that are not only the best fit for the role, but also the best fit for our values and culture. As a result, we‘ve had remarkably low turnover (less than 8 percent), and the average length of stay for employees is over 13 years.
2. Listen… and do what they say
I believe great CEOs are those who listen best, encourage employees to advocate for what’s needed, and then (most importantly) don’t screw it up.
I learned early in my career that in any organization, the people who know the most are those actually doing the work. In my first leadership role at Kaplan Educational Centers, I was thrown into their worst performing center. Quite frankly, I was scared, and I asked the office coordinator what I should do. Long story short, Gloria knew best, and I can only take credit for having the wisdom to listen to her. Implementing her practical ideas led our turnaround, and within months we saw a 50 percent increase in sales.
At Curriculum Associates, I take listening one step further, inviting every employee to participate anonymously in my annual review. I’ll be honest, sometimes their feedback is hard to hear, but I report the results to the entire company nonetheless. I also require that the board tie a portion of my bonus to employee satisfaction scores. This process has helped me become a better leader, and employees know their input is heard.
3. Go in with a long-term outlook
A decade ago, I joined a sleepy print publishing company that was deeply impacted by the market crash. A CEO looking to spend a quick couple of years pumping profits would have been well advised to run for the hills.
I found that during these tough times, it mattered most to our employees and customers that I was in it for the long run. The assurance that “I’m staying through this” at a time when other companies were shedding employees and anxiety levels were high set the tone for a stable, future-focused workplace. Our team doubled-down on long-term strategy, developing new solutions from scratch and bringing the company into the digital age without taking on debt. As a result, we grew during the downturn while competitors grasped at short-sighted solutions. Since that time, we’ve seen exponential growth, today serving more than 7 million K-12 students across the country
4. Take a conscious approach
My first job after college was at Morgan Stanley in New York City. After work, I’d lose the suit and volunteer at a local homeless shelter. It was in this environment, working with folks committed to societal change during the height of the crack epidemic, that I understood the power of purpose. Organizations driven by values and not solely by their bottom line will always work harder, making them difficult to compete against. When your customers and employees see this commitment, they will stay with you.
One of the main things that drew me to Curriculum Associates was the fact that a focus on giving had been baked into their corporate structure from the start. The great honor of my career came last year, when I managed the gift of majority ownership of our company and proceeds of approximately $200 million to charity. Historic philanthropy at this scale is not realistic for most businesses, and I’ve learned that prioritizing good corporate citizenship does not simply mean writing big checks. Service at our company takes many forms, from our voluntary decision to raise the company’s minimum wage to $15/hour to pairing every customer with a dedicated support team. Working with leaders across sectors through organizations like Conscious Capitalism, I’ve seen how a purpose-first approach shapes culture and can be a company’s greatest competitive advantage.
As with any long-term adventure, these 10 years as CEO at Curriculum Associates have been trying at times… but thrilling and fulfilling more times than I can count. It’s been the best decade of my career so far, and I can’t wait to see what the next 10 years will bring.
Rob Waldron is a speaker at our upcoming Conscious Capitalism Annual Conference taking place April 23-25 in Phoenix, AZ. Visit conference.consciouscapitalism.org to learn more and register.