When Rob Waldron became CEO of Curriculum Associates, a workbook company that then released only printed materials, the business appeared to be on the verge of collapse. It was running out of money and failing to keep up with the digitizing world of education.
Waldron was able to completely turn the company around. Under his leadership between 2008 and 2023, the company’s revenue increased 25-fold. How did he do it?
Waldron claims that his success was the result of one simple shift: he started focusing on the “who” of business as opposed to the “what.”
Here’s a closer look at what that means and how you can apply Waldron’s philosophy to help your own business succeed.
If you ask a CEO what they focus on during the workday, their answers will likely include the following processes:
As you can see, this is a very process-driven approach. There’s a lot of focus on what’s being done, but not on who’s doing it.
That approach might be logical if people were robots. But not all employees offer you equal value.
Imagine this scenario: you hire two people to manage your customer accounts. One is lively, engaged, and dedicated to going above and beyond to help your customers get exactly what they’re looking for. The other is apathetic and sometimes even outright rude to your customers.
The first employee adds value to your business. Their helpful attitude will help retain customers (and might even encourage them to refer their friends). The second employee may actually damage your company. Customers may go elsewhere if they’re made to deal with a rude account manager.
If unhappy customers mention their negative experiences to enough people, your business’s reputation might suffer.
If you’re laser-focused on processes, you might miss the fact that one of your employees is harming your company. However, if you focus primarily on people, you’ll be able to staff your business with people like the first employee.
A people-first approach doesn’t only mean focusing on hiring the right talent. It also means that you’re looking out for your employees’ best interests. That ultimately helps your bottom line.
When your employees feel appreciated and supported, they’ll often do their best to help your company. They’re also more likely to stay on longer, so you save money on recruiting and training costs.
So how exactly do you begin to shift your focus from things to people? Waldron noted that to really transform his company, he had to effectively make three smaller shifts:
If you want to focus on people, you first need to attract quality talent. And if you want to attract quality talent, you need to make sure that your company is a place where high-quality employees actually want to work.
Here are some ways to do that:
Building a great culture can have benefits that reach beyond your immediate workplace.
For example, Waldron notes that he emphasizes showing respect for every single person he interviews — even the ones he doesn’t hire.
Over time, that kind of respect can build up your business’s reputation for the better.
Many company leaders pour their energy into managing the employees they already have. That’s certainly important, but if you get the hiring and recruiting part right, you don’t have to invest so much time in management.
As a leader, you have a vision for your company. But keep in mind that you can’t single-handedly carry out that vision. You need the help of dedicated, motivated employees. The right hires can make the difference between achieving your goals and falling short.
So how do you make sure you’re hiring the very best of your applicant pool? You might have your own litmus test, but in general, it’s wise to look at an applicant holistically. Looking great on paper is one thing, but is the person a fit for your company culture? Do their values align with the company’s mission? Do they have the passion and drive you want to see?
Many company owners and leaders struggle with micromanaging or trying to take on too many responsibilities. Often, that comes from a belief that if the leader doesn’t do it, it won’t be done right.
If you want to focus on a people-first culture, you’ll need to delegate more tasks. Of course, this means you need to make sure you can trust every single one of your employees to make good decisions.
When you delegate tasks, you free up more of your own time to focus on leader-specific activities — including recruiting. Waldron says that he has a philosophy of always recruiting, and he insists on approving every single new employee himself. That way, he can personally verify that the employee is going to improve the company.
He chooses to always focus on the next three hires. This is an approach that works beautifully for an evolving company. If you’re constantly assessing the company’s changing needs, you can also be constantly on the lookout for new employees to meet those needs.
Shifting to a people-centered approach might be simple, but it isn’t necessarily easy. Waldron notes that to really focus on the “who,” you need to do more than shift your business practices — you need to undergo a mental shift as well.
It might take some time to adjust the way you do things, and it may take even more time for this new mindset to trickle down to the rest of the company. But as you’ll surely discover, focusing on people first will give you better profits and a happier workforce.