Three Questions, Three Lessons

July 20, 2016

Before joining the great Werth team, I worked, for the last 20 plus years, for an educational publisher (now known as a learning science company). Working in education means that you are partners with former teachers who are usually patient and kind and celebrate the holidays by wearing delightful sweaters. Working in education means that on any given day you get to debate the proper use of a comma, or the right image to portray a scientific concept. Working in education also means that what you do is meaningful and can improve society.

As a senior executive, however, my job was a bit more complicated than simply embracing our educational mission.  I was expected to develop and implement clear business strategies tied to organizational goals. While the process for developing a marketing strategy is not exactly simple, my starting point was.  And it involved asking myself three crucial questions:

1. Who are our competitors? 

When I began my career in education as an assistant editor in social studies, there were three big publishers. We knew our competitors and saw their products at every trade show, presentation and school we visited. Today school administrators can find curricula from many sources – the “big three” are still the big three (with some changes here and there) – but now there are hundreds of tech startups, online resources and free resources, also known as OER (open educational resources).

Lesson: Staying ahead of – or better yet, leading – marketplace innovation is critical in today’s competitive environment.

2. What makes us different from our competitors?

In the old days (the 1990s and early 2000s), we talked about the “thud factor” when presenting our programs. We created beautiful textbooks, but we also created 30-50 ancillaries that went with those textbooks, including CD-ROMs/DVDs and online resources. When our sales team placed the “box of stuff” on the purchaser’s table, we wanted to have the biggest “thud.” That loud thud meant we had lots of great materials.

In today’s world, the “thud” doesn’t matter; only results matter. What really matters is whether a third grader reads effectively, whether a sixth grader is engaged by science (or math, history, etc.), and whether a high school graduate is adequately prepared for college and/or career.

Lesson: Innovation is exciting, but it’s worthless without results.

3. What are our keys to success?

This was another way of asking what our strategy was for achieving our objectives that week, that month, that year. The strategy had to be broken down into tactics and metrics. This seems rather fundamental, but our days were filled with many distractions. I asked the team to ensure that most of their time (about 80 to 90 percent) was spent on their keys to success. It is easy to drift through days tackling the tasks that don’t make a dent in major objectives.

Lesson: Success takes both personal and organizational discipline.

In this new phase of my career, I don’t expect that my new big questions will be vastly different from my old ones. But what will be different is that I will be sharing them with our clients as we work together, to tackle the challenges of a complicated, and sometimes bewildering, marketplace.

by Jaya Yoo, Senior Vice President, Paul Werth Associates