An Organizational Effectiveness Model for Private Sector Education

By David J. Waldron

People Before Vision: Modeling Jim Collins’ Good to Great® Paradox
In his seminal book, Good to Great (Harper Business), Jim Collins and his research team studied organizations who had transformed from merely good companies to great, legendary enterprises.  The team found several common denominators that were shared by each company studied.   Many of these shared traits were paradoxical or counter to conventional wisdom.  Whereas business books are typically a dime a dozen, Good to Great is considered by many as one of the best ever written.  I am in that camp, and therefore have chosen these key concepts as the basis of this blogpost of A Great Place to Learn & Earn™ to demonstrate how private sector education schools and companies can make the leap to greatness.

First Who, Then What?

This initial concept is perhaps the most paradoxical of Collins’ conclusions.  He found that great companies first hired the best talent they could find and afford, and then let their people collectively determine the vision and mission of the organization.  In other words, let the great people you hire collectively create the culture of the company.  Here is how Collins’ creatively translated this concept of first who, then what, into a believable concept:

He envisioned the successful organization as driving a bus down a highway not really knowing where it is ultimately journeying but certainly to a place of greatness:

  1. First get the right people on the bus
  2. Then get the wrong people off the bus
  3. Next put the right people in the right seats
  4. And then let the right people in the right seats figure out where to drive the bus

This is a powerful concept and frankly rarely found in today’s employment climate, private sector education being no exception in general.  Vision is often set at the top, and then talent is sought to “fit in” to the culture of that vision.  But does it work?

To test the typical vision first, people second culture found in most organizations today; simply ask a highly regarded employee or co-worker what they think of your organization’s vision and culture.  Political correctness notwithstanding, you should expect a generally positive albeit brief and to-the-point answer.  But then ask the same person what they would like to see added/deleted to the published vision and culture.  I guarantee their time spent answering your follow-up question will far exceed the first.  This is where the concept of people first manifests itself, as motivated employees want to be a harbinger of the vision as opposed to simply a follower of it.

So how do we find outstanding, self-disciplined employees and co-workers?

Interview for Greatness

Hire people (or gravitate if not in a hiring capacity) who are disciplined in their own right. I have long observed the second you need to micro manage someone, you have made a hiring mistake. But what if we manage systems, not people? Collins found this as a superior approach because when you have disciplined people, you do not need hierarchy. When you have disciplined thought, you do not need bureaucracy. When you have disciplined action, you do not need excessive controls.  In the great companies he researched, these hiring practices came before any deep analyzing of otherwise required credentials and practical skills.

To demonstrate a real world example of putting discipline and commitment ahead of credentials, I once ran a career college where I had stopped counting how many times students would tell me that a particular faculty member was the best teacher they ever had going back to kindergarten.  This instructor was a disciplinarian, but in a kind, dedicated, and thoughtful manner, and the students respected her for the consistency.  She was a born teacher, yet never took her natural talent for granted always working hard and going above and beyond for her students without letting them off the hook.  In the eyes of students, peers, and administrators, she was simply the best.

However, in pursuing regional accreditation (to replace our national accreditation), although this instructor was highly educated, including a bachelor’s degree from an Ivy League institution in the subject matter she taught, the accreditation visiting team determined she would no longer be eligible to teach certain courses because her master’s degree was not in the same field as required by the standards.  Best teacher ever, but not the right credential.  I wanted to give a copy of Good to Great to each member of the accreditation team.          

Coincidentally, this same great instructor possessed four personality traits that I discovered in my years as a hiring manager in private sector education often predicated success or failure of employees in career training environments:

Four Common Traits of Successful Private Sector Education Employees

  • Assertive (values oriented communicator)
  • Self-directed (performs with limited or no supervision)
  • Other-directed (genuinely customer focused)
  • Work Ethic (dedication and character)

The two immutable keys to the four traits of a successful private sector educator are (1) the employee must possess all four with some significance, and (2) the qualities must be discovered in the hiring process because they cannot be taught.

Let’s take a look at all four traits:

Assertive does not mean aggressive.  Conversely, ethically assertive professionals demonstrate a strong capacity for communicating well with a focus on values and problem-solving.  In the formal interview ask the candidate to tell you a story of how they recognized and solved a pressing problem in the workplace.  Their answer will tell you a ton (or little) about their professional assertiveness.  Then take them on a tour of your campus or office building to see how they naturally interact with staff and/or students.  Behold successful education and training environments, particularly those with challenged demographics, require ethical assertiveness.

Self-directed, commonly referred as self-motivated, or how disciplined the employee is when left with limited supervision. But don’t ask the candidate direct questions about their self-motivation as good interviewers (not necessarily good employees) will have prepared answers they know you want to hear.  Instead challenge them with questions about specific projects or job duties they were forced to complete on their own.  Listen to how confident, or not, they were in tackling and completing tasks at work, even unpopular ones.

Other-directed, also referred as customer service, is becoming a dinosaur in today’s commerce.  But do not confuse this with simply outgoing, friendly personalities as a majority of people in today’s society, and therefore workplaces, are extraverted.  What we actually need are caring and motivated professionals (including introverts) who are genuinely about taking care of the customer whether a student, employer, co-worker, or regulator.  During the hiring process observe and/or ask how the candidate perceives their role in teaching or serving students and other stakeholders.  The answer should invariably be I love doing this so much, getting paid (fairly) for it is merely a bonus!

Work Ethic is probably the one trait most often associated with “you can’t teach that.”  But work ethic is more than just showing up on time, putting in the necessary effort to get the job done, and being responsible for your workload.  It is also about character and self-discipline.  Taking responsibility, avoiding impulsive behavior, and being one who takes the high road are also common in those with a sound work ethic.  Interview questions here are simple: “Bring me through a typical workday from arrival to departure.” “Tell me about the last time you were in an unexpected confrontation with a customer or co-worker.  How did you handle it?”  Get to the character of the candidate.      

Lead and/or Follow with Professional Will and Personal Humility

Whether we approach our work as a leader or a follower (both are needed for a successful team) Collins’ discovered the great organizations and their people exhibit uncommon workplace habits where they:
  • Focus equally on what to do, what not to do, and what to stop doing
  • Take credit for bad performance while giving credit when things go well
  • Lead with questions, not answers
  • Engage in dialogue and debate, not coercion
  • Conduct necessary autopsies fixated on solutions, not blame
Imagine a corporate office or campus with a culture that allows processes to be questioned; takes responsibility when things don’t go as well as planned; doesn’t always have the answers, but often engages with questioning to empower as opposed to stymie; facilitates open dialogue in problem solving; and investigates issues for resolution instead of culpability.  What if there were no written warnings, no annual performance reviews, no bible long rules of conduct, no wrenching restructurings and cost-cutting, or other silly things that paralyze more than stimulate an organization?  What if companies were actually run by managers and their teams, not by well-intended but sometimes destructive legal and human resources departments? Collins’ great companies were great because they first hired and nurtured disciplined people, and then let those people drive the bus to greatness. 

Confront the Brutal Facts, and then Do the Right Thing

Collins also found that companies that made the leap from good to great, had a consistent belief in their ability to succeed in the end. He believes that if companies do their due diligence and gather all of the facts, the right path will often unfold right in front of them.

His terrific analogy is of a large flywheel that takes relentless pushing to get it to turn over even once, but after pushing in the same direction over time it starts to gain momentum until it is a very powerful force on its own. Collins contends that Good to Great transformations never happen overnight. They are the result of years of persistence. It might look dramatic and revolutionary from the outside, but on the inside it is more of an organic, ongoing development process.

A Culture of Discipline, in a Caring Environment

This concept from Good to Great is perhaps the most naturally aligned with private sector education. The great companies almost unilaterally possess self-disciplined work environments countered with a caring culture focused on the well-being of its people (employees and customers.)  Similarly, our graduates’ employers expect a disciplined learning platform as we prepare our students to be their future entry level recruits or promotions.  And our students expect a caring environment of trust and compassion, something not necessarily experienced in their upbringings and personal lives.

Collins says “When you combine a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship, you get the magic alchemy of great results.”  I think private sector education, in general, can proudly declare itself a culture of discipline in a caring environment.  Despite recent challenges and headwinds, we must never stray from this strong and universally evident industry-wide foundation.

Drive Your Economic Engine

Enrollment + Graduation + Gainful Employment = Profit

In Collins’ book, the good to great companies commonly recognized and drove their economic engines, the ultimate achievement for being in existence as a company in the first place.  During my three decades in the workplace, it became apparent to me how easily people and organizations get sidetracked from the economic mission, often the founding purpose of a company.

For private sector education, successfully thrusting its economic engine is arguably as simple as enrollment + graduation + job placement = profit.  But this formula for success has no room for predatory recruiting, grade inflation, or minimal job placement standards.  In other words, a caring disciplined environment focused on doing the right thing by hiring and retaining employees that recruit, train, support, and fully outplace qualified students to the benefit of all stakeholders including the student, the employer, the regulator, the shareholder, and the public at large.

Understanding and driving your company’s economic engine is the fundamental requirement of a successful organization.  Ignore or compromise your engine, and it will seize.

What Can Your Campus (or Company) Be the Best in the World At?

This question was often a central theme to the great companies in Collins’ research.  The successful companies want to know the one big audacious thing the organization can understand and stick to; what does or can the organization do or use as its core solution to competitive threats and changes in the industry (think gainful employment.)  What must we be deeply passionate about, best in the world at, and able to make a profit or surplus by doing so?

I challenge all readers, regardless of whether you are affiliated with a campus, regional division, corporate office, regulatory agency, investor, or perhaps employed outside of private sector education, to engage your colleagues by asking the question, what can we be the best in the world at?  You might be amazed by the passionate contributions to this exercise.

People before vision puts great people on the bus who will drive it on a successful journey that strives to benefit all interested stakeholders.  And I say journey as opposed to destination, as a voyage of greatness will endure far beyond any finite endpoint.

In the spirit of Good to Great, you and your organization deserve to be on a journey of greatness.  Be committed first to hiring and retaining the best people possible. Show up every day with professional will complimented by personal humility. Regularly confront reality and always do the right thing. Drive a culture of discipline, in a caring way. Remain forever focused on your economic engine. Work tirelessly to turn that flywheel until it spins in perpetuity.  Ultimately recognize what you and your coworkers do well.  And then simply be the best in the world at it.  

Next in the series, A Great Place to Learn & Earn:  Blogpost 103: Nurturing a Consensus Driven Student Centric Environment

Copyright 2014 David J. Waldron.  All Rights Reserved.

GOOD TO GREAT – Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t.  Copyright © 2001 by Jim Collins.  Published by Harper Business (imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.) For more information visit:

Thank You for Reading to A Great Place to Learn & Earn 
Your actionable interest in this organizational effectiveness model for private sector education is recognized and sincerely appreciated.

The mission of the A Great Place to Learn & Earn is to provide superior reader benefit from a greater understanding and appreciation of the important and valuable, but often misunderstood and controversial private sector education industry.  It is perhaps a reminder of what we already know, but any positive takeaway by readers is cherished and humbling.

In order to support continual improvement of blogs and expert advisory through interactive involvement, readers are strongly encouraged to provide comments within this blog page and/or submit any and all feedback, questions, and suggestions to

For in depth discussion and review of the principles of organizational effectiveness in A Great Place to Learn & Earn and/or to learn more about the private sector education industry via expert advisory, readers are encouraged to visit the SiteLock® secure website, write, or call +1 401-441-5300 for information without obligation.

David Waldron, Author
A Great Place to Learn & Earn
November 21, 2014


An Organizational Effectiveness Model for Private Sector Education

By David J Waldron

Making a Living, Making a Difference

Introduction to A Great Place to Learn & Earn

In private sector education, unlike virtually all other businesses and organizations, after we sell our customer (enroll a student) we spend the next one to four+ years in the same building and/or online forum with that customer.

During job conversations with family and friends, they often talk about customers and clients who are mostly at arms-length via e-mail, phone, webinar, plane/train/automobile, or, at the closest, a brief visit to their retail establishment.  To the contrary, at a private sector school, college, or university, we spend our workday in the presence of our student customer albeit in the classroom, office, hallway, or on-line platform.  Invariably, it can be an emotional and physical drain countered by an almost unexplainable yet exhilarating feeling of doing a job with a calling far above its monetary reward of a paycheck and benefits package.  We are making a living by making a difference. 

And yes, our employer is making a profit by making a difference. But the common denominator is making a difference in the lives of our students who have entrusted us with their valuable time, tuition dollars, and dream of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.  Likewise, whether private investor or shareholder; corporate executive or staffer; campus administrator, faculty, or staff; vendor or employer; or accreditor or regulator, we go to work in large part to provide a better life for ourselves and our families.  To offer anything less to our students is simply duplicitous and insincere.  They deserve better as students, and frankly we are accountable to them being stakeholders in the public interest.

It is well documented these are challenging times in private sector education.  Federal and state regulators, traditional educators, and the mainstream media have collectively painted our sector as a singular bad actor.  But we know we are an industry of passionate, ethical, difference makers who have been sidestepped by a few bad actors who deserve no place in our precious profession of career focused education that serves potentially ~60% of Americans with a high school education, but less than a college degree.  Our sector’s higher education providers potentially serve the other ~25% pursuing advanced degrees and certificates in a convenient student-centered platform. 

We may know who the bad actors are, in the minority nonetheless, but it is in our best interest to wish them away (or whistle blow, if appropriate) before the government does.  Bad actors prevail in all industries.  But in a public interest field like postsecondary education they stand out like alleged criminals in a square of Medieval Europe awaiting their fate at the hands of every day citizens.  Our sector’s recent attempt to solve its problems by voting on party lines is not the answer and never was frankly.  Playing the game right, is.

I believe in private sector education.  Always have and will.  My late father once told me ‘for-profit or non-profit, always remember it is ultimately about the money.’  So I will once again follow his sage advice and not get caught up in the debate about profit making in education other than a successful organization in our society is deemed prosperous because it is making surplus dollars from favorable customer experiences.  Only its tax status determines whether the surplus is shared internally (non-profit) or universally (for-profit.)  In either case the community wins.  Of course, it is never as fruitful when organizations lose money because of eroding customer confidence.  Profit or non-profit, the organization, its stakeholders, and its surrounding community each pay a price for operational and/or financial failure.

But in the current regulatory climate, including the struggles with high tuition and corresponding student loan debt (issues hampering traditional education as well,) it is incumbent upon stakeholders in private sector education to come together and stand for a mission we collectively believe in: an ethical, high quality, service oriented, outcomes focused, affordable education for the benefit of our fellow citizens seeking a better life through career focused training and job placement.

This blog is the inaugural post of a planned series.  My goal is to present A Great Place to Learn & Earn as an effective catalyst; a sustainable blue print of organizational effectiveness in for-profit, private sector education.  It culminates from more than two decades as a proud and successful veteran of this great industry where aspiring students and motivated stakeholders get to learn and earn from the benefits of career centered education.  Of late this learn & earn edict is being threatened by the pending Gainful Employment regulations from the U.S. Department of Education, curiously targeted at mostly for-profit institutions. When was the last time you met a traditional college student, perhaps yourself included, who denied their enrollment was all about career attainment aka gainful employment?  Nonetheless, I submit private sector education’s best days are ahead of us.  A shakeout regardless?  Perhaps, and possibly necessary to rid ourselves of the few bad apples that have brought unwanted attention and additional oversight - any inherent profit motive prejudice from of our opponents, notwithstanding.

In A Great Place to Learn & Earn I will strive to offer a simple yet provocative template for private sector education companies and institutions seeking to achieve and/or sustain a high quality (and profitable) organization by focusing on what is important for the success of students and other stakeholders.  As part of this series, future posts will include a blueprint for a paradoxical model of organizational and strategic effectiveness; nurturing positive classrooms and offices in a student centric environment; how to generate institutional quality from a culture more so than a vision; employing an operational model that delivers outstanding student and institutional outcomes; driving an economic model of mutually dependent engines; tactfully balancing the demands of six very interested stakeholders; adopting a leadership model that would make Abraham Lincoln proud;  recognizing a commitment paradigm that speaks to career achievement and not just for students;  implementing simple rules for everyday success on campus; and confronting what is arguably the most challenging aspect of being a role model in private sector education. I will conclude by presenting a white paper-esque blog of what private sector education’s critical role could be in 21st century workforce development.

But first, if I may, a brief autobiography about my multi-year tenure in private sector education.  I believe it is important to share my journey in order to more sincerely present future blogs with clarity and genuine intent.  I encourage you to read further in the hopes you will see yourself in my words, or better yet envision yourself as you move upward and onward in this great and noble profession.

A Journey of Professional Self-Discovery

My story of entering the for-profit education space dates back to the 1980’s.  As a recent college graduate at the time, I worked in several different fields seeking to find my professional way.  As Billy Crystal’s character laments in the 1991 comedy, City Slickers, – ‘my twenties were a blur.’

But as a young adult I yearned for a career where I could make a good living, but also make a difference in other people’s lives.  I remember originally applying to my undergraduate college as an environmental science major, you know makes a living by making a difference.  As a supposed naïve 18 year-old high school senior I attended the environmental studies’ faculty sponsored workshop on campus visitation day only to find, to my surprise, the projected job opportunities were testing water samples on off-shore oil rigs.  I remember thinking to myself, if I am going to work for Exxon I might as well spend my days in the comforts of an office building with probably a better paycheck.  I changed my major to business that very day.  Perhaps I was vulnerable if not naïve?  Regardless, I have no regrets.

Yet as I ventured through my blurry twenties, I longed for that elusive career juxtaposition of earning well by helping well.  My newly minted business mind evaluated the obvious opportunities.  Social worker?  Noble, but low paying. Selling widgets? Good pay, but low value proposition.  Physician? The ultimate highly paid difference maker, but I was probably not getting into medical school anytime soon.  Lawyer?  My late mother’s well-intended dream for my vocation, but as we would say in the New York area where I grew up…forgetaboutit!  My search for the perfect career continued unabated.

As fate would have it for a business professional with a mandatory subscription to Fortune magazine, I ran across a fascinating article in the late 1980’s on economic prognostications for the later 20th and early 21st centuries.  Predicting the future is problematic in general, but usually a fool’s game in economics and finance.  A fun read nonetheless.  What caught my eye in the article was a section committed to adult training, or how career education would be moving beyond the post-high school traditional college model and provide opportunities for students older than the typical 18-24 age group.  John Sperling’s start-up University of Phoenix and its degree completer education for working adults was used as one metaphor of examples in the article.  The difference maker was these institutions would expand beyond the limitations of traditional colleges and even make a profit doing it.

This was it!  The proverbial palm landed on my forehead.  I could make a good living, making a difference by offering career training opportunities to motivated adults.  Even pre-internet, I had read that only about one in four adult Americans had earned at least a bachelor’s degree.  More often than not, the college educated at the time came from privileged backgrounds.  They were lucky enough to pull the ‘long straw’ as legendary investor Warren Buffet reminds us.  What were the other 75% supposed to do?   Feel bad they were unlucky enough to pull the short straw, or do something about their fate?  They deserved a chance at the American Dream as much as anybody, I thought.  And if the Fortune article was right they would seek this adult training paradigm in droves.  Seven years after receiving my bachelor’s degree in business, albeit via an indirect environmental sciences pathway, I had decided on a career where I could make a living, making a difference.

No friend or family member called me to bring me in to this great opportunity called career education.  I had no connections I was aware of although six degrees of separation would ultimately land me my first job in the field.  It simply required my desire to make a living by making a difference, coupled with a coincidental subscription to the top business publication of the time.  But it would be three years before I realized my new found professional dream come true.

The Motivational Power of Turning 30…and Getting Married

In 1991 I was now in my early 30’s and engaged to marry my wife, Suzan.  It was time to realize my dream of making a living, making a difference.  If there was ever a moment to kick oneself into gear becoming a thirty-something and greeting the love of your life at the alter was the ultimate self-motivator.

One Sunday a help wanted ad jumped off the classified pages of the Newark Star-Ledger (yep it was still pre-internet) seeking an admissions representative for Katharine Gibbs School in Montclair, New Jersey.  When I called the director of admissions at the number listed to my utter surprise (unless you believe in fate) it was a gentleman who once worked in the same office building as I at the Jersey Shore.  He sold advertising for the local newspaper and I peddled top-40 bands to hotel cocktail lounges nationwide for an entertainment company.  Naturally the talent office was the hip place to gravitate, and he visited often demonstrating an unrelenting sense of humor and excellent sales skills.  I welcomed his comedic timing and loved to talk sales technique with him.  As fate would eventually dictate he gave me the job at Gibbs.

But it wasn’t as easy as it is all about who you know.  Prospective admissions reps at Gibbs had to pass a sales acuity test administered over the telephone by the Gallop Organization.  My call ended in ten minutes.  When I enthusiastically called my supposed future director of admissions to tell him I completed the test within minutes, he uttered ‘oops that means you did not pass the screener.’  In other words, I had failed the assessment that determines whether one is even qualified to take the test.  My dream of making a living by making a difference in career education had reached a potentially fatal stumbling block.  As fate would have it again, I was fortunate that I had also impressed the campus president during the interview process and they found a way to get me hired through the back door.

Excitedly, the ad salesperson turned director of admissions became a great trainer and mentor for the entertainment salesperson turned wannabe admissions high achiever.  But that was before a torrid first ninety days where I couldn’t get more than a few students to enroll despite excellent interview shows from my telephone work.  I sat down with my director of admissions and went through each interview one by one dissecting my performance of good, bad, and ugly.  Besides reminding me of technique, he discussed the importance of centering on the prospective student and to assume if they show up at the door they are telling us they want to do this.  We then either show them the way or sabotage their commitment.  I quickly learned how to get out of my way and that of the student, to be a mentor and pathway as opposed to just another obstacle builder in their lives.  The job suddenly became fun.

Despite failing a test, allegedly proving I would be unsuccessful at career college admissions, I went on to high achiever status in my first full year starting over 165 new students.  But as a difference maker simply starting new students wasn’t good enough for me.  I tracked each one of them in a notebook (and in the hallway, frankly) and felt most proud when approximately 78% of them ended up graduating often to dream jobs or promotions.  I will always remember a letter from a once difficult prospective student that I interviewed several times over a two year period before she finally started school and successfully completed her program.  In her letter she bragged about the job she secured with brokerage Merrill-Lynch and her several promotions since.  She thanked me as a mentor who helped put an end to her lack of follow-through and self-sabotage, giving her the motivation to realize her dream of an education and career.  As I read the letter with happy tears I knew all I did was simply show her the way, and to her credit, she followed through with great success.

After overcoming my first ninety day doldrums, I remember sharing with Suzan that I had found my calling and planned on making private sector education a career with a goal of running a campus within seven years’ time.  I was now officially making a living, making a difference.  

Modesty aside, I achieved that seven year goal in six years and ten months when after a successful stint as director of admissions of Gibbs College in Norwalk, CT, I was named campus president of the original Katharine Gibbs School in Providence, RI.  The Ocean State became our new residence and has been our home ever since.  After tripling the student population with positive outcomes and strong regulatory compliance I went on to other valuable and memorable tenures at Gibbs College of Boston followed by a brief stint at Kaplan Higher Education, also in Boston metro, and then back in Rhode Island at Lincoln Educational Services.  I eventually retired from day to day campus operations to write about and offer expert advisory services in private sector education as a way to give back to the industry that had defined me professionally.    

Thanks to private sector education and the opportunities it affords students and the employees that teach and support them, I was now permanently making a living, making a difference. 

Next in the series, A Great Place to Learn & Earn:  Blogpost 102:  Paradigm of Organizational Effectiveness - First Who, Then What  

Copyright 2014 David J. Waldron.  All Rights Reserved.

Thank You for Reading to A Great Place to Learn & Earn 

Your actionable interest in this organizational effectiveness model for private sector education is recognized and sincerely appreciated.

The mission of the A Great Place to Learn & Earn is to provide superior reader benefit from a greater understanding and appreciation of the important and valuable, but often misunderstood and controversial private sector education industry.  It is perhaps a reminder of what we already know, but any positive takeaway by readers is cherished and humbling.

In order to support continual improvement of blogs and expert advisory through interactive involvement, readers are strongly encouraged to provide comments within this blog page and/or submit any and all feedback, questions, and suggestions to

For in depth discussion and review of the principles of organizational effectiveness in A Great Place to Learn & Earn and/or to learn more about the private sector education industry via expert advisory, readers are encouraged to visit the SiteLock® secure website, write, or call +1 401-441-5300 for information without obligation.

David Waldron, Author
A Great Place to Learn & Earn
October 27, 2014