Committee for Children Blog

Meet Lee Wilson, the New COO of Committee for Children

Committee for Children’s new Chief Operating Officer (COO) Lee Wilson has more than three decades of experience in the K–12 market, with a background in education hardware, software, and textbooks. Most recently, he worked at Headway Strategies as a principal consultant advising more than 70 organizations across the K–12 education industry, including Committee for Children, on strategy and go-to-market programs. Wilson has served on the boards of Presence Learning, the Association of American Publishers, the Association of Educational Publishers, Student Achievement Partners, the Software and Information Industry Association’s education division, and more. We sat down with Wilson to ask him about his top priorities as he enters this role and his thoughts on social-emotional learning (SEL), our North Star Goal, and more.

What are your top priorities during your first few months as COO?

My top priority in the first few months will be learning. I’m going to cast a wide net, digging into everything from the long-term strategy to fulfillment details. Most importantly, through this process I’ll get to know the people of Committee for Children—not just our staff but also the educators and students in the communities we serve.

Part of my learning process will also be focused on finding out what the organization is already doing well so we can focus on the places where change will make a difference. Rapid growth often strains an organization’s communications and core processes, so what worked when Committee for Children was a smaller nonprofit probably needs to evolve. I’ve had success using a couple of books as guideposts to figure out what is required to reach the next growth milestone.

When thinking about communications, I like Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable … About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business by Patrick Lencioni. Despite the name, Lencioni’s book isn’t about getting rid of meetings. It’s about being more intentional about them and structuring them well. We spend a lot of time in meetings, and even incremental improvements can make a big difference.

When it comes to process refinement, I’m a fan of Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman. He lays out an “entrepreneurial operating system” that helps organizations, and every single person in them, focus on the most important things.

As I learn more about Committee for Children, I know there will be decisions that can’t wait. I’m here to help with that. One of my favorite quotes is from Ulysses S. Grant, who said: “Good news can wait until tomorrow. Bad news I needed to know yesterday.” And as the professionals closest to the work, I’ll trust our staff to use their expertise to make recommendations for potential solutions. We’ll talk it through and dig in together to surface a path forward.

What is your plan to support our North Star Goal to positively and equitably transform the social-emotional well-being of 100 million children annually by 2030?

In order to achieve this exciting and audacious goal, we’ll need to challenge our own thinking and hold ourselves accountable for working as one large team. I’m here to help with that. My focus will be ensuring there’s a tight alignment between our strategy and our tactics.

The US market is the foundation all other efforts to reach our North Star Goal will rest on, but the US market will not get us to our objective of 100 million children on its own. This means the organization must make significant investments in the international sphere. I’ve been supporting Committee for Children in this area over the past couple of years as a consultant and I look forward to working from the inside to move the needle.

I’m also looking forward to learning more about how we’re innovating new offerings in service of the social-emotional well-being of families at home. We know parents are children’s most important teachers, and the work of our Innovation Team will make a big contribution to achieving the North Star Goal.

With more than 30 years in education, what are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered?

Early on, when I was selling computers to schools, a superintendent pushed a pad and a pencil across the desk at one of my peers and said: “Any good teacher can teach with these. Tell me why I need your technology in the classroom?” It was a fair question and I set out to find the answer. I started with multimedia—the promise being that different learning affordances would reach more students.

Over time how I approached this question shifted. I worked in the textbook world, and I came to see that technology was just one tool in the box. Teaching is hard and teachers never get rid of anything that works. The techno-centric view that prevails in Silicon Valley doesn’t adequately serve the needs of kids and the realities teachers face in day-to-day pedagogy.

The refined question became, “where is technology the right tool in the classroom?” What are the things that it does best or, in rare cases, uniquely? This led me into intervention, special education, educational games and simulations, and performance assessment. In each of these areas, technology improves outcomes, complements other resources, and most importantly reaches students who are not being served by traditional media and approaches.

I look forward to working with Committee for Children staff on the media mix in our products. One of the things that attracted me to this organization is its commitment to rigorous research, and this is an area in which I’m particularly interested in doing more work. Sometimes the right solution is on a screen, sometimes it’s a puppet, and sometimes it’s a conversation.

What’s your vision for the SEL landscape in general and Committee for Children specifically?

The SEL landscape is shifting. We know that post-pandemic SEL is one of the top priorities for schools. Committee for Children is the clear leader in what we do, which puts us in the spotlight. We need to lean into and leverage the strong relationships the organization has carefully nurtured for decades. We need to focus even more on successful implementations and usage. This also means using all the resources we have at our disposal to be advocates for SEL through associations, legislation, research, community, and more.

One of the effects of the pandemic is the acceleration of globalization in the education space. Before the pandemic, SEL was slowly gaining steam outside of the US, but now schools globally are dealing with the same stressors that are driving the need for more SEL domestically. The US is one of the clear leaders in SEL and what Committee for Children knows can help other countries as they ramp up their efforts. Sharing our expertise is the right thing to do for our mission and figuring out how to do that is the only path to our North Star Goal. But it’s a hard problem to solve at scale. We have a lot of work to do figuring it out.

How have your background and your personal life shaped your mindset?

I trained as a businessperson and as an artist. That combination has some interesting implications. 

My business training and experience taught me how organizations tackle complex problems. I love working on big challenges.

It’s hard work to conceive of new learning products, develop them, finance them, position them, sell them, and support them. Because we exist in a web of systems, solving problems in sustainable ways brings every management discipline to bear. I thrive on this complexity.

Being an artist is all about mastering a craft, which usually equates to 95 percent practice and 5 percent performance. This involves taking risks, learning from others, embracing failure, and practicing so diligently that it eventually looks effortless. There’s an obvious aesthetic angle to this. But in the context of this question, the more important part of it is the mindset. I encourage everyone to work on their craft every day. Tweak your schedule, try a new piece of software, run a meeting differently, listen more, attend a conference, or get out with the students and teachers using our stuff.

That’s quite a unique journey. What’s something you’d tell your younger self?

Don’t take yourself too seriously. Seriously.

What’s your SEL superpower?

I think it’s self-management. I’m usually calm under pressure. I like to dig into things to understand what’s going on, what the options are, and who should be involved. If there is conflict, I try to reserve judgement until I’ve spoken with everyone.

What are some things you like to do outside of work that bring you joy?

I love puzzles. Figuring out how to organize a team to tackle a big, complex, and important problem is where I do my best work. I’ve done this kind of work in a wide range of organizations, and I’ve always found it rewarding. Committee for Children does incredibly important work really well, and yet our path forward will challenge us to get even better across the board. I’m looking forward to it.

On the personal side I’m happiest when I’m connecting people and spending time with family and friends. I also love the creative process. I play music, write, draw, and take photos. I’m an avid baker and into all things sourdough. As for sports, I enjoy camping, golfing, and skiing.