Interview with CEO of 2U, Chip Paucek

You still want to get that master’s degree in business, social work or healthcare but you have substantial responsibilities, such as a full-time job or a growing family, then sacrificing your limited time for the degree seems impossible. So what options do you have?

One possible option is online education. Understanding the difficulties that busy adults face Chip Paucek decided to help solve the dilemma by co-founding 2U. Paucek explains in The Morning Blend interview, “For the first time ever you don’t have to pick up your life, quit your job and move to attend a great school and really become the person you want to be.”

The online educational space is a hyper-competitive market but Chip credit’s 2U’s success to both his fantastic team and laser focus. Let’s read on and find out how Paucek’s leadership has helped the company grow.

So, Chip what’s your story?

I’m a first-generation college student and that experience could not have had a more fundamental impact on my life. I had never seen snow before I arrived at The George Washington University. I bought my first winter coat there. I met my wife there. I met my general counsel there. I can’t overstate the impact GW had on my life. From then on, I became convinced that higher education has the power to fundamentally change the lives of people everywhere.

I started my first education company, Cerebellum Corporation, a year out of college. We produced the PBS show Standard Deviants, an award-winning educational program that taught subjects such as math, science and politics using comedians and actors like TJ Miller of Silicon Valley and Kerry Washington of Scandal. I was at Cerebellum for 10 years, after that I became the CEO of Hooked on Phonics.

I’m not shy to say that neither of those companies worked. I am not risk adverse, I like to go for it, but when I started my first company at 23-years-old I was lacking one very important attribute: focus. Whenever a new entrepreneur approaches me and asks me for my advice I say, “I can’t tell you what part of your business model will succeed, but I can tell you five variations won’t.”

Ultimately, if you try to do too much at once, you’ll do nothing of substance. I learned that the hard way with Cerebellum and Hooked on Phonics, but I don’t make mistakes twice. Even through failure, I’ve come to believe that every day’s a holiday and every meal’s a feast.

Now that I am a three-time CEO, I can officially say 2U, Inc. worked. I learned from my past failures and how to be purposeful and focus on the mission with an incredible team. We are at an exciting trajectory in the growth of the business where we are not only partnering with top universities to build high quality online graduate programs, but we’re now also forging new pathways in the digital education space with the addition of short courses.

Our acquisition of GetSmarter, which we completed in July 2017, has allowed us to expand access to educational opportunities that will be critical to the future of our country and our world. A lot has changed since I co-founded the company in 2008 and took it public in 2014, but evolution is good and will keep pushing us to the next level.

Why should leaders lead, and when they do lead, what is their first responsibility?

Great leaders are action-oriented, willing to take risks, value and provide transparency, and have the ability to learn from their mistakes. They make decisions fast.

Great leaders also know how to set context for the “why” and then enable their team’s performance by clearing the path and giving them runway so that they can perform at their best. To set the context for the “why,” reality has to be defined. Nobody wants to follow a leader who can’t paint them a picture of what the future holds. Great leaders know that transparency wins. The more honest you are about the opportunities and challenges you face as an organization, and the more you define each team’s role and contribution to the mission, the more cohesively your team will work together to brave their way through uncharted territory and succeed.

Great leaders also know how to get out of the way to let their team drive. We’re moving fast, often at a breakneck speed, and we must do it with purpose and passion. That means letting those who can fly, fly, and taking the copilot seat to support their efforts.

What is more important to you, the traditional hierarchy (director, manager, the boss, etc.) or how teams are formed to get the work done?

Of course it’s the team. Great leaders matter, but a great team wins. I know our success is not because of me – it’s because of the incredibly talented team I work with every day.

Are you open to the nontraditional ways that teams can get work done? Can you cite one example you are currently fostering?

Coming up with one example of how we operate in nontraditional ways is challenging because you could argue our business was built on doing things outside of the traditional structures and processes many companies box themselves into. Something I’m particularly proud of are the eight core principles at 2U. We live by them and they are anything but traditional. “Be candid, open and honest” is just one of those principles. Another is “Have fun!” I embrace that principle by hosting spontaneous dance parties at the office. That’s the way we do business. Fun is better. Period.

How do you make sure that when you are assessing talent, you are not only identifying the ability to do the job but the talent’s capacity to scale and do more?

As a CEO, you need to know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, and hire people who can make up for the latter. I always hire people who are better than I am. I want people who will assess what we’ve done, determine what is not working, and then take an inefficient process, flip it on its head, and make what we do better. I also look for talent that brightens the room. You can train the skillset, but you can’t train the spirit.

In the competitive market of product creation how do you manage your “No’s”?

When we first launched 2U, we got a lot of “no’s.” Preconceived notions of online education made everything very challenging. Once we persuaded the University of Southern California to treat online students as equal to on-campus students, we landed our first client and everything changed. Now, the USC School of Social Work, our partner, is the largest school of social work on the planet and 2U continues to grow and build the world’s best digital education. It’s the reason why, at 2U, one of our guiding principles is “Don’t let the skeptic win.”

Paucek drives home a critical point, “Nobody wants to follow a leader who can’t paint them a picture of what the future holds.” If you are a leader that is unable to communicate the future direction of the company, you have arrested your company’s ability to move forward.

A company that is not moving forward is an organization that will eventually lose market share and become a footnote in some online business class; of what not to do if you want your company to succeed.