Maria Kadison (LaTour) ’93 is the CEO & President of EdwardsCo, a strategy consulting and communications company serving educational institutions and education-related non-profits. Maria has served on a variety of civic boards including the Dover School Committee and Sherborn Capital Planning Committee and as a volunteer advisor to the board of the OSS School, a tuition-free private school for underprivileged and high-promise, middle school girls.
What’s a global trend you are following where you see an opportunity or bright spot in this challenging macro environment?
Even though my company provides consulting to private schools in the K-12 space, ironically I’m paying close attention to the lack of access to quality public education that furthers the gap between rich and poor in the US. One of the problems is that as a society we can’t agree on the definition of quality education. At a minimum, quality education teaches job-relevant skills that empower graduates to support themselves and their families. That’s the bare minimum.
A true high quality education also teaches people not simply what to think but how to think. Critical and analytical thinking, dissecting complex issues, and the ability to understand and therefore solve problems from a variety of perspectives are essential to a thriving democracy. The ancient Greeks defined a liberal arts education as one that prepares free men, “liberalis,” to make good decisions in a democratic society. The liberal in liberal arts has nothing to do with liberal politics as so many think. Understanding a variety of perspectives and a broad education are key for a democracy to thrive. The original definition of liberal arts education is not to study philosophy and then hope and pray you get a job but to get a broad foundational education that prepares you to make good decisions for both business and society and know that you will have those foundational critical thinking skills that ensure your ability to succeed in any industry and any sector. These are highly transferable thinking skills. A high quality education—where independent thinking is developed—is also the foundation for individual financial or economic success in our capitalist society. The people who win big in high tech or any other industry are those who think beyond simple norms and solve problems in new ways. So, make no mistake, a liberal arts education can be tied directly to financial success. If we want our country to continue to thrive, we must understand the foundational role that quality education plays in preparing our children for success.
The bottom line is that Americans need both skills training and critical thinking to become the great problem solvers who can lead the world. The more widespread this ability, the more Americans can benefit. Yet these same higher level thinking skills have been politicized and demonized in our current political environment!
Right now, the liberal arts are being cut down across the US and the world. We’re training students in skills that map to jobs, but we also need to prepare young adults with a broader, well rounded, humanistic education that will allow them to be thoughtful, critical thinkers for both the economy and society. We shouldn’t have to choose between the two. We can do both. We need strong visionary leaders who understand the importance of an education that provides both skills and higher-level thinking, and education that educates for the economic and democratic imperatives to keep our society on track.
Public K-12 education is in turmoil. Public schools are obligated to teach to the test and achieve target test scores defined by the state mandate. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it's not the only mandate. And since we can’t agree on what quality education is, school districts have defaulted to the lowest common denominator. Because teacher/student ratios are so high, even the best public school teachers do not have the time to teach higher level thinking.
They also don’t have time nor the training to deal with the exponential increase in anxiety and other mental health problems that were already on the rise pre-COVID and are hugely problematic today. We need to ensure all schools are equipped to manage the level of complexity and anxiety in the lives of children today. Even the wealthier private schools are struggling to adjust budgets to provide the support services that even mainstream, strong students now need.
We need leaders who are willing to rise above the base political discourse that focuses on book banning to inspire and motivate families from the entire socio-economic spectrum who all want their children to be educated for success. Let’s get out of the political mire and jump head first into what really matters for our children's futures.
What’s an SOM experience or class that helped shape how you build teams or participate in teams?
In my organizational behavior class we had 360 degree performance evaluations with both faculty and our peers. I learned how I was perceived as an individual contributor and as a team player and it was fascinating to see how people saw me versus who I thought I was. It created a deeper level of self awareness that made me a better person and leader, throughout my career.
I remember another class project that showed me how important team diversity was for our success. We saw first hand that if we only had one type of person at the table (i.e., all one nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, or religion), we were limited by that one filter. We were only able to identify solutions and opportunities that that particular filter could see. It wasn’t until we added other team members who had different filters that we were able to see other opportunities and potential problems. Those new perspectives gave us the edge we needed to develop a killer business plan. Without a diverse team, business can’t anticipate all things that could go right or wrong; good business planning requires a variety of perspectives at the table. It’s not just nice to have, it’s more competitive.
What’s one of your favorite things about SOM?
My favorite thing about SOM is the cool constellation of people, from all over the world, who are super smart, talented business people as well as being good people with the shared value of looking for ways to solve challenges and create opportunities from and for both business and society. There was always a sense of we’re all in this together. While competition is good, it wasn’t brutally competitive between individuals because there seemed to be an understanding that collectively we can all do better together. Co-Opetition—thank you Professor Nalebuff!
One of the reasons I chose SOM was because of the organizational behavior aspect of the curriculum and culture. Everyone understood that being a brilliant business person was necessary but alone not sufficient. Whether we’re leading a company or a team or trying to get someone to buy something—we’re interacting with human beings and need understanding of human dynamics and complexities to be successful.
Given your impressive career, can you talk about your career pivot and how SOM informed that?
I loved SOM because of the equal emphasis on all three sectors—the public, private and non-profit sector. It was invaluable to learn and understand how the public and nonprofit sectors could improve with innovative thinking, efficiencies, and appropriate risk taking. Just as important, how the for-profit sector can benefit from greater care for the community and long term impact. It’s the integration of thinking about social good and economic goods. SOM underscores the reality that to drive bigger quarterly profits you need—paradoxically—to think well beyond the next quarter.
An important class for me was Barry Nalebuff’s Political Communications and Strategies class. This was team taught by Professor Nalebuff and a range of leaders from The Sawyer Miller Group (SMG). Right out of SOM I worked for SMG in Bolivia, helping the then US-educated, democratic president launch a variety of economic, political and education reforms to end the system of essentially apartheid policies. SMG was acquired by Robinson Lake, and I led a range of campaigns there at a really exciting time. Then I jumped to the nascent internet space as a senior analyst at Forrester Research’s Online Retail Strategies service in 1996—another really exciting time to be analyzing and explaining the internet boom as it unfolded.
By 2001, I was married and had a young son and decided I wanted to pivot to something that was more mission driven that would be personally, economically and socially rewarding. I joined Simmons College as the first VP for marketing. We doubled enrollment within 4 years and had the highest SAT score in the school’s history.
In 2012, I was recruited to be CEO and President of EdwardsCo, a communications company that worked with educational institutions exclusively. I saw an opportunity to deploy my strategy, market research and communications expertise to help educational institutions position themselves to meet the needs of today’s students and families. I bought the company in 2015 and we decided to focus exclusively in the K-12 space. Our focus is to help schools build enrollment and demand in mission-appropriate and market-smart ways. Building a smart, fun, and cohesive team while bringing on a roster of impressive clients has been hugely rewarding!
What are you excited about for the year ahead?
I went to the most recent reunion and had a blast with old friends. I also left super excited about Dean Charles’s dynamic leadership and vision for SOM. I was entirely aligned with his full commitment to education that focuses on business AND society, individual success AND community vitality, and for-profit AND not-for-profit solutions to society’s challenges and the forging of new opportunities. He’s an eloquent and inspiring leader in addition to being an impressive scholar. If anybody can launch SOM into national prominence at a time when our country most needs its perspective, it’s Dean Charles.