Hall of Fame Portrait: Michael Ross Part 2

On December 3, 2009, AEP will induct Nelson B. Heller, Ph.D., MDR; Michael Ross, Encyclopaedia Britannica; and Pleasant Rowland, Rowland Reading Foundation and American Girl into the Educational Publishing Hall of Fame. Here in his second installment, Michael Ross, Senior VP, Education General Manager for Encyclopaedia Britannica, discusses the greatest challenge he faced during his career and his proudest accomplishment.

What was the greatest challenge you faced in your career, and how did you handle it?

When my oldest daughter was four, her mother died suddenly. I was 36 years old, still very early in my career, and what was already a difficult job and huge responsibility—being a new father—now seemed like an impossible role to fill, alone, on top of the demands of my day job. As an editorial director for an educational publisher, I was required to travel, manage a team of in-house and freelance editors, meet budgets, train the sales force, and produce over 50 profitable titles a year. I couldn’t do all of that and take care of a young child who had just lost her mother, and I refused to compromise when it came to her comfort. So, in essence, I put my career on hold, traveled less, even turned down job offers that would have required me to move to other cities, and did what I could to fulfill my professional responsibilities while prioritizing my daughter’s needs.

Things stabilized when I remarried three years later, but the time that had passed left a critical gap. I also lost interest in that company and was so eager to move on that I ended up making a bad career choice.

Lured by the founder and chairman of a well-known educational publisher, I jumped into a job that I had not researched well enough. Of course, I didn’t consider for a moment that the fit wasn’t right; I was more concerned that I didn’t have to move. But within three months of taking the job, I was gone. Fortunately, I quickly landed in a far better position with another publisher, and stayed there for 11 productive years.

The experience taught me an important lesson about thoroughly understanding not only what a job entails but who one’s colleagues are and the nature of a company’s culture. Knowing the “whos” of a company in addition to the “whats” is a critical part of determining, as much as possible, whether the job will be a good personal fit and a place where you can build a career.

What accomplishment, related to either your career or other work in the educational arena, are you most proud of and why?

Although many projects come to mind, moving a company’s primary focus from being a print publisher to a producer of digital content was both the hardest thing that I have done and the most rewarding, especially in hindsight. At the time, it was torture, because there was so much resistance and skepticism. There was resistance from the sales force, who didn’t want to change. There was resistance from the shareholders, who didn’t understand the market environment. And there was skepticism from editorial, who didn’t feel the urgency. Even though I knew it was the right thing to do, every decision seemed like it was challenging the status quo and could be the last decision I made. But the transformation from print to digital publishing—that went through several formats and platforms—had had a lasting impact, and not doing it would have severely limited that company’s ability to meet market needs.

Of course, I did not do it alone. But I took the lead (and the heat) and laid the groundwork for how that company currently goes to market. Many of the products and systems that I put in place are still viable today, more than seven years after I left.

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Michael N. Ross is the Senior Vice President, worldwide product development and technology, as well as General Manager of Education, at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. He is responsible for the development of Britannica’s digital and print products and the sales and marketing activities for North American schools and libraries. Prior to joining Britannica in 2002, Michael held executive positions at several publishing companies. He began his career as an editor for Time-Life Books, and worked for three years in their Tokyo bureau.

Read more about Michael Ross and the Hall of Fame.

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