Over the course of a professional life that’s included a half-dozen careers, from social science researcher to corporate executive, Patricia Cook has developed a maxim that’s served her well: “If you can manage a classroom of 25 five-year-olds,” she says, “you can surely manage hundreds of professionals at once.”
Cook (’69,’70, GRS’76), who founded and now leads the executive search firm Cook & Company, knows what she’s talking about. An early childhood education major at the former Wheelock College who also earned master’s and doctoral degrees in counseling and developmental psychology, respectively, from BU, Cook has made a lifelong study of what makes people tick, and how that knowledge can be applied to the public and private sectors. She’s been an education expert, a social science researcher, a management consultant, a pollster, a banker, a marketing consultant, an executive recruiter, and an entrepreneur. She’s instructed preschool teachers in urban settings and steered Wall Street hotshots into top positions around the world; today, her firm even provides advisory services to women newly single after a divorce or the death of a spouse.
Cook has long viewed both of her alma maters as complementary partners in her career development, and considers herself living proof that the study of education itself prepares students for a wide range of possibilities. She credits her undergraduate years at Wheelock with giving her a “broad humanistic education” covering how people of all ages learn and succeed, and her time at BU for her razor-sharp evaluation and assessment skills—key to the life of a management consultant and corporate recruiter.
“All of the knowledge I took away from Wheelock—and continued at BU—provided a foundation for my understanding of how humans operate, and how to give them the best, most positive, most nurturing environment in which to grow,” says Cook. “That knowledge is equally valuable in both educational and corporate settings.”
After graduating from Wheelock and earning a master’s degree at BU School of Education, Cook took a job at Abt Associates, a social science research firm in Cambridge, Mass. There, she conducted nationwide evaluations of War on Poverty programs, such as Head Start and Follow Through, for the federal government. She also led a nationwide study—the first ever, says Cook—of institutions for children with severe disabilities; later, this research would inform her doctoral dissertation.
Those experiences at Abt led her right back to her former college on the Fenway as a part-time instructor. At Wheelock, she helped found the Urban Teaching Program and used her knowledge of assessing early education programs to supervise and direct student teachers as they worked in urban settings in Boston.
“I didn’t have a road map, but I knew I was interested in solving social problems,” she says of her early career. “This was during the War on Poverty, when urban education was coming to the fore and it was becoming clear that children in urban environments were underperforming due to a wide range of societal problems.”
The idea of solving big problems—social, educational, and corporate—has remained at the core of her work, no matter the position. When she left Abt to become a management consultant, it was to lead a study of the management of state education agencies for Booz & Company; when she was later recruited to be a senior vice president at Chemical Bank (now JPMorgan Chase), part of her portfolio included handling the bank’s relationships with leading academic institutions. By the time she was ready to start her own company in 2000, she’d become expert in helping every kind of organization self-assess and grow to its maximum potential.
“I received a huge amount of confidence from the various environments in which I worked, where you could take on as much responsibility as you dared,” Cook says. “Through that, I learned how difficult it is for organizations to effect change, and how to motivate people through transitions to be the best they can be.”
A longtime Wheelock College trustee, Cook hopes the new Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development will approach its moment of change with confidence.
“This could really be the very best organization in the country for both education and human development—the go-to school,” she says. “The real trick is identifying the best of both institutions, and, importantly, wherever there are gaps, filling those in a way that hasn’t existed before.
“We need to focus on broad-based knowledge creation, and the research-to-practice connection. It will build a platform for the new Wheelock to be the most innovative, best-in-class institution on the planet.”
Her advice—the same she’d give to any institution—is to “aim high. Create a culture with strong values and clear priorities where calculated risk taking is rewarded. And focus on innovations that will solve the key challenges in education and human development long into the future.”
She hopes the new college blends studies of empathic learning and understanding with practical, on-the-ground experiences to give future graduates a leg up in whatever career—or half-dozen careers—they choose.