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How an Ex-Tech CEO Is Shaking Up Publishing

Off the Cuff

“I'm the first female CEO. And so I look at all of these males on the wall and their pictures. And, you know, they all have the grim straight faces, and then there's me, in color, smiling," Linda Zecher, the president and CEO of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the education and trade publisher, told “Off The Cuff.” The Boston-based company, founded in the mid-1800’s, has published the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau .

“I just feel like I have to live up to that, but I've got to take it in a different direction, “she said. “We have to move past the men on the wall. We have to move into a new era of digital technology. And we have to be up with the times.”

Zecher came to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt from Microsoft, where she was a corporate vice president, heading the company’s $8 billion Worldwide Public Sector business. Prior to joining Microsoft in 2003, she was employee number No. 9 at PeopleSoft, the software company that was acquired by Oracle. She remembers the early days of digital as an “exciting time… I felt like I was definitely on a pioneering side of that, “she said.

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Her move to publishing, she said, was a “very difficult transition…publishing companies, in some ways, are like law firms. They're very staid, and everyone stays in their own corner and they're very hierarchical. Microsoft's just not like that. And I'm not like that. And so the idea of having an open door where people would just come in and talk to me was a little foreign to them.”

To force the issue, she moved the coffee pot to a spot outside her office. “They would walk by the door. And I'd hear them say to my assistant, ‘Is she in there?’ And I'd be all, ‘Yes, I'm in here. Come on in,’” she said.

But changing Houghton Mifflin’s corporate culture was the least of it. “I actually knew that the company was in trouble when I took the position,” Zecher said. In May 2012, less than a year after she became CEO, she decided to lead the company through a prepack bankruptcy to eliminate its $3.1 billion in debt. “I sat down with the investors and essentially told them what I wanted. It's not that much different than doing an IPO. You're selling them on the vision of where you're going to go and you want them to invest in you. And thankfully, they all agreed. Probably a little bit of it was that they didn't really have a lot of options, because the company was in a lot of trouble.” She said the company now has a clean balance sheet.

Zecher’s hobby is beekeeping. Her business lessons from the beehive: “A beehive is only as good as every bee in the hive, “Zecher said. There are times when you have to kick some of the drones out. And there's times when, you know, a second queen bee has to leave and go off.

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Zecher began her career as a geophysicist in the 1970’s oil boom, a rare woman in a male-dominated field. “My very first day at Texas Instruments, they were giving me the tour of the office, and I was the only female in the office that wasn't a secretary. And he told me that this is where the coffee pot was and that I would be making coffee also. I immediately put my arms up and said, ‘Wait a minute. I am not making coffee. I'm a professional. I'm not doing this.’ And he kind of sheepishly said-- "Actually, we take turns. So, can you take your turn?”

Zecher said she learned not to “wear being a female” on her sleeve, but as a working mother, “you don't have to be like the guys. There are different responsibilities being a mom, versus a dad. And if you want to have children, you want to have a career too, you can do them both. Just set your boundaries, set your priorities and be yourself.”

She’s been married to her husband for 30 years, they have three children. “I have a great husband. He's very understanding. He's very tolerant. And he tells me all the time, ‘There's no CEO-ing at home, honey.’”