Linda K. Zecher joined Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September 2011 as President, Chief Executive Officer and Director, bringing with her a strong track record of business transformation and results. Her extensive sales, marketing and technology experience contribute to her ability to successfully lead HMH’s transformation into a global leader in educational content and media.
Previously, Ms. Zecher served as Corporate Vice President of Microsoft’s $8 billion Worldwide Public Sector organization. She led a team of nearly 2000 sales and marketing professionals serving government, education and healthcare in more than 100 countries. Under her leadership, this sector delivered eight years of consistent growth and received the Microsoft Industry of the Year Award for three consecutive years.
Prior to joining Microsoft in 2003, Ms. Zecher held leadership positions with Texas Instruments, Bank of America, PeopleSoft, Oracle and Evolve Corp. In each role, she led major change. At PeopleSoft she helped develop sales and marketing capabilities which contributed to revenue growth from $500,000 to over $35 million in three years, resulting in a successful IPO. As CEO of Evolve she managed changes leading to the company’s acquisition.
How did you get into the media/publishing industry?
It’s interesting because I no longer think of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) as being in the publishing industry… We’ve evolved from a traditional publishing model into a global learning company, with quality content at the root of everything we do. Our goal is to create world-class content and services for lifelong learners across a variety of media – whether that’s in the form of digital education program, an eBook, an app, or a traditional book.
As for how I got here, I didn’t take the conventional route. I graduated from Ohio State with a Bachelor of Science and started out as the first female geophysicist at Texas Instruments. I loved my job, but sometimes life takes unexpected turns that require you to take risks. I had the chance to make a change and transitioned into sales-oriented and product management roles at Bank of America, PeopleSoft and Oracle, taking a few leaps of faith along the way as I crossed industries. At the heart of these roles lay a passion for technology and a belief in its power to transform, so I found my way to Microsoft where I spent eight years heading up its $8 billion Worldwide Public Sector organization, covering government, education and health initiatives.
Three years ago, I had the opportunity to join HMH. The inflection point between education and technology was something I was passionate about. But more than that, I’ve always been drawn to and energized by opportunities to drive change. With HMH, I found a company and an industry on the cusp of a massive transformation. We have an amazing combination of trusted content, brands and authors (from Curious George to J.R.R. Tolkien) and an educational expertise developed over 180 years. Add to this the shift towards digital content, and the expansion of learning beyond the classroom, and you have this unprecedented opportunity to change how students learn and to make the process more dynamic, engaging, and most of all effective.
What partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have helped Houghton Mifflin Harcourt reach such success?
One of the biggest strategic efforts we’ve undertaken since I joined HMH has been our increased focus on the creation of engaging education content for the home. US parents spend more than $13 billion on at-home educational products and more than half of all children in the US now have at-home access to the latest mobile devices. As a result, there’s a huge opportunity to create entertaining games, apps, and web-based products that are rich in educational content, yet highly engaging and fun for both children and parents. Especially leveraging the brand recognition of our beloved children’s characters and brands, such as Curious George.
With this consumer audience front of mind, we also recently launched a brand new integrated website and e-commerce platform at hmhco.com, designed to position HMH as the premier destination for learning and inspiration for multiple audiences, including parents, educators, children and lifelong learners.
When I joined as CEO, we also embarked on a complete redesign of our brand identity. We’re a 180 year old company which takes great pride in its roots, but we’re no longer a traditional publishing company. We’ve taken our rich legacy of authors, brands, and well-loved content, and transformed into an innovative content company re-imagining education for a new generation of digital learners and readers. We needed a bold brand that articulated that transformation and signified our mission – to change lives by fostering passionate, curious learners.
Partnerships are also a significant area of focus for us. Our specialty is world-class content, but we partner with major technology leaders including Google, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and Intel, as well as start-up innovators such as Knewton, to make sure that that content is available no matter which platform or device you use.
What are your biggest successes and failures as CEO and how have you learned from them?
One of the biggest lessons for me as a technology leader in the education industry is to innovate, but not get too far ahead of our customers. What’s often described as the ‘digital transformation’ of our industry is more of a dimmer than an on/off light switch, so we need to meet our customers where they are. Technology is a major enabler when combined with the right content, but it also needs the culture and infrastructure to support it, and that takes time in the education space.
I’m really proud of the way in which the company negotiated the financial challenges of the last several years to win over investors, and ultimately go public on NASDAQ at the end of 2013. It was a real affirmation of the huge potential we have as a learning company, not only in classrooms but in creating entertaining, educational content for the home that kids and parents can trust.
What advice would you give to an aspiring media/publishing entrepreneur?
Stay focused, but give yourself permission to take risks - a leap of faith can yield great rewards. Also be open to possibilities – life is never what you expect or plan.
Who is your role model, business and personal?
Over the years I have had many role models that have given me great advice and helped me think through issues. I tend to gravitate toward game-changers and creative thinkers. In the back of my head is always my third grade teacher who instilled a love of reading and taught me that words matter…I think of that often.
Don’t take yourself too seriously and definitely don’t hold onto negative thoughts.
Favorite travel destination?
Italy – primarily Rome but really anywhere in Italy.
If there were one food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
Tomato and vodka….both are very versatile.
What literature is on your bed stand?
Right now I am reading Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter’s book, The Nixon Tapes. I’m a bit of a political junkie. I also just finished Secretary Clinton’s book, Hard Choices.
What's next for HMH and Linda Zecher?
New markets! We serve more than 50 million students here in the US, but we’re excited to further develop our presence in major international markets such as China, Korea, Mexico and Brazil. We’re recruiting talent in those markets, and putting increased focus on tailoring our content to local needs.
It’s is a great time to be in this industry, so for me, the plan is to keep moving our great company forward and find new opportunities to innovate and transform the learning process.
Ms. Zecher has served on numerous boards including the Intelligence National Security Association (INSA), U.S. State Department’s Board for Overseas Schools and the James Madison University’s Board of Visitors. She currently serves on the board of Cradles to Crayons.
Ms. Zecher holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Ohio State University and an honorary doctorate from Bentley University.