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Trust Yourself—and Take Some Risks

Linda ZecherLinda K. Zecher is President and CEO at global education leader Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. As a transformational leader who has embraced change throughout her career—at Microsoft, Texas Instruments, Oracle, and other companies—we asked Linda to reflect on her experiences of transition from both a personal and professional perspective.

You’ve made a number of career transitions – to what extent was your trajectory planned?

People are often surprised to hear that I never really planned my career. I worked hard, stayed open to new opportunities and as I progressed, I took some leaps of faith. As a result, my career has taken me all over the world and across industries. I entered the workforce as the first female geophysicist at Texas Instruments, and from there I crossed into sales-oriented roles at a number of companies before landing at Microsoft.

Because I started taking risks and embracing change early in my career, I was also able to recognize the value of professional evolution early on.

Personally and professionally, managing change takes confidence—and a belief that you’ll be able to figure out the best path using your individual strengths. I’ve learned something new with every risk, and I now see my ability to manage and lead transformations as one of my key strengths. I’m proud of that.

You’ve negotiated some changes in your personal life as well. For example, you took some time out of the workforce when your son was growing up, which can be a major adjustment for many professional mothers. Tell us about your experiences.

When my son was 13, I was spending a great deal of time traveling as we developed an international presence for PeopleSoft. When I was home, I began to notice that I was out of step with my family’s simple daily routines – little things like how my husband and son did the laundry. It was a heartbreaking realization. I needed a break, but like so many women, I wrestled with the decision to disrupt my career.

Ultimately, the decision to take a break from the workforce was an essential turning point. I was able to spend two years reconnecting with my family and embracing new challenges – joining school boards and volunteering. But of equal importance, that time reminded me that I have options and that my career is a marathon, not a sprint. While my professional life is a central part of who I am, it isn’t everything. That period of time helped me understand the importance of balance and the need to prioritize.

What did you see in HMH that convinced you it was the right time to move from Microsoft to a 180-year-old education content provider here in Boston?

Like the education industry in which it operates, HMH’s business is also in the midst of transformation. I loved the idea of being a part of the exciting changes on the horizon. We’re evolving from a traditional publishing model into an innovative content company built for today’s learners, while celebrating our deep 180-year history of sharing ideas.  I have the opportunity to work with so many smart, talented people who are leveraging technology to transform the ways students learn. The change at hand is about much more than swapping a heavy textbook for a tablet – it’s about putting student success first, extending access no matter where or how you learn and making the experience more dynamic and engaging.

What impact do you think career diversity has on the development of leadership skills?

Diverse experiences keep you open-minded and creative. Over the course of a career, you meet folks who, directly or indirectly, teach you about your own strengths and leadership style and about the importance of mutual respect and teamwork. The community we build reminds us to surround ourselves with colleagues that bring different skills and perspectives to the table. Diversity within one’s own career definitely helps to prepare you for much broader transitions at an enterprise level.

Do you have advice for women who are finding their way in the midst of professional shifts?

Trust yourself and take some risks. Your career does not have to be a linear process. Goals can change, and so can your definition of success. I would also encourage women to support one another whole-heartedly. We each have valuable insights and experiences, and by sharing our stories with one another we can offer new perspectives to others facing change.