Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Linda K. Zecher, the chief executive of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a publishing house that also provides educational content. “I don’t think that you should be rigid about bonuses, raises or whether you get a certain-size office once you get to a certain level,” she said. To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here.
Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times
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Were you in leadership roles or doing entrepreneurial things early on?
I grew up in Middletown, Ohio. You can’t get any more middle class than that in the Midwest. I had a paper route, I was a girl scout, and I was involved in a lot of clubs and sports in high school.
Tell me about your parents.
My mother was a homemaker and my father was very entrepreneurial. He started a variety of businesses — a hotel, restaurants, a trucking company. I was also very close to my grandmother. She was a Rosie the Riveter, and she worked in the steel mill during the war. She was a force to be reckoned with.
Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do for a career before you went to college?
Not a clue. I was going to be a political science major and ended up being an earth science major.
You’ve worked in so many industries over your career — the oil industry, technology, banking services and now publishing.
I’m a risk-taker. I figure that if something looks interesting, I can figure it out. How hard can this be? And I just jump in.
So what’s your playbook for going into a company in a brand new industry?
Every opportunity is a different challenge, and I will quickly assess what the key issues are, and then I triage based on that. For example, in my current role, I really had to focus on culture. A lot of different companies had been acquired, but never really integrated. People had different badges, different offices, different everything.
I also just listen to people. I have a lot of one-on-one meetings. If you sit down with 20 senior people in the company, they’re going to explain their role and why it’s important, and they’re also going to tell you all the things that are wrong with everybody else. So after all those conversations, you can assess what you need to do, who you can rely on and who needs to be replaced.
You’ve worked in companies of all sizes, too. Other insights about culture based on those experiences?
A lot of big companies want a “one size fits all” approach with their employees. We do product development this way. We do reviews this way. There are no gray areas. Everything is very rigid because that’s the way you do it when you have tens of thousands of employees.
One of the things I’ve been able to bring to H.M.H. is that you can have a strong culture, but you can also be open to new ways of doing things, new ideas and one size doesn’t fit all. I don’t think that you should be rigid about bonuses, raises or whether you get a certain-sized office once you get to a certain level.
In large companies, the rigidity sometimes affects the culture in a way that makes it hard to be entrepreneurial and hard to allow people to grow in their roles and do the things they need to do to really build the company.
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To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.