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How Follett is thriving with two women at the top
Less than a year ago, Mary Lee Schneider was fresh off her third masters degree — this one in medical informatics from Northwestern University — and thinking hard about putting together a health-care start-up with three of her classmates. Instead, Schneider, 50 and a former chief technology officer at RR Donnelley, veered hard in the other direction. On Nov. 17, she was named president and CEO of Follett Corporation, a 140-year-old River-Grove-based educational services provider with more than 10,000 employees and $2.7 billion in annual sales.
Once known primarily as a textbook wholesaler publisher, privately-owned Follett has extended its reach into many corners of the education market, from library software to college sweatshirts. Schneider’s company operates more than 1,000 college bookstores, and it provides project management, hosting and other software to more than 70,000 American school districts.
When Follett brought Schneider aboard, it was clear which of Schneider’s bona fides appealed to Chairman Alison O’Hara. “She has been one of the drivers of RR Donnelley’s transformation from print to digital, which is a critical focus for Follett,” O’Hara said. Schneider’s job now is to shepherd the 140-year-old company through a marketplace that’s primed for disruption.
Grid: You just finished an advanced degree in medical informatics, which is the study of how information is used in health care, and here you are leading an educational services company. Talk us through that.
MLS: Health care took center stage for the last five years in the national dialogue. I think education is really going to take center stage this next five. You look at student debt, you look at issues around ROI for certain degrees, you look at profit vs. not-for-profit education. Lots of good and healthy dialogue is happening around student outcomes, student success rates. Everything in the world is measured by a success rate and return and failure, and just as we’ve turned our attention to looking at healthcare in those ways, looking at paying for outcomes, I think there are these issues of, are students able to get jobs? Are they able to get out from underneath the debt with the job? Are they able to graduate in less than five years?
Grid: The comparison between health care and education seems to be an apt one. Why do you think both have been insulated from that measurement of costs versus outcomes, and why do you think we’re having those conversations now?
MLS: I think it’s about accountability. A tough economy forces people to ask a lot of tough questions, [such as] boy, for this outsized investment, and for tuition in particular that I’m going to be paying off for 20, 25 years, am I studying the right things? Am I going to the right universities?
Grid: In a space that’s been so broadly affected by technological innovation, how do you foster a sense of urgency?
MLS: It’s about giving permission to people to move forward and go faster. We’ll make mistakes, we’ll figure it out quickly and we’ll redirect. But if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing enough.
Grid: It’s a world of finite resources. How do you allocate between operations and development?
MLS: The best ideas get the best resources. There are a lot of good ideas out there — my job is to find the truly great ones, the ones that really move the needle, and disproportionately give attention and focus and resources to those needle movers.
Grid: Follett is, sadly, unusual — you’ve got women in the two top roles.
MLS: We did some research early on, and I think the research that was given to us, was that if you look at companies in Chicago over $200 million in size, we may have been the only one that had both a female chairman and [a separate] female CEO.
Grid: How does having two women at the top change things at Follett?
MLS: I think our style is very collaborative and I think we tend to come at things with more questions than answers. We give each other tough feedback from time to time. [But we’re] more collaborative than I’ve seen [other] chairman and CEOs working together. It’s very different from what I’ve experienced or observed in other companies.
Grid: There are undoubtedly plenty of reasons, both institutional and circumstantial, why women are so underrepresented in the C-suite. One, of course, is that many women leave the workforce at least temporarily to raise a family. Tell me about your thought process there.
MLS: My husband and I sat down right after we got married 20 years ago, and we said, ‘Look, do both of us want to have careers that take us away from our family?’ Because he was an IT consultant, so we had the potential for both of us to be on the road quite a bit. It comes down to having a really honest conversation with your partner, about the expectation of roles. Do we both aspire to be CEO of a company one day? Because if we both do, we probably have to look at things a little differently.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been on the road and the babysitter would call in sick, or our kid would have an ear infection, and I always knew, because my husband and I had had that conversation, that my husband would be the one who would go home. He would be the one who would work from home, he would be the one who would shoulder that burden. Neither of us felt guilty.
Having that very explicit conversation about roles and responsibilities, expectations, financials, all those things — the sooner you do that, the sooner you can nip in the bud any of those issues around balance, because you won’t get a balance. There’s going to be a compromise — you just can’t feel guilty about it.
Photo by Mike Schwartz