From “USA Today” to “Ms.” magazine and her current position as president of Hearst Magazines, Cathie Black has been a powerhouse in the media industry. In her new book, “Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life),” Black shares the secrets of her success. Here's an excerpt:
My first job out of college, I thought I was a pretty hot property. I’d been hired at “Holiday” magazine in New York City, and was excited to have a real job, complete with a title: “sales assistant.” For a young woman from the South Side of Chicago, it felt like the beginning of the glamorous life I’d dreamed of. Yet, exciting as it was, I was eager to move up quickly — so before long I was already angling for my next bigger, better job.
Then, one morning at work, my phone rang.
“Is this Cathleen P. Black?” asked a man on the other end of the line. I said it was.
“Cathleen P. Black, who lives at 215 East 80th Street, apartment 14F?” the man continued, the trace of a smirk in his voice.
“A graduate of Trinity College in Washington, D.C., who is currently employed at ‘Holiday magazine?”
My cheeks went hot. Whoever this guy was, he was reading my résumé — which I’d polished up and made copies of the night before, after work.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“It’s Harry Egner,” he answered — a senior executive in the company! I started to stammer out an apology, but then I heard him laughing.
“Next time you’re duplicating your résumé, Miss Black,” he said, “I suggest you remember to take the original off the copier.”
I thanked him for the advice and hung up, shaking my head at how stupid my mistake had been — and how lucky I was that Harry Egner had gone so easy on me.
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When I think of that story today, it reminds me not only of how green I was in my first job, but, more important, how little I realized that fact at the time. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and in some ways that turned out to be helpful. But as I flew by the seat of my proverbial pants in those earlier years, I could really have benefited from some well-timed practical suggestions and advice.
That’s what this book is about. As its title implies, it’s full of simple, straightforward advice to help you not only navigate the world of work, but balance your work and personal life as well. Some of the suggestions are truly basic — commonsense observations that can produce real, immediate improvements in your work life. Others go deeper, exploring themes like ambition and self-confidence. Whether you’re just starting out, moving up, or wanting to improve your management and leadership skills, there’s something in here for you.
The book has three threads:
1. Chapters focus on the most important elements of life at work, illustrated with real-life stories. They offer a comprehensive look at keys to success — like drive, power, and passion.
2. Case Studies offer a deeper look at some real-life “teachable moments,” and an inside peek at how legends of the corporate and media worlds — people like Oprah Winfrey and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein — do business.
3. Black & White sections offer straight-up practical tips, from how to run a meeting to the do’s and don’ts of interviews. Whether they tell you something new or reinforce things you already know, Black & White tips offer concrete suggestions you can use every day.
But before I start giving you tips, I probably ought to answer one question: Who am I to be offering advice?
I’ve been lucky enough to work in the media business for my entire career, starting out with that advertising sales assistant job at “Holiday” magazine and ending up in my current position as president of Hearst Magazines, one of the world’s largest publishers of monthly magazines, including “Cosmopolitan,” “Esquire,” “Harper’s Bazaar,” and “O, the Oprah Winfrey Magazine.” Along the way, I’ve had the good fortune to work with some of the most colorful, fascinating people in media. Of course, I’ve also worked with my fair share of jerks, which makes for some fun stories in this book.
After spending a couple of years at “Holiday,” I began making my way up the advertising sales food chain. In my next two jobs I was a full-fledged ad sales representative — first at “Travel + Leisure” magazine, then at “New York” magazine, handling ever larger and more important accounts. I learned on the fly, making lots of mistakes and more than once inserting my foot firmly in my mouth, but with every sales call and deal made, I gained more confidence. I really liked sales and knew I was good at it, and after six years spent learning the advertising ropes, I felt ready for a new challenge. Good thing, too, because my next job definitely filled that bill.
I was hired as the advertising manager at a brand-new magazine called “Ms.” Though the word groundbreaking has been overused to the point of cliché, that’s exactly what “Ms.” was: the first magazine for women that dared to venture beyond the “traditional” topics usually found in women’s magazines. Co-founded by Gloria Steinem, the legendary icon of the feminist movement, “Ms.” was a pioneering editorial product, galvanizing a generation of women and shaping the national dialogue — but it was a hellishly hard sell for its advertising team.
As the Wikipedia entry for “Ms.” rather delicately puts it, the magazine “was not always able to reconcile its ideological concerns with commercial considerations.” Translation: our ad sales team spent a lot of hours banging our heads against a wall, trying to win over skeptical advertisers. This new idea of “feminism” was hugely controversial, so whenever we showed up at potential advertisers’ offices with our promotional materials (printed on hot pink paper), there was no telling whether they’d let us in, point us right back toward the door, or worse (as you’ll hear about in a later chapter). Adversity is a great teacher, so I definitely learned a lot at “Ms.” Probably not coincidentally, it was also one of the most personally fulfilling jobs I’ve ever had.
After nearly a decade of living in New York City, though, I decided to pursue new adventures out west. The draw: a San Francisco–based magazine being started by film director Francis Ford Coppola. Sounds pretty sexy, right? A hip new weekly magazine started by the hottest director in Hollywood? I thought so, too — but within a few months of arriving in California, I realized the magazine wasn’t going to work out quite as Coppola had envisioned. Not for the first time in history, and certainly not for the last, reality couldn’t keep up with the hype. Lacking enough ads or circulation to succeed, the magazine folded after six months, so I turned around and headed back to New York City and “Ms.” magazine. Then, within a few years, my career took off when I was named publisher of “New York,” thereby becoming the first woman publisher of a weekly consumer magazine.
But hold on, enough about me — let’s talk about you. Not everyone who enters the workforce (or buys a business book) does so with the goal of becoming a top executive, president, or CEO. You might want simply to succeed at your job with a minimum of stress and tension. You may be seeking advice on how to deal with a problem boss or employee. Perhaps you’re looking for ways to maintain a happy personal life in addition to having fulfilling work. This book is aimed at helping you reach whatever your goal is, regardless of how ambitious you may be in the workplace.
In fact, one of the themes running through it is that age-old question of “having it all.” After a decade in which that phrase became a buzzword, what does it really mean for you, today? Should you try to “have it all” — to climb the corporate ladder while simultaneously raising a family and having a life beyond the office? Or is it crazy to think you can do everything all at once? We’ll explore the idea of creating what I call a “360°Life” for yourself — focusing on all aspects of day-to-day living, including work, relationships, home life, and family.
Finding the right answers starts with knowing which questions to ask. Throughout this book, we’ll look at some of the important questions that can help you plan and shape your working life. For now, let’s start with three basic ones.
• What are three problems you’d like to fix at your job?
• How much farther up the ladder can you see yourself in two years’ time? How about in five years?
• What’s that pie-in-the-sky goal you secretly dream about?
If you can’t answer these right now, don’t worry. Just keep them in mind, and the answers should become clearer as we go along. Remember, goals are easier to meet when they’re clearly defined, so one of the things we’ll be doing is helping you define your own personal goals.
The next step in my own career after “New York” magazine offers a great lesson in what can go wrong when you fail to define your terms in the workplace. I learned this the hard way, after starting my new job flying high — literally.
I’d just been hired as the president of “USA Today,” which was then a fledgling daily newspaper, pummeled by critics and struggling to survive. Peering out the windows of the sleek Gulfstream jet, watching Manhattan recede into the distance, I suddenly felt a little dizzy at the realization of where I was and where I was going. They’d sent this entire jet just for me, complete with my own flight attendant! I’d never been on a corporate aircraft before, and as I stretched out my legs and gazed around the plush seats and upholstered interior, I felt like Dorothy gawking in wonder at the Land of Oz.
Unfortunately, that thrill would soon collapse with a thud.
When the plane landed, another limo whisked me to “USA Today’”s towers on the banks of the Potomac River, where I was quickly ferried skyward. I emerged into a dining room packed with dozens of journalists, editors, and executives, all there for a special luncheon to introduce me as “USA Today’”s new president. The place was buzzing. The team had been toiling for a year to get the newspaper off the ground, and I was the third president to be named in that short time. I was also a female, non-newspaper person and an absolutely unknown quantity to these people — many of whom had just learned about my hiring moments beforehand. As I looked around the room, I could feel the questions in the air: Was I a savior, a marketing genius who could turn the paper around? Or would I be a flop?
It wasn’t exactly like walking into a lion’s den, but it was certainly nerve-wracking. And it became even more so when I greeted Joe Welty, a red-faced, heavyset advertising executive who appeared to be about fifteen years my senior. Joe brusquely shook my hand, barking a quick “Welcome to ‘USA Today,’ Cathie.” I started to thank him, but before I could get a word out, he pulled me aside and said, “I just want you to know up front, I’m not going to be reporting to you.”
I stared at him, dumbfounded. Inside, I was seething. What did this mean? What in the world did the title “president” mean if key executives wouldn’t be reporting to me? With a sick feeling, I realized I’d never nailed down, in writing, what my actual duties were to be. Here I was, all excited about my exalted new position — and title — but because I hadn’t thought to work out the most important details in advance, I might possibly end up being little more than a figurehead. I couldn’t believe that, this far into my career, I’d forgotten advice as basic as, Make sure your job responsibilities are clearly defined.
All of which just goes to show that, at every level of your career, you can benefit from a refresher course on the basics. I’ll reveal later in the book how that situation with Joe Welty was resolved, but for now let’s just say that by ignoring one commonsense step, I added a whole new level of complication to my transition. These are the kinds of headaches I’d like to help you avoid.
To finish up with my short bio (and there is a happy ending), I spent eight fantastic years at “USA Today.” I then went on to head up the Newspaper Association of America for five years before accepting a position as president of Hearst Magazines, the position I hold today.
I’ve always loved working in the media business, because it’s an industry of ideas and creative people, but this book isn’t about the media. I’ve written it with a broader audience in mind —after all, much of the experience of what we call “work” is universal, and the best advice is the simple, common-denominator suggestions that apply across the board. So whether you work in media or in a corporate, nonprofit, or other environment, there are lessons and takeaways here that will apply to you.
Before we get into the heart of the book, I can’t resist telling one more story. When I first mentioned to Victor Ganzi, the president and CEO of the Hearst Corporation (and my boss) that I was writing a book, his reply was “It isn’t going to be about Hearst, is it?” A privately held company, the Hearst Corporation has traditionally kept its inner workings to itself, and while Vic presumably knew I wasn’t plotting some sort of exposé, he obviously thought it best to find out what exactly I planned to do.
I will, of course, write about some of my experiences at Hearst, as my time here has offered plenty of “teachable lessons,” along with some inside stories of dealing with legends of American business. But I reassured Vic that no, I wasn’t planning a whole book about the company. “In fact,” I told him, “it’s really more for your daughters.” Twin sisters just turning thirty, one a lawyer and one a recent MBA, Vic’s daughters are in the early stages of their journeys through the working world. I envisioned this book as a kind of tour guide to new terrain for them and others like them, regardless of age or level of achievement.
Okay, enough with the preliminaries — let’s jump right into the real business of this book. Now that I’ve shared my two-minute personal employment history, perhaps we should start Chapter 1 with a story about someone else: a young woman who wrote her way into magazine history with a tube of lipstick and a bold idea.
Excerpted from “Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work” by Cathie Black. Copyright © 2007 Cathie Black. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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