Take It From Cathie -- It's Not So Black and White

The President of Hearst Magazines Offers Today's Career Woman Tips on Getting Ahead, as Well as Her Own Missteps

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Cathie Black, president of Hearst Magazines, is one experienced working woman. Her first job as a fresh-faced college graduate was advertising sales assistant for now-defunct Holiday magazine. Along the way, from that sales assistant job to her current president post, she often found herself the first woman in jobs that long had been done only by men.

In 1979, she became the first woman publisher of a consumer magazine, New York Magazine. She was a female publisher of the first national daily newspaper, Gannett's USA Today, at a time when the only female publishers anyone knew about were ones whose families had started newspapers.

She then moved over to spend five years as president-CEO of what eventually became the Newspaper Association of America, a trade group for an industry that pretty much defined old boy's network. I recall sitting as a fledgling reporter in the back of the auditorium in 1991 listening to Ms. Black give her first address to the annual conference of newspaper publishers, and overhearing two (much) older men discuss whether it was appropriate for her to be wearing a leather skirt. The fact that a knee-length skirt could be construed as risqué gives you an idea what kind of entrenched thinking she was up against. Cutting her ad sales rep teeth at Ms. magazine early on no doubt helped her negotiate her long hike up the ladder, and honed her skill at defusing just that kind of resistance.

Now she's hoping to help other young professional women figure it all out. Her book is part career guide, part life coach, and part memoir. In between straightforward advice like don't leave your resume on the copy machine and always be the most prepared person in any meeting, Ms. Black recounts her working days that threw her into corporate jets with Gannett Chairman-CEO Al Neuharth; facing Rupert Murdoch with a half-hour presentation and given four minutes to deliver it; pitching Oprah Winfrey on launching a magazine; and apologizing to corporate heads like Estee Lauder's Leonard Lauder and Chrysler's Lee Iacocca. She also recounts why she closed down Tina Brown and Harvey Weinstein's Talk magazine, how Atoosa Rubinstein talked her into publishing her idea for a monthly magazine, CosmoGirl, and how she explained away the cost of getting Bill Clinton to talk at a corporate retreat to her boss Victor Ganzi.

Some of her advice boils down to a career girl's version of The Rules. Never surprise your boss. Anticipate his or her needs. Make him or her look good. Make your boss happy, and know what might make him or her really unhappy.

Other advice falls under the category of "Your mother was right": Dress appropriately. Stand up straight. Look people in the eye. Express yourself clearly. Send thank-you notes. Don't get drunk at office parties.

But she also gives examples of when it's OK to break the rules, how to ask for what you want, when you should take a (calculated) risk, how to network, how to approach your colleagues for a recommendation and how to negotiate for a job and ask for a raise for yourself or someone on your team.

Ms. Black doesn't shy away from sharing her missteps as a way to illustrate the wrong way of handling a sticky work situation. At USA Today, she arrived for a luncheon to introduce herself to the staff as the newspaper's new president, only to be greeted by the advertising director's response that he wouldn't be reporting to her. Turns out, she never negotiated the parameters of her position. She recounts sending ill-advised memos, accidentally swallowing sleeping pills instead of Advil before a series of important meetings, chewing out a staffer in front of the woman's husband, and a revolt by Ms. magazine's ad sales team after a particularly bossy bit of leadership on Black's part.

In her life-coach role, she encourages young women to go for the "360-degree" life that includes marriage, family and career, if that's what they want. In this especially, Ms. Black is clear-eyed about today's realities of the workplace. You can't expect your employer to make it their business to accommodate your life. But you can make it your business to ask for the personal time you need, be it maternity leave or vacation. How to find the balance? There's no magic formula here. Everyone needs to work it out for themselves, have candid conversations with your boss and co-workers and try to find a situation that best fits your needs.

Anyone expecting to find a treatise from a former Ms. magazine executive on how women can rule the workplace is in for disappointment. There's not much here in the way of how being a female executive is any different than being a male executive. In Ms. Black's view, if you aim to be an executive, you have to start acting like an executive and play by the corporate rules: Don't personalize things that aren't personal; take responsibilities for mistakes; don't postpone tough decisions. Be willing to put work ahead of your personal life if that's what the job calls for at the time. Only you can decide what importance to put on what part of your life, and what will bring you satisfaction.

So, bold-faced names and amusing anecdotes? Check. Practical tips for how to behave at work? Check. Getting a 360-degree life? You're smart. You'll figure it out.
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