Kate White On Your Biggest Work Screwups, Feminism, & Leaving Cosmo

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We were pretty shocked to learn, a few weeks ago, that Kate White, the legendary editor who's steered Cosmo into the 21st century, was leaving her gig in favor of focusing on her fiction writing and other personal projects (allowing former Marie Claire EIC, Joanna Coles, to take over her gig). As former magazine editors, most of us see White as not just an inspiration, but an institution, as she's helmed a magazine that's sat comfortably at number one on U.S. newsstands through some of the toughest years the publishing industry has seen.

With all of that said, we were obviously pretty thrilled to receive advance copies of her upcoming book, I Shouldn't Be Telling You This, and then get the opportunity to pick the editor's brain about all things career and Cosmo, and speak honestly about the challenges facing women at work today, that Atlantic article that said we couldn't have it all, and all of the workplace mistakes you might be making right now. So, if you're planning on angling for a promotion anytime soon, skip this Q&A at your own peril.

What's the thing you're most proud of from your 14 years at the helm of Cosmo?
"I think just taking a brand that has really been brilliantly executed and bringing it into the 21st century and having it be number one for 14 years. I know that can be tricky, and I was lucky this brand, it was very unambiguous as to why readers came to the magazine, and though the brand did need to be freshened up and reinvented to some degree, the expectations of readers to be excited, to be inspired, to have very candid sexual content, those were all really clear to me.

"One of the mistakes I see people make when they go in to magazines, to websites, whatever, is just they sometimes don’t do their homework and you know, there’s a lot that you can learn by just digging in and trying to understand your consumer and why she’s attracted to you to begin with and why her infatuation may have started to wane, and if you could just work with as much information as you can, it's such an asset. There’s such a real tendency for people to come in and say, 'I’m going to do this' and, 'I’m going to do that' but you’ve got to burrow down and figure it out first before you make big, bold moves, I think."

How much of your decisions at the magazine were about the research, and what the readers and the numbers were telling you versus trusting your gut?
"One of the things about Cosmo is it’s a huge money maker; it’s in the top five most lucrative magazine brands in the world and the most powerful brand at Hearst, so you'd better go in there and give consumers what they want because if you don’t, you’re going to start losing money. But at the same time, you can’t just rely on consumers to tell you what they want because they know what they don’t like, but they can’t always tell you for sure what they will really do like.

"I remember in focus groups, I never showed covers ahead of time because that would never reflect what the real buying pattern would ultimately be. But, one time, I just happened to have a cover, and it was Ashlee Simpson. It was right after she'd had that lip-syncing fiasco on Saturday Night Live, and I showed that cover to the focus group — even though I never showed an upcoming cover — and I asked them to tell me on a scale of one to 10 how much they liked it. It got a one in every focus group and a little part of me was going, 'Oh, oy vey,' but another part of me was saying, 'You know that they don’t tell you the truth' and it’s not because they’re lying. They don’t know what they really want. That cover sold 2.1 million copies on the newsstands."

How do you choose to walk away and hand those kinds of decisions off to someone else? What did the process of deciding to leave Cosmo look like for you?
"I do really try to think things out and really listen to my gut and almost project and say, 'How will I feel about this a month from now?' and 'How will I feel the moment I make the decision?' because I think sometimes you can romanticize things. I loved Cosmo so much and I really enjoyed my time there, but I started to realize that 14 years is a long time, and now, there’s a window for me to do something different and fresh. I think all through your career, there are these windows that you have to kind of be aware of because they can slip away from you if you’re not paying attention. And so once I started to think about this window and that I needed to do it sooner rather than later, I let my gut just try to speak to me as I projected, 'Okay what’s it going to be like to not have 55 fabulous fun people around you every day who you work with?' and 'What’s it going to be like working out of a home office on the third floor of my brownstone in New York instead of a beautiful tower building.' And because I’d already done a lot of writing a novel in my little office, I felt it would be good and I would know what to expect, and though there might be a few curveballs here and there, I wouldn’t be unhappy."

So, speaking of windows that you need to jump through, do you have any regrets as far as openings or opportunities you didn't go for throughout your career?
"Well, actually I wish I had known about the window theory before. One regret I have is that I had the opportunity to take a job at seven months pregnant and go to run Working Woman, and I did it really in part because I thought this may be easier for me having a newborn, but there turned out to be so much work to do there in terms of modernizing the magazine that it ended up being really overwhelming, and I really regret that I didn’t have that almost interrupted time with my daughter when she was little. But, that was just one window I didn’t need to jump into based on the fact that I was this star young editor at that time at my company, and I probably could’ve just stayed there and had something else very quickly down the road when I was a little bit more ready. So, I think you have to know when the windows are open, but also ask yourself, 'Is this really the right moment to jump through this based on my own feeling of readiness?' I don’t think there’s anything wrong, as that Atlantic article showed, with saying maybe we have to be serial achievers, and then there are some things that you save for a different moment in your life. And maybe that window will still open or there will be another kind of window."

Well, speaking of that Atlantic story, in your book, you talk about how the conversation about "having it all" was a thing of the past, but now, Dean Slaughter, and so many writers who have responded to her article, are bringing that idea back into the conversation. Do you feel at all like it's a step backward, to be talking about whether or not women can have it all?
"Well, I liked reading the story and I empathized with her. I would’ve been tempted to flip it around to say it’s not that we can't have it all but because the tug of motherhood and the real desire to be with our kids and invest in them, I think there are moments when you might have to make a choice to temporarily let go of something and postpone it; to buy into the idea of being a serial achiever.

"For me, I was able to do that by choosing a certain type of career that allows for flexibility. When my kids were little, I left every single day at five and never went to the fashion shows in Paris and Milan because I knew where my guilt switch flipped on, and I just thought I don’t want to be gone for the first couple weeks of school.

"You go into it with the idea that, hey you can still have a fabulous career and you can still have a fabulous relationship with your kids. It doesn’t mean you have to say no to all of that. It just means that there might be some things you have to let go of professionally at certain points in time and circle back to them. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

"So, I think that article really raised some great points, but for some women, it came off as being an oh-no moment, when actually I just thought a different way to look at it is: Let’s be realistic, there may be some things you say no to, but you don’t have to say no to everything, and we live long lives as women."

Photo: Courtesy of HarperBusiness
kate-white-book-coverYour advice is all about "going big" and not being meek in the workplace. That really resonated with us, but for people who are just joining the workplace, they get a lot of flak for being entitled, and that kind of advice seems dangerous. How do you counter those preconceptions?
"Well, first of all, as entitled as they may feel, I don’t think that they’re as good at asking for what they want sometimes, as you would think. I also think they tend to sometimes go about it in the wrong way — they make it a lot about themselves and not enough about what the needs are of the organization. When I was at Cosmo, I did a round table with interns four times a year, and it would just be an opportunity for me to talk to them about career stuff. I remember at the last one I did, one young woman raised her hand and she said, 'For my first job, I just want a guarantee that there’s nothing boring about it. How do I make sure that happens?' And I kind of laughed and said, 'That used to be called paying your dues.'

"If you think the notion of going big is about 'I want to go big, I want to go in and dazzle and get ahead and really make my mark and make a name for myself,' the problem with that is that’s not going to serve the organization or your boss in any way that’s necessarily good for them. Because what they want you to be doing is serving their needs and going big in a way that helps them. So, you’re going to have to make moves that make them look at you and make money for them and not so much focus on your own needs; you have to satisfy your own needs through doing something that’s going to enhance your company. And I also think that sometimes when they ask for what they want, it’s about 'I need this for my career or my own experience,' and it’s not trained in a way that makes it about what’s going to serve the boss and the organization."

So, what do you think it really takes for a young staffer to really set herself (or himself) apart when that's the expectation from most bosses?
"You know there was this really talented girl at Cosmo — she is so talented and she will run a website or be editor of a magazine one day. But, I remember there was one time where I was giving a dinner party, you know we used to give dinner parties for really interesting women, Fearless Females, and I would have people cooking and serving, but it was nice to have someone at the door who was related to the magazine, so occasionally I would ask an assistant editor to just greet people when they came in.

There was somebody on my staff who I had asked to do that, and I said maybe just before you leave you maybe would help us in the dining room pour the first round of wine. And the person said, 'Oh, I don’t really know how to pour wine.' But what she was really saying was 'I don’t do wine pouring.' And what was interesting was that she never really had the talent to move up, but the other girl, the one who I said will run a web site one day, she was so spectacular that night and I remember her going around the table and just pouring wine and being so gracious to everyone, and I thought part of what is going to make this person succeed is the combination of awesome talent with 'I’m not embarrassed or I’m not too good to show my boss, the editor-in-chief, that I’m all in for her tonight.' And now, I would do anything for this girl; she’s just a total winner. I think if you could have that combo, particularly in a crowded room of very talented people, one way to stand out from the pack is to be the one who's going to be all in for the person who is the boss."

Another thing we loved about your advice was the moment where you talk about "bitch envy" and how you need to look inward and see where any envy you feel toward co-workers who might be succeeding is coming from. But, how do you foster that kind of healthy competition without cattiness?
"Well, I try to do it in a healthy way where people are rewarded, promoted, and praised for achievements but you also try to foster collaboration. There was never a system where...if you pulled one over on somebody, you didn’t get rewarded for that, but I do think that when you have a really collaborative workplace and you have a lot of people being friends together, I love it. In fact, when I was at Glamour in the '70s, when I left, there were six women who went out to dinner with me to celebrate. We went to a Turkish restaurant and after that, I called us the Turks. I just got an email from one of the Turks saying that they want to do, at the original Turkish restaurant, a celebration dinner for me for leaving Cosmo.

"And they’re going to wait until one of them comes in from Florida and the other one comes in from California. And just the idea that that was 40 years ago and these six women have been pals of mine for all that time, and that they are going to do this dinner for me and that the Turks still get together. We’ve been part of the Turks all these years and part of our lives, and we’ve celebrated our marriages and mourned the divorces and things like that so, I don’t know, I just wanted to create a workplace where people had the same Turks experience just like I did."

That kind of female camaraderie is so priceless. Particularly when even today, as women writing about things like fashion and sex and relationships — women's issues, across the board — it's so easy to be seen as frivolous or anti-feminist. Tavi recently told us a story that confirmed these ideas, but do you think that we're making progress as far as those attitudes go?
"I just feel that today it doesn’t matter what some people’s attitudes might be about that. It’s all about how you live your life — if you love looking girly or if you love dressing in orange platform heels, in most places today that’s not going to work against you, and it’s all going to be about how you do your business, how you present yourself in terms of your ideas, how take-charge you are. I think today you just see so many women looking how they want to look and not wearing some uniform.

"If they want to be totally all about fashion that doesn’t undermine their power, I think it’s great that we don’t have to make that choice anymore. And today, I think, in most fields, except perhaps in really conservative fields, you can just be who you want to be in terms of your look and your presence. It’s all about how you do your job. And sometimes, people are going to be surprised perhaps, 'wow I didn’t expect her to be this way,' based on how she looked. But we just have to keep surprising them."

"It used to be that you had to be the smart girl or the jock girl or the pretty girl or the cheerleader girl, and I think today women really know that they can be all of those things. When Sex and the City was on the air, one of the things I loved was that when I said, 'Do you think there’s a part of every one of the characters in you?' 89% of the women said yes. So, I think most women would say some days they want to be more Samantha, and some days, they want to be more Carrie, and some days, I want to be more Miranda. But you can be all of those things in the same woman. And we don’t have to be one or the other anymore."

Photo: Courtesy of HarperBusiness