I Want Her Job: Kate White, Best-Selling Author, Career Expert and Former Cosmopolitan Editor-in-Chief
Go big or go home. It wasn’t just the career secret that led former Cosmopolitan magazine Editor-in-Chief Kate White to write her oh-so-gutsy cover lines. It was the secret that put the magazine squarely in the No. 1 spot in the world and catapulted her career.
Kate shares this secret — and more — in detail in her latest New York Times best-selling book on work and careers, “I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: How to Ask for the Money, Snag the Promotion and Create the Career You Deserve” (now out in paperback). And Kate would know what it takes. While leading Cosmo for 14 years, she grew the circulation by 700,000, oversaw Cosmo Books, Cosmopolitan.com, a bevy of digital projects and the brand’s fashion line at J.C. Penney. She also penned the best-selling Baily Weggins mystery series and two stand-alone thrillers in addition to a previous career book, “Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead … but Gutsy Girls Do.”
Kate worked for a handful of other well-known glossies and led Child, Working Woman and Redbook as editor-in-chief before joining Cosmo. Perhaps most importantly, Kate is a mom and managed to grow her career while also devoting herself to her two children and husband. With such a full plate, how does she do it all? Fortunately, she’s not one to hold back her secrets.
How did you discover your current job?
I always tell people they should be out in the world if they haven’t found their career. Yet I was lucky because I knew from the time I was young that I wanted to be a content provider. Growing up I wrote plays and put out my own magazine in high school. It was where I wanted to go. But even when you know where you want to go, you also need to know that one day you might want to make a shift.
That brings another question to mind. At what point did you decide you wanted to add ‘author’ to your resume?
There was a part of me that was enchanted by being an author, and I started to feel that calling a number of years ago. I noticed that whenever I went on a business trip, my favorite part of that trip would be when I’d go out on my own and lose myself. I remember an afternoon in Madrid walking by the hotel on those little streets. I began to feel a call for this loner existence away from the fray. Because many of us are very likely to have more than one career in our lives, it’s important to listen to the siren call down your career path, too.
How did you begin to write your first book on top of such a busy schedule?
That was a bitch. I knew I needed to lay the foundation first, which I think is important to do if you can. Test the waters — whether it’s through volunteer work or freelancing — and make sure you haven’t completely romanticized the idea in your mind. I started waking up very early on Saturday and Sunday mornings before my kids were awake to write books. It allowed me to get my foot in the door and build my reputation as a writer without leaving my career behind first.
Writing is a solitary life to some degree. It’s not like sitting at Cosmo with male models stripping down to their underwear for casting. The magazine was this zany place with something always going on and it was fun. I needed to make sure I was OK leaving that and making sure that financially it was going to work. It’s important to think about questions like: Would you have to take a pay cut? Can you afford that? In the long run, will it be worth it?
What drew you to writing mysteries?
Like a lot of girls, I love Nancy Drew and wanted to write mysteries from the time I was younger. It got to the point where I realized that if I didn’t start taking those steps to make that happen, it never was going to happen. So, I told myself: This is going to happen. I’m a big believer in managing your career and not just your job. To do that you need to use your personal time to step back from your life and ask yourself, “Is there a dream that I want to tap into?”
What inspired you to write a second career book?
Two things. The first is that I learned so much at Cosmo. Cosmo was an incredible place because it was this major brand that was awesomely powerful in the media world. A lot of people don’t realize that it’s the No. 1 magazine brand in the world and it’s in 65 countries. It’s huge and the stakes are very high. When I got there I realized that I needed to lead and learn. I felt I had learned so much running this huge killer brand that I had to share what I learned. Second, I also feel that young women today, mainly because of this economy, are needy for career advice in ways they hadn’t been before.
We’re dying to know … what was it like to work at Cosmo?
It was as close to being on a television show as you can imagine, and I relished it. During my last year at Cosmo, I knew I’d be leaving, so I walked in every day like I had a year to live. Cosmo has a certain craziness to it. The people who worked there tended to be a little more over the top.
I remember one time two people from corporate came over to talk to me and my managing editor about moving to the new Hearst Tower. While we were meeting, there was this knocking sound on the managing editor’s wall. She walked out to see what happened, came back in and said, “Sorry some books fell.” Later on she told me that two staffers were getting ready for a Kama Sutra piece and had to show the art department some of the positions. They were laughing so hard they were rolling off the wall.
It was all the fun and zaniness you’d imagine. Celebrities were always dropping by. There are stories that I could never tell management because they would always say, ‘That could be a lawsuit.’
Where did you find inspiration for staying on the pulse of culture?
We were No. 1 at the newsstands when I was there. I was a big believer in research and read every email our readers sent in. I did all sorts of ratings on items in the magazine and then analyzed them on the computer. I did focus groups. I also did Twitter reporting, too, but Twitter wasn’t a good way to do research as you’re looking at a very self-selecting group. I found no correlation between what they said and what covers sold. You have to be careful with social media, but make sure to really pay attention to the consumer. I watched everything, went to so many movies and watched shows like “Sex and the City” or “Dawson’s Creek.” There was a part of me that thought I’d be glad when I didn’t have to watch “The Bachelor” anymore, but that’s what my job entailed.
The one thing I found interesting, and this is something I talk about in the book, is the importance of going big. I would think, ‘Why am I the one suggesting Rihanna for the cover, or why aren’t we doing anything about ‘Twilight’?’ It’s so big to go big or go home in your job. I didn’t have enough young people bursting in the door saying, ‘Have you heard about Lady Gaga?’ Was it because it wasn’t part of their job description? It frustrated me that a lot of people didn’t come to me. And even though I’d try to tell them, they didn’t want to step over their boundaries.
Do you think that’s partly based on fear?
Those are natural fears. We feel if we’re too grabby or out there we’ll get a slap down, whether it’s from a boss or a co-worker. Here’s a little trick. When you do it once (forgo your fear) and discover that it almost always brings rewards, you will begin to quickly get over your fear. The first time you ask for more money in your salary, there’s never a time that you won’t want to do it again. What you discover is that good things come from that. Start small. Take that seat near the power player at a meeting. Go up to a power player at a networking event and say, ‘Hi. I’m (insert your name) and saw your speech on YouTube. I thought it was fantastic when you addressed x and y.’ Suddenly you will find you’re in a conversation and you won’t be afraid to do that the next time.
Is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?
One thing it took me a while to realize, and that I wish I had realized earlier, is how important it is to step back on a regular basis and do an assessment of how everything is working. In the book, I share this idea that you’ve gotta drain the swamp as you slay the alligators. The draining of the swamp is the big picture, and the slaying of the alligators is everything we deal with in the day-to-day. Sometimes we have a hard time focusing on both, so we slay the alligators forgetting that we also need to drain the swamp. It was only later that I realized you needed to do that in your personal life as well.
Find a spot at the kitchen table, grab a notebook and ask yourself, ‘How am I doing?’ I saw a quote lately where someone said, ‘You can’t balance things until you know what you’re measuring.’ Make a list of what some of those responsibilities are that you have and ask if you can let some of it go. We often get on a treadmill of responsibility where everything we do isn’t necessary. It’s also a good time to ask yourself, ‘Is there a girlhood dream I haven’t responded to?’
It was one of those sessions where I thought, ‘I don’t want to give up the mysteries I write.’ I’m a big believer in having that coffee with yourself and doing an honest evaluation. It might even be a good idea to ask a friend of yours, ‘Hey, if you look at my life from the outside, what’s your take?’ It can help give you a sense of who you are and how you can adjust to fulfill your bigger dreams.
What are some of the rules you live by?
I think one of those was realizing that I talked about going big but I needed to make that more of a calculated process where I actually stepped back from everything and asked, ‘Did I go big enough with this?’ I can describe the process as asking myself the four Bs: ‘Could this be Bigger, Bolder, Better or more Bad Ass?’ I went through a process to make ‘going big’ more of a calculated thing.
What advice would you tell a 28-year-old version of yourself?
I think at 28 I had a nice level of confidence that got shaken in a couple of places in the next few years. I would say to myself, ‘Stay in the confidence that you’re feeling right now as you’re moving up in your career and loving it. Don’t let anything shake it.’
I also would have said (and believe me I didn’t adhere to this enough), ‘Always ask for more than they’re offering.’ That’s the one mistake I was really still making at 28. I was offered a job that year and I took exactly what was offered. They would have definitely given more. Ask for more. Always.
[This article was originally published on iwantherjob.com. For more interviews with women changing the face of business, keep checking back to NAPW’s Career Services section for our column. And, get your daily dose by following @iwantherjob on Twitter.]