Kate White knows a thing or two about branding. In 1998 she became the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, one of the world's most recognized media brands. She also happens to be a huge proponent of the personal brand, and in the latest of her four books of career advice for women, insists that anyone who wants to succeed at work needs one.
White's personal brand was evident the moment she greeted us in her office at Cosmo. She wore a patterned Marni shift dress that said stylish (the patterned Marni part) practicality (the single-item outfit part). Between the papers stacked on her desk and zebra print splashed on the wall behind it, the mood was equal parts industry and fun. White loves to work -- did we mention that she has authored eight thrillers in her spare time? -- and it shows.
The other obvious aspect of the Kate White brand is that she is disarmingly warm and inquisitive in a way that makes you feel let into her confidence. The title of the new advice book, released this week, is "I Shouldn't Be Telling You This." Yet the careful reader will note that the book includes the instruction, "Don't just tell, teach… Just don't share all your secrets."
The secret White, 61, didn't give away in her first interview with HuffPost's weekly magazine, Huffington in August was one she'd known since January, that after 14 years of making Cosmopolitan the world's best-selling young women's magazine month over month, she was stepping down.
Over the past month we talked to her about what she thinks women still need to hear about work and what her legacy will be at Cosmo.
You write in the book that you wanted to be an editor-in-chief even as a teen. When you actually got to your 20s and started out, were you still confident in your ability to fulfill that dream? And how can young women in their 20s find that level of confidence?
I think it is important in your 20s to accept that [your confidence] is going to waver and not feel at all intimidated by that. I went back and forth between moments of feeling “I can do it, I can rule the world” -- a little world, any way -- and also feeling that I wanted more of a sense of my own freedom and destiny. I was ambitious, and I loved working, but I didn’t know if mentally I saw myself as someone in a big job where the stakes were high and the buck stopped with me. So I would go back and forth between “I want to be an editor-in-chief” and “I want to be more of a freelance writer."
As I was moving up in the magazine business, the pressure became less frightening to me, and I started to engage with the notion of, “Yeah, I could run things and not have my pants scared off doing it.”
Was wanting to have a family at all responsible for that desire to go freelance?
No. I love Sheryl Sandberg’s great TED speech, but I don’t relate to what she says about women tend[ing] to hold back as they’re starting to think about family. I didn’t feel that way.
What is the biggest challenge women face in the workplace now?
What scares me now is just how much people are expected to work incredible hours and to be “on” 24/7. That’s really hard for women who are mothers. I was in a situation not long ago where somebody called a 7 o’clock meeting at this company. And I said to the person later, how can you do that in a company of working moms?
Do you feel like working motherhood was easier in the pre-Blackberry, pre-iPhone age?
I do. I left at 5 every day until I got to Cosmo, and then I left at 5:30. And as soon as the kids were in bed, I worked for several more hours. I had to deal with a stack of work, but I didn’t have to deal with 30 emails that came in after.
That was also a time where I could contemplate, and really think about the magazine. I think what I brought to Cosmo early on were the hours and hours I spent just daydreaming about the magazine. What it could be? How I could evolve it? I think now it gets harder and harder for anyone to block out that time to say, “No one’s in touch with me right now. This is my time to just create.”
In a recent New York Times Magazine profile, Edith Zimmerman quoted a young woman in her 20s—a member of Cosmo’s target demographic—pronouncing the magazine “mindless.” How do you respond to that?
There are definitely people who would feel that the magazine isn’t for them, but I think if you haven’t read it cover to cover, you’re missing a lot of what we do. Yes we have beauty tips. Maybe that seems mindless. But I feel like we’ve covered a lot of important issues: sexually transmitted diseases, a number of articles on binge drinking and driving under the influence of alcohol, five characteristics of male students who date rape. I just don’t find that mindless. Even the sex stuff. [As a culture] I think what we haven’t done a lot for women in terms of helping them understand their sexuality, and know that they are entitled to have orgasms, and that, yes, as part of a sexual relationship you want to please your partner, but you deserve to be pleased equally yourself. All of that’s in a package that’s pretty, frothy and fun. We’re not meant to help you pass the law boards. It’s about entertainment and enjoyment and getting some information that you can use in your life, too.
What is the biggest career lesson you learned from your tenure at Cosmo?
"Fun fearless female" is our whole motto at Cosmo, but I love that expression I talked about in the book, "Go big or go home." Tbere have been times in life where I've had a tendency to be a little tentative. Every day Cosmo reinforced the notion that you gotta go big or go home, and it helped me do that more in life.
And what's important is not just believing that but really making it a ritual in your work life, where you ask yourself, Did I go big or go home? You really have to hold your projects up against that on a regular basis and ask, Is this as big and as gutsy as it could be? Is it the freshest way to do it, or can I go farther with it.? Did I dazzle my boss?
Why did you decide to step down?
It’s always bittersweet to leave a great job, but I had a window of opportunity where I could leave with the magazine at number one. We outsell our nearest competitor on the newsstand by over a million, and we’re poised nicely for the digital age. I’ve had a great run, and I want to really focus on my life as an author. I am not dying with my boots on here.
What's next for you?
I have another novel, a psychological thriller, [in the works], and I'm going to do a lot of speaking related to ["I Shouldn't Be Telling You This"] and I'm going to start a little digital business that I can't say much about right now, and I'm also going to do a couple consulting projects for boss at Hearst.
What will your legacy be at Cosmo?
What I feel most proud about is that I took a magazine that had been successful at another time, and I made it relevant in the 21st century for a new generation of women and kept it number one for 14 years. I think there are lots of mature brands that don't make it after a certain point in time. To take a strong brand but one that needed revitalization and [make it successful] -- it was fun and exciting to pull that off.
This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.
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