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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Orchestrate Your Success: A Conversation With Cathie Black

Muses, meet Cathie Black.

If you're a bookworm, you know her as the author of Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best seller and, as one reviewer put it, “like having a portable mentor at your side.”

If you’re in the media or publishing world, you know her as one of the first female moguls in the media industry: She’s served as the Chairman and President of Hearst Magazines (think Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, and O, the Oprah Magazine) as well as President and Publisher of USA Today.

And if you’re a Daily Muse reader, you’ll soon know her as your virtual mentor. Every other week, we’ll be sitting down with Cathie and bringing you her practical advice on pursuing your passions, having a success mindset, getting ahead at work, and creating the career and life of your dreams.

Today, we’re kicking all this off with Cathie’s words of wisdom on creating a career plan, setting goals, and orchestrating your own success.

Because obviously, she’s done something right.

We often hear that we should have 5- or 10-year career plans. What is your take?

It’s great to have a career goal, but the world has changed so much that a 10-year plan just isn't realistic. Most people can’t imagine being in one company for that long. They want to experience other settings and they are wary of committing for much more than a couple of years. Perhaps it's because they see little job security anywhere around them, or they've seen parents or friends downsized or had their companies sold.

However, after about four or five years in the workplace, things begin to clarify. You either really like what you are doing and can see a path to greater advancement or you know it's not the field you want to stay in and you are open to rethinking your original game plan. Maybe it’s going to business school. Maybe it’s a complete re-routing. But most of all, it is important to take tangible steps to go for the next rung up the ladder or improve your situation.

Start by thinking, “How far do I want to go?” You should be observing the Manager or the Director a step above you—and the Managing Director four steps above you—and identifying if that amount of responsibility and workload is what you want.

Assuming that the answer is yes, begin planning how to get there. You have to be thinking “I am in X position today, I have this kind of responsibility, I’m earning this kind of money. What does it take to get to the next level?” You’ll want to explore that by talking with colleagues who you respect and whose judgment is sound. Take the opportunity to prepare a set of questions and discuss them with your manager and those at a higher level, always asking how they achieved their goals and what advice to they have for how you can get ahead.

Once you’ve created that plan, what are the next steps? What do you do with it? 

Start by being active. Too often, women are passive, assuming things will just happen. And generally, exciting new responsibilities don’t just happen. You have to be clear to your manager that you want to move ahead, that you’re serious about your career, that you’re willing to take on a new project or even relocate or move to another division to broaden your skill set.

I always say, “Don't think your boss is a mind reader!” She can’t know all of your ambitions, hopes, dreams, expectations. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to be in her office every Monday morning, asking, “What’s next for me?” But when it’s appropriate (end-of-year is always a good time, as hopefully there's a record of success that you have achieved in the last 12 months), you need to make an appointment with your manager, and be clear about your goals for the upcoming year.

That gives you the opportunity to say something like: “I want to make sure you understand that I want to succeed in this company. I really love my work and working for you. Do you have any suggestions for how I can improve in a particular area? Is there anything you have observed that is holding me back?”

Why do you think women are prone to thinking that things “will just happen?”

Many years ago, Gloria Steinem, the founding editor of Ms. magazine, said that women have a “terminal case of gratitude.” In other words, they worked so hard to get that job or title or responsibility—they were so appreciative of it—that they became complacent, not aggressively going after bigger responsibilities. They sat contentedly in whatever their function was, as opposed to saying, “I am ambitious, “I am smart,” “I am competent,” “I have the qualities needed to succeed with larger responsibilities,” and then taking a chance and going for it. In other words, being afraid to put themselves “out there.”

Women are less risk-prone, I believe, than men are. These are generalizations, of course, but men are trained to barge ahead, go forth, take the mountain, and rarely look back. Women, on the other hand, have to be encouraged to dream a bigger dream. That’s what I mean about being passive, and just hoping that something bigger will just come along.

You aimed for the top, and you got there. But I see a lot of women not thinking that big. They think about one or two steps up, and they think that’s enough.

My advice to women is that they’ve got to develop a bigger passion for a bigger life and a bigger job. I try to encourage women all the time to not be satisfied. And it comes back to being too grateful. It’s thinking too small, or not having that self-confidence that is so critical to the way you are perceived.

You have earned a seat at the table! Take it. No one is going to say, “Oh, go sit in the center of the table.” You have to go sit in the center of the table and act as though you belong in that seat. And make a contribution.

In your own life, when have you taken a risk that’s made a successful impact on your career?

It’s a long time ago, but when I went to Ms. magazine as the advertising manager, it was a big risk. Would this new, feminist magazine succeed? Could I succeed? At the time, I was on the advertising sales staff at New York magazine, and moving up to an ad manager position was my main goal. I also had to weigh the pros and cons of what I would gain or lose by going to Ms. No one knew if the magazine would succeed—so that was the risk. But a risk I believed worth taking.

And it was also exciting. First, I believed in the mission of the magazine in those early days of the women’s movement. I felt like I could make a difference. Second, I knew that becoming an advertising manager would vault me ahead a number of layers to achieve my eventual goal of becoming a publisher. There were few women in ad sales then, and none in management. And since Ms. was to be a national magazine, it would extend my circle of contacts outside of New York City at ad agencies, and companies all across the U.S. All of this, I believed, would be good for my reputation and potential advancement.

In my own mind, I had to ask, “What’s the worst that could happen if this doesn’t succeed?” I analyzed the pros and cons and came to the decision that taking the risk was worth it. And I never looked back.

At what point did you know you wanted to be the publisher of a magazine?

As an English major in college, I assumed I would become an editor. But when I first started interviewing, it was very difficult to find a job as an editorial assistant, plus it didn’t pay enough to live in New York! I was interviewing at different companies, and one head of HR said to me, “We don’t have anything in editorial, but we do have something in ad sales.” I didn’t even know what that meant, but I needed and wanted a paying job that would cover the rent.

It wasn’t very glamorous, as I was really selling ads over the phone, but it was a great learning experience. And I found that I really likedand was good atthe selling part. I also liked the creative environment, the people, and being a part of a product that changed monthly. In short time, I felt like the magazine industry was a good fit for me. It was always changing, fast-paced, interesting, and ultimately, rewarding. And the top job was publisher. And I knew I wanted that. Eventually.

What do you often find yourself telling women about goal-setting?

There are five things I talk about in my book, Basic Black: Pursuing your passions; taking risks that are calculated, not crazy; achieving the 360-degree life; making your life a grudge-free zone; and orchestrating your own success.

That’s really relevant here. Only you can plan your own route, it’s not going to be done for you. So defining what you want, what degree of success you want, how you identify that, and how you can get there—those have to come from within. Other people can help you with that plan, but having a goal—and sharing that goal with those who can impact your career or next step—is going to help you move forward, faster.