Alpha Femme: Q&A with Cathie Black

Cathie Black was the first woman publisher of a weekly consumer magazine. If the story ended there it would be impressive enough, but this is the Cathie Black we’re talking about. The Cathie Black who went on to serve as president and publisher of USA Today, then president and chairman of Hearst magazines where she oversaw more than 200 publications including Harper’s Bazaar, CosmopolitanElle and O, The Oprah Magazine.

It’s also the Cathie Black who wrote a bestseller, has been dubbed “The First Lady of American Magazines,” and named to just about every “most powerful woman” list, including Forbes and Fortune. And, yes, it’s the Cathie Black whose tenure as Chancellor of New York  Schools was only slightly longer than Kim Kardashian’s last marriage.

Say what you want, but the woman has guts. This month Cathie has turned her attention to emboldening other women leaders as chairwoman of the inaugural Women in Leadership conference at the Greenbrier Resort. Below, she reflects on the balance between competing and collaborating in business, getting the best from employees, and moving forward with no regrets.

1.) So much has been written about the workforce being a “game,” with men’s inherent competitive nature as an advantage over women’s desire to play nicely and create win-wins. To ascend to the top of the ladder, as you have, there’s no doubt you need to be both competitive and interdependent, but many women struggle with this – e.g. either too weak or too assertive. How have you found this balance in your own career?

My approach is both competitive and interdependent with the situation dictating what behavior will be most beneficial. There are times when the competitive approach suits a situation better than the more collaborative style that women seem to favor. On the other hand, there are many fiercely competitive women and many guys who are comfortable collaborating. Some of that is personality, some of it is learned behavior. Assessing what is needed comes from experience working with and for others plus trying different methods to achieve success whether it is a deal point, a sales call, or a big negotiation. And that negotiation could even be around the dinner table with your own children!

2.) It’s so great to see strong women leaders growing other strong women leaders as you’re doing with the Greenbrier conference this month. From your experience, if you had to name one thing that is holding women back in their careers, what would it be?

Lacking confidence in one’s own capabilities. Guys just assume they are good!  Also, getting comfortable with taking risks, becoming a strong manager, asking for the next assignment, being willing to relocate for a new position, or moving to a lateral one if it offers additional experience are all opportunities for growth and development.  But you must develop confidence in your decision-making and skills in order to project an aura of strength and competence.

3.) How have you pulled the best from your employees?

Sharing your goals and vision is key to getting people to buy into your plan, plus understanding the end goal and seeing where things fit in the overall scheme. When your employees know that you are there to help them achieve success, to offer guidance and training, to develop their skills and get them excited about where the company is going, it creates the right spirit of teamwork for your people to buy into the mission and do their best work.

4.) When you were NYC Schools Chancellor, you faced some tough criticism at public meetings about closing schools. Would you consider this period the most difficult of your career and what is the biggest lesson you’ll take away from that experience?

When Mayor Bloomberg asked me to take on the role of Chancellor of NYC Schools, I was thrilled. To be able to apply all that I had learned in business to serve the 1.1 million children in the NYC school system was such an opportunity to make a contribution to the very challenged status of NYC schools. Yes, it was a very difficult undertaking, but I believed in the mission that our children deserve the best schools and education possible and I don’t regret taking on that role.

5.) If you could go back and give one piece of career advice to your 20-year-old self, what would it be?

Follow your passions and love what you do. Nothing happens overnight or comes easily. So don’t be afraid to experiment a little and be open to ideas.

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