Women in Business Q&A: Kate White

Kate White is an internationally known expert on leadership and success and a New York Times bestselling author of several influential books on work and careers, including, most recently, I Shouldn't Be Telling You This: How to Ask for the Money, Snag the Promotion and Create the Career You Deserve and Why Good Girls Don't Get Ahead but Gutsy Girls Do. Her advice is based on her extraordinary career running five major magazines. For 14 years she was the Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan, which was the bestselling monthly magazine on the newsstand during her tenure and was published in 64 countries.

Kate's career in the magazine business began when she won Glamour magazine's Top Ten College Women contest and appeared on the cover. She earned a position at the magazine and quickly rose from editorial assistant to feature writer and columnist. After holding major jobs at several other magazines, she was tapped to be an editor-in-chief, first for Child Magazine and then later Working Woman and Redbook. She took the helm at Cosmopolitan in 1998. Under her leadership at Cosmo, guaranteed circulation grew by 700,000. She also oversaw Cosmo Books, Cosmopolitan.com, many digital projects, and the Cosmo fashion line introduced at J.C. Penney.

She regularly speaks at conferences and events around the country and was recently named one of the 15 Best Career Experts to Follow on Twitter by CEOworld.com.

In addition to writing non-fiction, Kate is the author of the New York Times best-selling Bailey Weggins mystery series (including If Looks Could Kill--which was selected as Live with Regis and Kelly's first Reading With Ripa book-club pick and shot to #1 on Amazon) and four stand-alone suspense novels: Hush, The Sixes, Eyes on You, and the upcoming The Wrong Man. Her books have been published in 13 languages. She is also the editor of the Mystery Writers of America Cookbook, which will be released in April 2015.

She is married and the mother of two children.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I think being a good leader comes in large part from a willingness to study effective leadership and adapt some of the techniques, and also openness to learning from your mistakes. In especially challenging jobs (which in my case included my first job as an editor-in-chief, when I was brand new at it, as well as running Cosmo, which is such a big, powerful brand), it's essential to lead and learn at the same time. I kept gathering insightful information and attempting to improve my skills. I even hired people--like time management experts--who could teach me things that could make me a stronger leader. When you're in an executive position, it can be a bit humbling to be a student of sorts, but it pays off.

Many people will know you from your tenure as editor in chief of Cosmopolitan. What were the highlights and challenges during your time at the magazine?
It was a mature magazine, and at the time I took over, a number of mature magazines had begun to flounder. I'm very proud that during my years at Cosmo we increased circulation by 700,000, and on the newsstand we also reached a point where we were outselling our nearest competitor by over a million copies a month. Those are really big numbers compared to most publications.

We also added two dozen more international editions of the magazine, launched the website, launched Cosmo radio, started Cosmo for Guys and Cosmo Style, introduced an enhanced digital edition, and sold over a million books we edited in house.

In terms of the actual magazine, two of my proudest accomplishments were the Practice Safe Sun campaign, which for years highlighted the dangers of tanning beds and helped lead to the passage of the Tan Act, and the Cosmo Against Campus Rape campaign. And I love the fact that we probably taught a lot of women how to have an orgasm and make sex pleasurable for them. Sex is just more complicated for women than men and I'm thrilled there were so many women who benefited from the information we offered (even though it gave some old farts heart palpitations).

How has this experience influenced your current role as a bestselling writer?
The key to editing Cosmo, in my view, was to be ferociously gutsy, and doing that on a regular basis helped make me gutsier as a writer. It taught me to never hold back, which is sometimes my natural inclination as a reformed Catholic schoolgirl! I work on my first chapters endlessly so that they have as much punch as possible, using the same zeal I used to write Cosmo coverlines.

Why is writing so appealing to you?
As surprising as it sounds, I find writing mysteries and suspense novels to be a real stress reliever. I love losing myself in the characters and the story. And early last year, I discovered another unusual benefit. I suffered a personal tragedy and had a really hard time sleeping. But one night I started mentally writing dialogue in my mind as soon as I got into bed, and it put me right to sleep. From then on, that ritual helped me fall asleep almost instantly at night. Certainly better than Ambien. I hope it's because the exercise is hypnotic and not because the dialogue I write is a dreadful bore.

Tell us about your current projects.
I just handed in a new suspense novel called The Wrong Man, which will be out in June, and it's one of my favorites. The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook, which I edited, comes out in March. The paperback of my last suspense novel, Eyes on You, is due out in April. I've also been doing a ton of speaking around the country about success and leadership and there will be lots more of that in 2015. The speaking is a nice balance to the solitary life of a writer. I also started a weekly webcast called KateTV, which deals with the work and career dilemmas that successful women come up against and ask me about.

What advice can you offer to someone who wants to be a writer or a journalist?
Be aware of how much that part of the media world is changing and develop a bunch of skills that you might not have needed ten years ago. Editors need to be mediagenic now, know how to produce events, be tech savvy, be social media savvy. Authors need to know how to blog, build email lists of fans and work that list, tweet, and give speeches! You also have to stay light on your feet. Many magazines are in trouble. Book publishing is challenged. Keep your ear close to the ground for news of changes.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Working for myself has really helped. I've still got a busy week, but there's so much flexibility. My husband has his own business so if we want to take off for a long weekend, we just do it. It's been so much fun for us. A few years before I left Cosmo knowing that I'd be going, my husband and I bought a home in Uruguay. It's been great to spend more time there in the winter, which is summer in Uruguay. I'm there right now as I write this, gazing at the ocean and enjoying the 80-degree weather.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
There are two that are especially challenging. One is when work becomes totally disruptive to your personal life. It's bound to bleed in a certain amount, but things have gotten insane lately. When I was at Cosmo, a high-ranking guy in my company actually called a big meeting for 7 a.m. And this is a company filled with working moms. It would have been one thing if the agenda was hugely time-sensitive but it wasn't. How many hours you work each day has become a ridiculous game of one upmanship at times. You have to set boundaries for yourself because no one else will set them for you. I was good about that for myself. Yes, I was the boss (and left before six all the years my kids were young), but I did it even before I ran the show. I think we can all experiment with it and not cave easily. Test the waters. See if the world ends if you don't answer a work email after 7 pm.

The second is hitting what a female executive I know calls the Two Rocks spot. She points out that often when women get offered a game-changing job, it's at the same point in their lives when they're facing certain personal challenges. They've just had a second kid, for instance--or a third. Or their parents need more attention. She's seen many women bail out at this point. It's because the fear they have regarding the new work challenge is intensified by the personal situation. You have to find ways to push yourself through that fear. And you have to think like a guy. They see a job a promotion with new challenges as a stretch instead of feeling over their head.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've had a few great mentors, particularly Art Cooper, the now-deceased, legendary editor of GQ. He made me begin to see that being an editor-in-chief was something worth aiming for, and also how important it was to begin to plot out my career. He told me one day, "I want to groom you to be an editor -in-chief." I hadn't really given it much thought, but I began to focus more on that as a concept. I took public speaking classes, for instance. I'm not a big believer in five-year plans, but at some point you really need to look ahead, do your career math, and ask yourself what skills you need to develop for the big job you want.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many that I can't begin to single them out. I always pay attention to other women and try to learn from them. I know many women complain that females aren't good to each other in the workplace, but I didn't see a ton of that. One of my favorite stories involves a speech I gave when I was about 30, when I was very, very green at talking in front of a large group of people. My speech was humorless and I was extremely nervous. But a high-ranking woman in the audience acted as if I was delivering the Gettysburg address. She seemed RIVETED. She did it solely to be supportive of a young woman out of her depth. Moments like that remind you of how great women are and how much we have to gain from studying them. One of the great joys for me is that this woman and I later worked in the same company and I had the chance to thank her.

What do you want to personally and professionally accomplish in the next year?
I'd love to take my speaking career up another level. I never realized I'd enjoy it this much. I not only love sharing what I've learned with younger women, but--and I can't explain this--I love eating alone in hotel dining rooms. I find it intoxicatingly relaxing. And I'd like to do another Bailey Weggins mystery. It's been too long and I miss Bailey. I'm trying to write it at the same time as I work on a new stand-alone.