How Joanna Coles Nabbed Cosmo's Corner Office

Cosmopolitan's new editor-in-chief talks with Fast Company about how she deliberately steered her career path to lead the largest women's magazine in the world—and offers up seven cover-worthy tips on getting ahead.

“Growing up, Cosmo was my lifeline to the world,” says Joanna Coles, the freshly installed editor-in-chief of the largest women’s magazine. “A world that I wanted to be in but couldn’t get to yet.”

Piloting a global magazine, married to a notable author, throwing "dream" dinner parties, and raising two kids, it's clear she's arrived (and then some).

Coles wants to help her readers get there, too, as she explained recently to Fast Company just before giving a talk on "nabbing that corner office" at LearnVest LIVE, the female-forward financial planning startup's first event.

“Look around you,” she said, taking in the thousand-plus aspirants present. “There’s a generation of young women longing for life advice that isn’t available to them. Their mothers can’t help them because their lives are so different than theirs.”

They need a place to turn to that's more reliable than the Internet, Coles says, and she sees Cosmopolitan—a lifestyle mag with cover lines like "25 Ways To Kiss A Naked Man"—unlikely as it may seem now, as that resource.

The Journey

In conversation, Coles is equally accessible and badass, her Yorkshire accent cutting through the chatter of New York transplants. (One reporter described her as having the "laser-sharp manner of an intimidating university professor.") She makes leather pants look uncommonly understated, and when she gesticulates, a row of bangles unspools from beneath her jacket. She is, as Tim Gunn—the icon whom Coles is replacing as mentor on Project Runway—would say, fierce.

The daughter of a schoolteacher father and a social worker mother, Coles’s first media gig was as a graduate trainee at the Spectator. Moving up, she soon became the New York correspondent for the Guardian and then the Times of London. Just before being sent back to the U.K. to cover Parliament, she had her second child—and realized she needed a desk job.

“I couldn't travel at the spur of the moment anymore,” she says. “I had to stay grounded.”

Switching to magazines, she became articles editor for New York. Though at first she had to "force herself" to be interested, she soon became “intoxicated” by the more thought-out pace of the monthly magazine. From New York, she moved to women-of-a-certain-age monthly More, and from there to Marie Claire, which enjoyed a 31% rise in ad revenues in 2011. She's moved from there to Cosmopolitan, four floors higher in the Hearst Tower.

The New Challenge

Coles takes over the editorship from Kate White, who’s left to pursue the speaking circuit and write books—the outgoing editor has published eight mystery novels and just released a leadership title, I Shouldn't Be Telling You This (find our excerpt here). Cosmo, which pivoted from literary fiction to sexual liberation under Helen Gurley Brown back in the '60s, has grown a circulation of over 3 million, a hot spot amid the general decline of print.

Though the publication is thriving, leadership changes can be a turnoff for staff. So Coles has her ears and eyes open: “What you try and do is listen and observe,” she says.

A few tricks don't hurt. To stave off stagnation, Coles likes to call impromptu meetings, preventing the buildup of schedule-related anxiety and provoking “unpredictable, good ideas” that would otherwise remain untouched. (To get a feel for her meeting mien, read The Cut’s sit-in on her first staff meeting, in which she grills her staff with “playful precision.”)

Beyond the grilling, she’s picked up a British army quirk from her husband, the writer Peter Godwin: She addresses her constituents by their last name. Why? “In an office full of women,” she says, “it makes (interactions) less personal and more about the work.”

Work relationships—especially between bosses and their underlings—show a cultural difference between the U.K. and the U.S.: While Americans tend to defer to their superiors, the British respect criticism. “Your only value to me is to tell me what you actually think,” she says.

So, if she were coming into the Cosmo office at the bottom rather than the top, what would she be doing? “I would be flooding my boss with ideas,” she says, dropping off messages about sites and apps and other noteworthies. “I’d hang out in the office at night and in the morning,” she says, “and follow (my boss) into the elevator.”

To find ideas, Coles is enthusiastic about getting away from the Internet (“a place that doesn’t really exist anywhere”) and getting out to things that exist in the analog world: lectures, panels, people.

“I look at my time on this earth as social anthropology, at home and in work life,” she says. “As long as you’re interested in people and things, that curiosity propels you forward.”

And with that, our conversation finishes. She drops the jacket—bangles now out in full force—and takes the stage. Find selections from her presentation below:

Keep moving

“Don’t be afraid to move sideways,” she says to the packed room. “You’re only worth as much to one employer as you are to another.” She advocates thinking laterally about where you want to go and how you’re going to get there, which might mean salary sacrifices. “I’ve had to take pay cuts,” she says, to get into the position she wanted—like when she moved into magazines.

Before you talk, do your research

Before you go into negotiate a contract, she says, make sure to know the ballpark figures on salary—nothing’s more aggravating to a boss than over-asking for money that you “need.” Her tip: You’re much better off “explaining that you’re worth more.”

Be open

“Always take the call,” she says. “Never be prescriptive of what you want to do, never not be ready for opportunity.”

Go easy on the self-promotion

“Keep it a secret,” when you’re doing well, she says. “People get bored hearing about your bravado.” That your peer group likes you is important—“so don’t try to be the first girl on the bus.” Your energy should be going into your work, not into office politics.

Understand the office

“Figure out who’s doing what well and figure out who you want to imitate or partner with,” Coles says. Having an understanding of the big picture is key, she says, so observe the people above you, figure out how they got there, and evaluate the skills they have that you don’t have. “Pay attention to people who are good at what you are not,” she says.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If you’re having trouble with a decision, “call people you admire and ask them for 15 minutes,” she says. Do whatever you can to meet with people, she notes, because usually they’ll be flattered by your reaching out.

Hire better than you

"I have horrible attention to detail," she says, noting the necessity of keeping people with complementary skills close. "I may not be the one coming up with cover lines about orgasms," she says, "but maybe."

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2 Comments

  • Saloma

    Actually, Wendy, she's amazing. One of the best people in magazines...possibly, the world.

  • WendyF

    Impromptu meetings, de-emphasizing coworkers' humanity, hypocritical criticism of office politics...sounds like she'd be awful to work with.