Say what you want about Cosmopolitan’s sultry cover photos and never-ending stream of 7, 13, or 99 sex tips (not to mention irresistible cover lines); the brand has become an international force, with 64 editions distributed in over 100 countries. More impressive is the magazine’s steady growth—even as others have sagged—adding over 700,000 readers to a circulation that now surpasses 3 million (which outsells its nearest competitor by over a million, according to Hearst). Beyond the book, Cosmo’s website gets over 9 million unique views per month, it’s launched its own video and radio channels, e-books, a host of apps including Cosmo for Men (which may explain why it’s also a leader in tablet subscriptions, with over a million downloads), and a new line of lingerie, shoes, and handbags in partnership with JC Penney.
At the helm of world's largest women's magazine for the better part of the last 14 years is Cosmopolitan’s editor-in-chief Kate White, who announced yesterday she was stepping down. White has managed to juggle the demands of steering the ship while penning a pile of books including seven (!) New York Times bestselling thrillers. Her latest effort, a career-advice book titled I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This is packed with practical lessons she’s learned over a long tenure as a leader.
When Fast Company first caught up with White, she dished about everything from how she manages a business while moonlighting to write fiction (she’s a night owl), to how to deal with a-hole bosses, to how she finds the inspiration to write those sizzling cover lines ("It helps to sit around with my team and laugh. Where else can you talk about vajayjays?" she quips).
Yesterday she called to tell us she’s passing Cosmo’s torch to Marie Claire’s Joanna Coles at the end of the year. With the convergence of a new book and a new chapter in her working life, White added some insight about taking risks and stepping into the entrepreneur’s shoes. Here’s what she told us.
On Taking Risks and Innovating
"If you are going to be a leader and master your universe, you have to be very clear about your selling position. And you have to be true to it. If you need a whole page of paper to articulate it, you need to get it down to a bumper sticker.
In terms of the Cosmopolitan brand, to revitalize circulation as mature brand, I have had to make it relevant, so it was important to find other platforms to be where our readers were. I got to channel Helen Gurley Brown, and though it’s hugely different from when she started a ‘bible for single girls’ to talk to them in a way no one else dares, Cosmo is still gutsy, and irreverent, but cheekier than it was back in the '70s. We are launching a big line of lingerie, shoes, and handbags, along with an enhanced edition of the September issue on tablets. It had to happen to show that Cosmo could exist on other platforms and be experienced as a fabulous leopard bra.
Something I wrote about in my book is that you have to keep draining the swamp and slaying the crocodiles, meaning you have to build in time to be relentless about taking a step back to reexamine the vision, not to change but to tweak it."
On Not Getting Stuck in the "Likeability" Trap
"Being Irish, I feel like I have to charm everyone and I have the ‘good girl gland.’ Women do not negotiate because they think they’ll come across greedy if they push too hard. That’s why salaries are often low-balled.
But you have to be thick skinned. Some bosses are blunt and don’t overly compliment you. I had a boss like that, but I got great raises and I was promoted. You have to ask yourself, ‘am I getting what I need and does it really matter if I don’t feel liked in the way I like to be liked?’
With coworkers and peers, it’s like a dog peeing on their territory. You just have to be willing to raise your hand if you have an idea. You have to do what you need to do to be respected."
On Dealing with a Mean Boss
"When I was 16 years old I took a part-time position as a dental assistant for a dentist who often yelled at his staff in front of patients. I have scrupulously tried to avoid that and a question I would always ask [before I took a new job] was ‘Is he a yeller?’
When you are dealing with someone like that, sometimes you are stuck and have to be thick skinned. But sometimes you have to dare to say ‘You seem really upset and your yelling was humiliating. Is there a different way to have these conversations?’
A lot of those bosses don’t know how to have that conversation, so you have to manage them. A lot of time they are waiting for you to tell them to stand down. You don’t want to be insubordinate. You can say in a professional way, ‘how do we get to a point where you aren’t yelling?’ You have to do that reconnaissance and find those trigger points. It’s not about taking abuse. And if that doesn’t work you need to think about getting the hell out."
On Leading a Global Staff
"I encourage them to be light on their feet about everything that is happening. I don’t expect anyone to have the answers about what needs to happen six months from now. When my new boss came around 18 months ago asking each editor and business team to present what was coming up, I took a chance telling him I can’t do that, I can’t plan that far ahead. But I thought, that is the way I operate. I want people running into my office telling me about what is happening in the world today."
On Taking the Time to Say Thanks
"One Saturday, I got an email from a college student asking for help on a project. I often say no because I am busy, but it was a weekend so I did it. When I didn’t hear back from her I sent another email to make sure it didn’t go into the black hole. She replied that she didn’t want to take up more of my time by sending a note of thanks. If someone goes out of their way to help you, you really should say thank you.
What I try to do is be authentic about my praise and thanks. If I like something I’ll write a note or send an email whenever I can find a moment. I had a coworker tell me she saved all her notes. When we moved offices, I found a note that Si Newhouse [owner of Conde Nast] sent to me when I was working for Glamour when I was 25-years old. It said, ‘I really liked that piece on whatever happened to romantic men.’ It was a great reminder [that I was appreciated] even though I was constantly reprimanded for too much frivolity."
On Not Moving Up the Corporate Ladder
"It’s fine not to feel like you have to be running the company. But you have to have vitality in your job. Years ago, you could work for 40 years doing the same thing. Now with downsizing, you can find yourself at 43 or 52 as a person who’s always been there making more than others. You become a target because of your salary and an underlying sense that you are a lard ass.
If you don’t want to move up, you can move laterally, or the projects you can take on create sense of energy around you. Even in something like a tenured teaching position you can churn the waters of reinvention and renewal."
On Making a Graceful Exit
"It is bittersweet, but in the era of Instagram, 14 years is a hell of a long time.
I was thinking a lot about windows of opportunity when I was writing my book and that whole notion of ‘is that in the cards for me?’ A thought about a line from Julius Caesar that says, ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune,’ and I thought, 'This is my chance to make my own choice.' It’s about me going to pick that window at the right moment. Often the time to leave is when you love it. Your comfort level is really high and you are probably not feeling challenged as much. It is good to be able to move out of that even if it is scary. I may never get to write another cover line like ‘Mattress Moves So Hot His Thighs Will Burst Into Flames,' but hopefully I can use what I’ve learned [going forward].
When I was telling my staff [that I was leaving], I encouraged them to think about change in their own careers. It’s a good motivator for you to ask yourself ‘what does this mean for me?’
I’ll be having transition conversations with Joanna Coles. I’ll finish the November issue and work on some special projects. Then I’m going to focus on building a small digital business and my books. Part of the problem was that I couldn’t do a book tour, and with books you have to be all in in terms of promotion and social media. So I am going to concentrate on that. I’ve imagined more of an entrepreneurial life. I think it is really good when you can step back and say if it is scary, then yes, do it."
Want more sensible, modern career advice? Follow @katemwhite on Twitter, and tell her what's worked for you.