Current Events

Published on November 20th, 2010 | by thevyne


What Cosmo Magazine Won’t Teach You

Photo Courtesy of NY Daily News

by Michelle Wonsley

In the last two weeks, New York City has been set ablaze by the appointment of Hearst Magazines Chairman, Cathie Black, to School Chancellor by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  New York residents as well as local and national education advocates cluster primarily around two major criticisms — Bloomberg’s lack of transparency into his selection process and Black’s glaring lack of credentials as required by the state.  While Bloomberg’s thought process has left many tongues wagging, perhaps more intriguing is what is going on in Cathie Black’s mind as she navigates the very rough and shifting terrain beneath her well-heeled feet.  We’ve not yet heard from her in the media, so we can only guess at this point at her thoughts on the situation–quite ironic given her post as chief of a communications behemoth.

As the female Chairman of Hearst Magazines, a company whose history and global reach are impressive, Cathie Black makes for a venerable symbol of successful leadership.  She has led and managed an organization whose primary medium, the print magazine, faces peril at the hands of digital media on a daily basis–even with such titles as Cosmopolitan and O, the Oprah Magazine.  She has presumably achieved success by making shrewd business decisions and using sound judgment.  So why does she now find herself at the center of a social and political maelstrom of criticism?  How did she get here and what does she do now?

You’ve seen this scenario before, with yourself or a woman you know.  You’ve been in a post or career for a while and you hit a wall, professionally, intellectually or personally or simply decide that it’s time to move on.  Thinking that it’s time for a change, but without putting much physical energy behind it, you’re suddenly headhunted for a prime opportunity or tapped on the shoulder to do ‘the next big thing.’  What usually goes through your head (right after you pop your collar)?  “Perfect! An opportunity to do something different.”  And before you know it, because of your brilliance, political savvy, and charm you find yourself facing a new and exciting professional opportunity.  The temptation to accept can be huge and taking the leap into a high profile position may seem like a great decision, the rush of newness, the promise of acclaim.  Pause.  What step did you miss?  At what point did you clearly define what should be next for you?  What are your personal/professional objectives for your next experience? Have you accomplished all you intended in your current position?  Before you sign on the dotted line and upgrade your handbag, take a minute to put pen to paper and strategize.

Three of the most critical components of exemplary leadership are self-awareness, judgment and preparation.  Cathie Black’s current quandary indicates that at minimum she lacked adequate preparation to articulate her unique qualifications for the role of School Chancellor.  Prior to accepting the post, did she ask herself the right questions?  “Have I taken the time to outline what I am looking for and how this opportunity supports that?”  “Do I fundamentally know how to do the job and influence perception about my ability to do the job?” “Do I know what to expect in the first 5, 30, 90 days?”

As gifted and passionate women we are often invited to address major challenges and lead initiatives.  It is flattering, and often justified, given our previous accomplishments.  However, we have to manage our careers and safeguard our reputations, thinking critically about every potential opportunity.  Clarity of purpose and an ability to articulate our unique qualifications only support our strategic thinking.  Without this level of reflection, we may find ourselves second-guessing our decisions, scrambling for support and calling on the endorsements of the ‘Oprah’ in our own network to vouch for our ability – something we should be able to articulate freely and with conviction, instead of being shell-shocked into silence.

What happens with Cathie Black is yet to be seen, but in the interim it appears she has something more immediate to address than the broken New York City public school system–her own perceived ‘achievement gap’.

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4 Responses to What Cosmo Magazine Won’t Teach You

  1. Cheryl says:

    I can appreciate Michelle’s perspective on Cathie Black’s recent decision to lead the NY City Public School System. Suffice it to say, a woman with the tenure and achievements in corporate America that Cathie has, I am sure, she did not accept this position without some internal reflection on what she could bring to the school system. From what I undertand, Mayor Bloomberg was not looking for just an educator, he was looking for a “leader,” someone with a track record in influencing people and being able to achieve the best from them. It seems to me he wasn’t able to find her/him within the traditional “education as a career” ranks, so he decided to think innovatively and take a new direction with his decision. I am looking at the possibilities that Cathie brings with her to this new challenge and if she is successful (as I hope she will be), I think she can take the NY City School System to a whole new and much greater level. I hope so. I wish her the best.

  2. Michelle says:

    Hi Cheryl,

    Thanks so much for your response to this piece. I don’t assert that Ms. Black didn’t reflect at all, I suggest that her actions since being tapped don’t indicate a willingness to share those reflections. As is evidenced by the committee’s subsequent decision to deny Ms. Black the waiver she needs to assume the post of Chancellor, she wasn’t able to effectively communicate the value or relevance of her previous experience, whether she previously reflected on it or not. In addition, her silence on the matter does nothing to engender confidence in potential supporters.

    This piece is meant to encourage women who aspire to such professional success to be clear on the motivations for their actions, their qualifications for opportunities they accept, and their method for communicating/demonstrating why they are uniquely qualified. I would like to share your sentiment of hope that she might be able to make the leap given all she has accomplished in her career, but far too much is at stake for us not to hear in her own confident voice why her previous experience is relevant and her vision for NYC schools is sound.

  3. I believe both Michelle and Cheryl’s points are well taken. My one concern is directed to Mayor Bloomberg: What were you thinking? Seriously. Having come through a very difficult re-election campaign that left millions of New Yorkers quite unhappy with the results and facing a huge backlash to his appointment of someone whom the average citizen of this city has ever heard of or seen in action speaks of hubris or arrogance. I think Cathie Black’s a fine person who’s storied career at Hearst was not all a bed of roses, from her perspectives as well as those with whom she worked, and whose lives she touched immensely. But, the problem is not Cathie Black. I think the Mayor assumed that since all went well with his previous selection of outgoing School Superintendent Joel Klein to head up the largest, most challenging school system in the country, who got a waiver to serve despite the lack of any education credentials, that he could repeat the same act of total disregard for the rules by choosing Ms. Black. I guess didn’t read her book, Basic Black, in which she clearly states: assume nothing! In her book, Ms. Black confesses that she “had a very rude awakening to the fact that my new title “president” didn’t mean what she thought it did.” Unlike Cathie Black, His Honor has been riding high on his ability to “break all the rules”, another one of Cathie’s pearls of wisdom not mine, to appoint whoever he so chooses despite the precarious predicament it puts the lives of not only Ms. Black but the millions of children who once again get the short end of a very unforgiving stick.

  4. Really great perspective shared here Ms. Wonsley. I honestly hadn’t stopped to look at the gems inside of her predicament, what lessons it offers other extraordinary women in positions of power. I am more focused than ever to – as you say – put pen to paper and be able to articulate what trajectory my career is taking and why I am well-suited for each step along the way. Thank you.

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