Cosmo’s former top editor: ‘Being gutsy almost always wins the day’

Chances are if you picked up Cosmopolitan magazine at any point between the years of 1998 and 2012, Kate White had something to do with which celebrity was featured on the cover.

It’s been six years since White left her post as Editor-in-Chief at the iconic mag, but if you think she slowed down, you would be quite wrong. In addition to writing 12 thrillers and murder mysteries she has also shared her vast career advice in books after years of climbing the ladder in the always crazy, rapidly paced world of women’s magazines — she also served as EIC at Redbook and Working Woman, among others, before Cosmo.

The New York Times best-selling author is now re-releasing an updated version of her 1995 career playbook Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead… But Gutsy Girls Do for a millennial audience as The Gutsy Girl Handbook: Your Manifesto for Success.

When she wrote the book over 20 years ago, she assumed that once her young daughter at the time graduated college, women wouldn’t need the kind of advice in their careers but alas here we are. “Even though women have come far, there are still hurdles to cross,” she said. White realized the advice could still resonate now, with a few updates, after another writer said she owed her career to White’s book.

She sat down with Ladders to discuss her long career and what she wants young women working today to know. 

On why she updated the book:

“I guess that, and just hearing people say things made me realize that maybe there was still an opportunity for women to learn from getting a bit of a nudge in terms of being gutsy. … Sometimes there are moments where that ‘good girl’ message overrides your gutsiness and you hesitate, or you feel like, ‘maybe I should be a little bit nicer here,’ so it just seemed like the right time.”

On the best way for women to get ‘gutsy’ in their careers:

“Well, I think that the great thing about being gutsy is that it almost always wins the day, so if you test the waters, whether it’s speaking up in a meeting and sharing an idea, or negotiating a better starting salary, or any of those things — once you win, it’s such reinforcement. Even if you win in a little way, it’s a small step. It encourages you to be gutsier going forward.

“So, I think, just keep doing it, because even if you’re doing it in little ways, it really pays off for you. And, as I look back at my career, one of the things I worried about sometimes in terms of being gutsy was that it was gonna blow up in my face. But the advantage of having had a long career is that you see it rarely blew up in my face. It almost always advanced things.”

On how perfection can hurt you in the end:

“I think there’s a sense sometimes that you really need to make things perfect. That you need to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t,’ and that you want to be prepared. And certainly, a lot of that is true. But it’s really important sometimes to just get things out there. And one of the things that people, certainly, in the tech world would tell you, or any kind of innovation … is that you learn through what your customers tell you.

“You don’t want to go out there sloppy, but get out there and see what the response is, and then you can begin to make modifications. So, I think what you have to do is just ask yourself: ‘Am I sitting on this too long? Am I trying to perfect it too much? Am I telling myself, this isn’t the right time, I better wait for the right time.’ All those things that may be keeping you from taking action. And sometimes it’s just better to just go out there.

“Let’s say, you need a new job. You’ve been staying too long someplace. Instead of polishing your resume, which is step number one, make a call to someone you know at an organization you’ve thought of joining and say, ‘I’d love to do an informational interview with you,’ or maybe it’s someone that person has a connection with. … Do anything you can to just get off Square One.”

On how women can stop trying to be people pleasers:

“First of all, knowing that you can’t please everybody. That there are going to be people that dislike you for weird reasons, like, maybe you remind them of the sister who bit off her Barbie’s head when you were playing. And so, there’s nothing you can do to fix that. The old adage was, ‘Don’t go for people to like you, go for people’s respect.’ And I do think there’s a certain amount of sense in that. Ideally, having people like you helps you get ahead.

“There’s something to be said for wanting to win hearts and minds. But knowing that you can’t win all of them, I think is important. And what you don’t want to do is become this kind of people pleaser whose cheeks hurt at the end of the day from smiling too much. Let that go.

“For the people who are on your level, you want them to know you’ll support their ideas in meetings, you won’t gossip about them, you won’t betray their confidences, and ideally, that will be enough for them to respect you.

“In terms of your boss, you really want to do your best to make your boss like you. As the great guy I interviewed, who’s an executive, said, ‘Your three goals in work are to 1) dazzle your boss, 2) dazzle your boss, and 3) do a good job.’ … I think, sometimes we feel our boss is like this adversary and we need to kind of, work around our boss. I think the best thing you can do is show your boss, ‘I’m on your team, I’ll do whatever you need me to do.’ … Really do everything you can to please your boss, even if it means kissing butt sometimes.”

On dealing with failure:

“I really feel that guys do a better job of dealing with failure because they reframe it to make it less negative and not personal. So, when you leave a meeting where your idea got shot down, a guy is often likely to think, ‘they’re idiots,’ or ‘I’m gonna have to reposition it.’ Whereas, we [women] sometimes leave thinking, ‘Oh my God, they hated me.’ And I think we have to be better at one, accepting that failure is just a normal part of business and life, it happens and you learn from it.”

On sexual harassment in the era of #MeToo:

“I so empathize with every single woman whose story I read because I’ve had it happen to me, and the irony is that, I was thinking about an incident where I was jumped in a cab by a publisher. Really jumped. And at the time, I did what women were encouraged to do because you didn’t have a lot of recourse: I used humor to deal with it. I was like, ‘Oh, come on, hey, what are you doing, hahaha.’ … I hated the experience, but nothing bad happened. Yet, all these years later, I look back and I realize, that the print run for the book that I was doing for this publisher was dropped a couple of months later. And I wondered, ‘Wow, could that have been because of his annoyance that I didn’t reciprocate?’ So, I certainly relate to what all these women have gone through.

“I remember something that this really great woman in HR said to me once. … She’d dealt with things herself, not only as a woman but as a woman of color. And she said to me, ‘You have to ask yourself, what do you want to come out of the situation?’ And sometimes that may be, not blowing it up. So, if you can deal with it on a very local level, and say to the guy, ‘Look, I really don’t like it when I speak to me that way, please stop.’ That may be all you need to do. And then you haven’t escalated it. And so, if you’re justified in escalating it, it goes back to the question of ‘what do you want to have happen here?’ And maybe what you want to have happen, is not to let things become too known at that point.

“What’s really important is to loop somebody else in, so you have someone who will say, ‘Yes, she told me this, it happened to her.’ So you’ve got that evidence. … The good news is, unlike years ago, where you could try to pursue it and all you were met with were deaf ears, I think today, companies really are on alert about this.”

On what to do if you’re struggling to find your passion:

“The best way is not to sit there with a legal pad and go, ‘Ok, I like this, but I don’t like that.’ Rather, the best way is to go out in the world and just have as many experiences as possible and wait for the Eureka moment. And by that, I mean, having lunch with people you knew from college, or your early work years who are doing different things. Get them to talk about what they do. Ask to meet them at their work environment, so you can kinda see what they do. Go to plays and galleries, travel, expose yourself on the internet, just go down the rabbit hole of the internet. And sometimes then, you have that Eureka moment.”

On the power of mentoring:

“I think the best thing is to have mentors who will not just offer you advice but will open doors for you. And there are some studies that show that men are more likely to be promoted through their mentors because they use their mentors as sponsors, and that women sometimes get stuck a bit in using mentors as advice-givers. And there’s nothing wrong with asking a mentor to guide you a bit. But ultimately, what you really want is someone to really help you understand the field, and what steps you must take, and then, if possible, open doors.

On which celebrity she’d wished she’d been able to feature on the cover during her time there:

“The one person who I never got to do, that I wanted to do, was Jennifer Aniston. She had been on the cover of Cosmo before I got there, but I could not get her again. And it drove me a little nuts. She was a real Cosmo girl, and it probably would’ve been good for her to be on.

“The one person I wanted that I didn’t get on, that I’m glad I didn’t get on was Gwyneth Paltrow. Because though I really like her, I don’t think she would’ve been a perfect fit. So, probably the Gods were looking down at me by not letting me get her. But I think for pretty much everybody else, we got them. And what I used to always say is that if you were on the cover of Cosmo, you were always on the cover of Vogue within a year. Because they clearly looked at our newsstand numbers.”