An event in New York City yesterday gathered powerhouse women like veteran magazine editor Kate White, Rent the Runway co-cofounder Jennifer Fleiss and IKEA executive Leontyne Green Sykes to discuss how to be badass leader.
The event, called Find your Fearless: Women, Ambition & Leadership, was organized by trade magazine PRWeek and communications agency Zeno Group and included a panel discussion on women's leadership, on which I participated.
White delivered the keynote before the panel to share her lessons as a publishing powerhouse from her book I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gusty Girl Should Know (HarperBusiness, 2012). She served as editor-in-chief of popular women's magazine Cosmopolitan for 14 years, and before that led Redbook, Working Woman and Child magazines. Decades of leadership experience taught her not only how to achieve success, she said, but also how to sustain it.
Here are White's top three strategies for success:
1. Make every project better, bigger, bolder and more badass.
White said all through her 20s she held back on her out-of-the-box ideas, but her success really kicked into gear when she decided she'd better go big because she sure didn't want to go home. "You cannot just do what you're told to do," she said. "Come up with bold solutions and make your bosses say 'wow.' "
With every project, White suggests asking yourself: Could it be better, bigger, bolder or more badass? As an example, she told the story of popular fashion designer Kate Spade. When she first launched her handbag business, Spade took a critical eye to her collection of black nylon bags and realized there was nothing for the eye to go to. So she cut off the logo inside the bag and sewed it onto the front, a design element the brand is now known for.
2. Don't listen to the haters.
"I've got to tell you," White warned the audience, "when you go big, there will be people who want you to go home." So many women struggle with self-doubt, she said, which hampers their ability to become effective leaders. Taking a cue from body-language researcher Amy Cuddy, White advises women to assume the power pose for two minutes in the bathroom before every big meeting. Stand tall with your feet spread apart and your hands on your hips like Wonder Woman. "Power signals not only help others perceive us differently, but help us perceive ourselves differently," she said.
Women's self-doubt can also hurt them in their pocketbooks, White said, by keeping them from asking for raises or charging market value for their services. When she accepted the role as editor-in-chief of Working Woman magazine, part of the agreement was that she would receive equity in the company. However, she didn't get the paperwork or details until six months into the position. Her accountant told her to go to her boss and ask for $50,000 in cash to make up for the lost time. She balked, but he insisted. She ultimately made the request, wincing internally all the while, and to her surprise, her boss agreed. "That was my $50,000 moment of truth," she said.
3. Learn to drain the swamp as you slay the alligators.
This Southern expression is meant to illustrate that when you're up to your eyeballs in alligators, it's easy to forget your long-term goal is to drain the swamp. "You can't just focus on the day-to-day tasks," White explains. "You have to focus on the big picture." When you're racing around trying to meet client needs, be available to employees and master your inbox, strategic thinking often falls low on the priority list. White said she forced herself to take an hour every week to think about long-term goals such as new projects to launch and columnists to jettison.
White said it's also important to drain the swamp in your life. "If we're going to savor our success, we've got to be the bossy pants of our personal lives," she said. As in business, she suggests leaders take an hour every weekend to consider their personal satisfaction. Ask yourself: How is this working? What's missing? Is there a childhood passion I'd like to reconnect with? In such a think session, White decided she couldn't leave this earth without writing murder mysteries. Today, she is the author of eight crime novels.