Former Cosmo Editor in Chief Kate White Spills on Getting Ahead at Work

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After 14 years as editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, Kate White knows the secret to success.

Fortunately for us, this mom of two, who grew the magazine’s circulation to 3 million readers in the United States and 64 international editions–all while authoring the critically acclaimed Bailey Weggins series of mystery novels–is willing to share.

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In her latest book, “I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know,” Kate covers everything from nailing an interview to navigating maternity leave.

She sat down with us to divulge her secrets to being gutsy, going big and having it all.

The phrase “Gutsy Girl” has appeared in two of your book titles. What separates a gutsy girl from the rest?

To me, a gutsy girl is willing to go big or go home. Often, that means doing not exactly what you’ve been told to do, but a little bit more. You could present your boss with a wildcard idea along with what you’ve been asked for, and she might not realize how much she likes that wildcard until she sees it.

It can be hard to be a rule-breaker, but so much of my success is due to that old expression, “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.”

How does someone find the balance between gutsy and annoying?

To achieve the result you want, always ask yourself, “What’s good for the other person at this moment?”

For example, people would often hand me their articles or books two minutes before I went up to make a speech, or ask me to promote their boutique in Cosmo, and they wouldn’t stop to think, “Is this the right time? Is she the right person?” A much better question would have been, “Who is the best person on your team for me to contact? Do you mind giving me her email?”

In your book, you advise women to “be the solution.” What does that mean?

To be the solution means to go into an interview–or a speech, or a presentation–and know that you have what your audience needs. They want you to be the solution to their problem. The actress Natalie Dormer was the first person to tell me this; it was her advice for owning a room during an audition.

In an interview, a speech, a presentation, don’t think about how you look or sound or whether they’ll like you. Think, “I’ve got something great to share today that they’re going to like and need, and I’m going to present it in a way that’s useful to them.” It takes it out of you and makes it about them, which not only helps you connect with people better, but also gets you out of that self-consciousness.

What’s your golden rule of networking?

Go to every event with the goal of leaving with one great idea. Having a mission–even if it’s just meeting one fantastic person or getting the card of someone who works in a certain field–forces you to accomplish something.

Also, you have to keep doing it. We network a lot early on in our careers to find that first job, but when you get really busy and more established, you have to force yourself to keep going to networking events. Often it might not pay off right away, but you’ll see the results in the future.

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In your book, you present the idea of gathering a “Personal Board of Directors” instead of a sole mentor. Why is that, and how do you do it?

I see mentors as wisdom-givers, and sponsors as door-openers. While both are critical, they’re very different: You’re likely to show your vulnerability to a mentor, whereas you might not want to do the same with a sponsor who might promote you professionally. With a Personal Board of Directors, you can have both. You can even have people in different fields.

You have to be the one to find mentors or sponsors–they aren’t going to find you. The last thing a busy person wants to hear is, “Will you be my mentor?” Instead, ask an original question she would find interesting based on her work and her expertise.

Ask politely for her card, then do something a friend of mine calls “the pre-ask.” Set up communication that’s not all about you–send her a link to an article she might find interesting and make the exchange about what you’re doing for her. Then when you ask for help, it won’t seem to come from a place of pure selfishness.

What are your three key tips for career growth?

1. Go big or go home. Ask yourself, “What did I do to break the rules today? How did I go beyond my job description?”

2. Manage your career at the same time you manage your job. We get so caught up in excelling in our jobs that we don’t always step back and evaluate where we are in our career. Ask yourself what steps you need to take when to get where you want to be and when you need to take them.

3. Ask for what you want. Women tend to think, “Oh, they know I want this job.” You have to realize that they’re not going to be mad or hate you for saying what you want–they might be annoyed, but that’s just because it’s annoying when someone asks for something! I don’t like to give people jobs if they don’t come in and ask for them.

What are the biggest interview and résumé faux-pas you’ve seen?

For some reason–maybe it’s nervousness or how we think we should act at an interview–many people don’t seem passionate enough. The person on the other side of the table wants to know you’re going to be fully engaged, excited and seduced by that job. If we don’t see passion, it’s really boring. Even though your tendency might be to act as cool as a cucumber, the hot tamale gets the job.

There are instructions in your book specifically for Gen Y. What unique challenges do members of that generation face?

Partly because of sense of entitlement their parents and teachers and professors gave them, they tend to make it all about them. For instance, my friend interviewed a Gen Y candidate for an entry-level PR position. The interview was going great, but when the interviewer asked what she was looking for, the girl said, “I know what I’m not looking for. I’m not looking to get anyone coffee.” Interview over.

The people hiring you couldn’t care less about your needs, at least at that moment. If you’re only thinking about your own needs, it’s not going to impress anyone, particularly someone in Gen X or a Baby Boomer.

Another problem older interviewers find with Gen Y candidates is overfamiliarity. Your interviewer isn’t your friend–it’s important to maintain some distance and respect.

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In your book, you mention keeping your babies up until 9:30 p.m. to better suit your schedule. Any other unorthodox tricks that have helped you as a working mom?

When I was the editor of Child Magazine, I had just had my first child and a non-working mom told me, “Babies have to go to bed by 7:30.” But then a working friend of mine said, “Who says they have to go to bed at 7:30? Just make a schedule. They’re not like bats, where they have to sleep at a certain time!” So until they started school, my kids had the longest naps in recorded history. They slept for two and a half hours while the sitter was there, and then I kept them up after work.

I also made them little interns. Someone mentioned the Montessori approach to learning, where you engage your child in what you’re doing, so I started trying to include my kids and make it fun. Instead of, “Mommy has to cook dinner right now,” it was, “Hey, come over and help me!” I would even have them make lists of who they thought should be on the cover of Cosmo or pick out which cover they liked. They loved it, and they were great because young kids are so intuitive.

Do you think women can have it all, and how do you make it work for you?

I think it is absolutely possible to have it all, depending on how you define “all.” You can have a wonderful, successful job and children–there are millions of wonderful, successful women proving it. But there will be stress points in your career, and there will have to be trade-offs.

I had the opportunity all through my career to go to the fashion shows every year in Paris and Milan, but I stopped going after I went one September and didn’t like being away from my kids when they started school. I’m sure it wouldn’t have hurt them, but it didn’t work for me. To say that life doesn’t involve those trade-offs is unrealistic.

It’s important to know that you have to find ways to set boundaries, because no one will set them for you. No one will ever look at his or her watch and go, “Oh, it’s six! You have kids … don’t you have to get out of here?”

Let people see you as the dynamo who’s usually out of the office by a certain hour, who isn’t responding to emails in the evening, but will always get the job done and do it well.

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Want to know when it’s time to leave a job, what never to do in an interview and how to switch from night owl to morning person? Kate divulges more insider tips with Video Editor Gabrielle Karol:

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For even more dynamic career advice, plus Kate’s personal stories from the Cosmo offices, enter to win a copy of “I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know” on our Facebook page.