Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Amy Astley, editor in chief of Teen Vogue. She, says that many job applicants today have never done work like scooping ice cream or waiting tables. But she says she respects such experience, seeing it as a possible sign of a strong work ethic.
To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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“Always Be Proud to List ‘Waitress’ on Your Résumé.”
Bryant: What was the first time you were somebody’s boss?
Astley: My first real job managing people was at Vogue. I was probably about 25 years old, and I worked for Anna Wintour. I was just a young writer on the staff, but she asked me to be the beauty director, which would mean supervising a small staff of three people.
I had never run a team before. I’d always been the junior member of a team or someone’s assistant. I think the shocking thing you learn right away is that it’s all about them — it’s suddenly not about you and your career. It’s about how you’re going to nurture these people and organize them and get them to do what you need them to do. I think it’s a lot for anybody at 25. It was a big responsibility.
Bryant: Can you talk more about the transition?
Astley: I think a lot of people who find themselves in positions of being leaders like to call the shots. I have a twin brother, but I’m the older twin, and I have a younger brother, and I think I was the bossy sister. It was a role that was comfortable to me — saying, here’s how we’re going to do it and organize the troops. And I felt confident that I could manage these people. You sort of have to project that you have authority even if you don’t really feel it, but I did believe in myself, and that I could run the team.
Bryant: What are some leadership lessons you’ve learned?
Astley: In my early job at Vogue, and now at Teen Vogue, you’re managing creative people. It’s very different from managing people who are doing quantitative work. It’s all qualitative, and it’s all you judging their work. And it becomes very emotional, particularly when you’re judging a writer. I can remember shifting a young person on my team out of an assignment so that I could use a more seasoned writer at Vogue. I was trying to make the products that I was responsible for as special as they could be. I left a lot of bruised feelings in my wake. And I really learned from it.
That said, one thing I did with people is give them a little bit of tough love too, and say to them: “We need to make our product the very best it can be. And you need to work with me. You’re part of my team. Here are the five great things you did. I’m sorry we have to shift this one to someone else. I think you could learn if you watched what they’re going to do with this.” At some point, the person has to see that somebody else is bringing more to the table. It’s a bit harsh. But if you work in that environment, you have to be O.K. with that.
Bryant: How did people respond to the tough love in that early management job?
Astley: They were angry at me. It was perhaps because I was young and we were contemporaries. And that was something that you have to deal with if you’re young and you’re in charge of people who are older than you or the same age as you. I think that as you get older, and now I am older, it’s much easier. People will accept it much more. But for a young manager it’s really difficult, I think, for people to accept your authority. And now I try to be gentle with people, but I also make no apologies because I do feel that when you’re running a business, you need to make the hard decisions. Everything has to be the best it can be. If someone can handle the task better than you, it’s just got to be that way. I’d want the strongest horse to pull the cart up the hill. That’s it.
Maybe I come by a little of that just from my own childhood. I was a professionally trained ballet dancer. It’s a harsh world — pretty black and white — and it’s clear how good you are, and where your weaknesses are. As a manager, I’ve also tried to show people that I look at my weaknesses and then I try to hire people who can fill in those spaces. And they need to assess themselves that way, too, to try and work on the weak parts, improve them and accept that they’re going to need help in certain areas.
I have a high standard for excellence. I try to have people around me who can accept that that’s our goal and that’s where we need to be. I’m not great with working with people who are uncomfortable with that. I would definitely rather not work with them.
Bryant: But still, excellence is a matter of taste in terms of, say, photography.
Astley: It’s a great point. In the end, it’s a benevolent dictatorship. I am in charge. It’s my magazine. It reflects my taste. It reflects my point of view. It reflects my values. So I need people around me who can get on board with that vision. If it takes too many words to explain to somebody why I like something, then we probably don’t have the right chemistry to work together.
That said, everyone’s voice goes into the mix. It is definitely not just one person. I don’t take the pictures. I don’t style the clothes. I don’t put the hair and makeup on the models. I’m involved in every aspect of creating the magazine, but there are tons of talented people around me, and I have really total confidence in them. I’m not micromanaging it. There are parameters, and within those parameters there is a lot of room for creative expression. I think people are really happy working that way.
Bryant: What’s unusual about the culture of your magazine?
Astley: I try to create a culture that’s very receptive to ideas from everyone on the staff. But I’ve learned something about meetings, by trial and error. I used to do big staff meetings, with everybody sitting in the conference room. After I did that for six months or so, I realized that it quickly becomes like a high school cafeteria. You have your alpha girls. Two of them are best friends. They talk. They shut everybody else down. The other people don’t say a peep — you’d think they’ve gone mute — and no new ideas are coming out. So I’m very strategic about how I meet with people. I have an open-door policy. I basically spend my day meeting with my staff, one or two people at a time. People come in and out all day long. We talk about ideas, and nobody feels attacked.
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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.