Cathleen P. Black (New York City’s public school system) in “The Corner Office”




Cathleen P. Black

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 Cathleen P. Black. To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.

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This interview with Black, former chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant. It occurred before Ms. Black’s selection as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Previously, she led Hearst Magazines and says risk-taking can be important in a career. This interview was conducted before she announced her own recent career switch, to become chancellor of New York City public schools.

[Note: Since the interview was conducted, Black has resigned her position.]

If Opportunity Knocks, Open the Door

Bryant: Tell me about some of your previous bosses who’ve influenced you.

Black: We’ve all had bad bosses and good bosses. In my positions, I’ve always tried to figure out what’s really good about the way this person leads or manages. When I worked for Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, he was a tyrannical boss. Al did not take no for an answer. You just didn’t say, “I cannot do that.”

Now, is my management style like his? No, but yet, you want to set those high expectations. I think smart people, as they’re coming up the ladder, are picking the best of what they’ve observed for the way they manage.

Bryant: That was a career risk going to USA Today in its early days.

Black: I had been at Ms. and then publisher of New York magazine. Being publisher of New York magazine in New York City is a fantastic opportunity, but after seven years I kind of felt like I was in repeat mode. A headhunter approached me about USA Today, and I thought to myself, I love change, I welcome change, I’m not afraid of change, and what an opportunity to be in on almost the ground floor. I saw no downside in it.

An awful lot of people in New York said: “You’re doing what? It’s never going to make it.” But I’ve never been afraid of people who say something is never going to make it. If it’s got the right investment and the right market, it can make it.

When young people are weighing the pros and the cons of another job opportunity, I tell them to be careful about believing that the grass is always greener somewhere else. On the other hand, if it’s going to be a life-changer or a career-changer move, with some reasonable amount of security or success, then I think it’s worth a shot. I’ve always thought that if you’re passionate about something, then you should just be bold in your ambitions.

Bryant: You mentioned that you felt as if you were in “repeat mode” after a while in a job. When you’re hiring and looking at résumés, what’s the right amount of time for somebody to have been in a job?

Black: I used to look for a two- to three-year tenure somewhere, because it meant that you had come into an organization, you had inherited someone’s work plan and then you had your own ideas. If you leave too quickly, you actually have no idea whether your strategy was the right one, and you’re still blaming your predecessor. When it’s your plan, and you’ve been there for another year, can you execute? Was your plan the right one?

Of course, if you talk to a young person today, if they’ve had a job for 11 months, they’ll say, “Why haven’t I been promoted?” Or, “What’s next?” It’s really quite amazing. They want to be on a path for a new position.

We have to learn to take chances on people who are a little bit younger than we would have hired in the past. You’re always weighing experience versus enthusiasm. Are you willing to take a chance on someone who has all of the enthusiasm going for them, but perhaps they don’t have much experience? I think that’s particularly relevant in the digital space today.

Bryant: Many of the C.E.O.’s I’ve interviewed talk of a period in their lives when they really faced adversity. Is that something that you’ve dealt with, professionally or personally?

Black: My father lost his eyesight at age 50 and died at 63. The last 10 years or so of his life were not easy at all. An awful lot of people in that situation wouldn’t have encouraged me to leave Chicago, where I grew up, and go to college in Washington, D.C. And my mother wasn’t in the best of health, either.

That shaped me a lot, in the sense of the gift he gave me, which was that I had to be my own person. He said, “You absolutely should do your year abroad.” I’m sure their friends said to them, “You are crazy.” Here’s this blind man, and my mother’s not very well, and he said, “Go, honey, go ahead, you’re only young once.” So I think it was that sense of just rise above, muscle through and have a good sense of yourself, where you’re from, and what your roots are.

Bryant: What’s your approach for giving feedback?

Black: I’m very direct. I don’t really lose my temper, but if I’m upset about something I don’t want to show that in front of seven people and humiliate whoever it is. You do it five minutes afterward and then you say: “Look, this is what I observed. You were out of order or you shut somebody down.” The point is to solve it right now, and don’t let stuff simmer overnight. Don’t let it linger, and you don’t need 25 e-mails back and forth.

Bryant: If you could ask someone only two or three questions in a job interview, what would they be?

Black: How will you judge your success here? And what would be the first things you would do in the first 30 days?

Bryant: What do you want to hear in their answers?

Black: What I don’t want to hear is: “Well, I’ve thought of seven people that I want to bring in. I really don’t agree with your strategy.” I think you want somebody who is very excited. I mean, how much do you want this job? I always say to people: “Ask for the job. It’s not my job to get you excited. It’s my job to hear from you what you really want to do here and how excited you are to come to this company or to this position.”

Bryant: What’s it like to work for you?

Black: I am direct and I’m decisive. I think being decisive for an executive is important. It doesn’t mean that if it’s not my idea, then it’s a bad idea. But I believe that most people want clarity from their boss or their manager, and they want decisiveness.

So we don’t need to debate something endlessly. Maybe we can talk about it more than once, maybe more than twice, if it’s something really important. But let’s make a decision and move on.

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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 that he started in March 2009. To contact him, please click here.

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