Monday, November 15, 2010

On Cathleen Black

Some time ago I came to defend Tina Brown, a publishing super star, when she was being given a bad time in the media. My reason was not based on a professional relationship--although thanks to Tina I got my photograph, along with a slew of others, in Vanity Fair in the early days of Victoria. I had seen Tina and one of her children in a restaurant after mom had put in a long day at the office. I admired how she related to her child. She didn't know anyone was watching her--and she didn't know me.

As many former Victoria readers know, Cathie Black was my boss during the last years of my tenure at the magazine. Recently, there has been a lot in the press because after leaving the head of the magazine division at Hearst, she has been appointed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to be chancellor of the New York City schools.

I was a teacher once--and continued to think of myself as one in the positions I held in publishing. My childhood goal was to be a history teacher. But I moved beyond the classroom of 25 students to one of hundreds of thousands. I kept that trust with my readers at Victoria. The magazine supported writers, artists, scholars, and women in many various pursuits. As we went along as a franchise, I was able to do more and more in this area. No boss at Hearst, including Cathie Black, stood in the way of this direction of the magazine as long as I was editor in chief.

But as I did with Tina, I have looked to my Cathie Black years to find not the hard driving boss to whom ad pages were a major priority, but to the mom and woman that I might relate to. Once, I was in a meeting with Cathie and asked to leave for a few minutes while she took a phone call from her son's school. Obviously there was some kind of problem, probably a little one--which is how I addressed the situation when our meeting resumed. For a few moments, she was the vulnerable mother worried about her child. Granted, it was from behind a desk.

When the writer Mary Pipher was brought to the Hearst building by Victoria for a reception on her being named one of the Stars in Our Crown, Cathie came to the reception and spent a good deal of time speaking with Mary. It seemed to me that she wanted to get the essence of this woman who had written so knowingly about young women in Reviving Ophelia. Mary is a plainspoken woman from Nebraska--and seeing the two of them locked in conversation did not go unnoticed by me. I was pleased to see Cathie, the business icon in high heels, engaged with Mary, the philosopher writer in sensible shoes.

This post is not to endorse Cathie Black in her new job. As a former teacher, I'd have my reservations about how her executive skills translate to a public service job. Having worked for Cathie, I have reservations about how her style of management will fit into the requirements of such an important role in the life of New York City's students. I think the thing I would wonder about most is if she does indeed have that stroke of genius that will be innovative at a time when such talent is sorely needed in education; or, does a business background lead one to rely on the tried and true? The word "management" is often attached to success in the business world. Is not leadership what is sorely needed in our public servants? And a leadership that comes from a deep-seated passion for what they are doing? Passion is not something that executives have always honed in their careers. Business executives have the luxury of dealing from the top down. But does not leadership require consensus building to motivate and steer a huge educational system successfully?

I will follow Cathie's tenure and hope to see the concerned mom and the compassionate listener. And I wish her well.


  1. How very generous and kind of you, Nancy. Another example of how you truly practice what you preach: "nice matters"...

    Well-done, my friend!

    Marline, admiringly

  2. Thanks for this peek into a woman in management. Just yesterday I was thinking there needed to be more passion and heart in the leading of companies and associations. I wish her well.

  3. Fair & nice write ... thank you for sharing.

    Have a lovely day ~
    TTFN ~ Hugs, Marydon

  4. Nancy,
    I was thinking of you and wondering what you were thought about this! Thanks for your observation.
    Gail G.

  5. A woman who cannot relate to Victoria readers certainly cannot relate to children.

    Let's see - Cathie must have become your boss sometime in 1997? That seems to be about the time the look of the magazine changed and certainly not for the good either. It did not look like Nancy's Victoria anymore but someone else's.

    Thanks for sharing that, Nancy.