November 16, 2010
City officials’ argument to convince State Education Commissioner David Steiner that publishing executive Cathie Black is qualified to be schools chancellor is based on the idea that her managerial skills will be necessary during the coming years’ intense financial pressures.
But in her memoir-cum-business advice guide, “Basic Black,” the chancellor appointee describes her skills as far more attuned to sales and marketing than financial analysis. While she likes the operational side of business, she writes, “too much data and too many spreadsheets make my eyes glaze over.”
In a section of the book called “Power = knowing your strengths and weaknesses,” Black explains that knowing that she prefers broader strategy to rows of numbers has helped her decide which tasks to delegate:
Over the years I’ve taken care to work on that weakness — taking financial management courses, asking for help when I need it, and not being afraid to let the numbers folks do the thing they’re best at. It wouldn’t make sense for me to pretend to be a whiz where I’m not.
Black’s analysis of her own managerial strengths and weaknesses is one of many insights that her 2007 book gives into how she might approach her new job at Tweed Courthouse.
It also gives clues to why Black said yes to the job of schools chancellor. In a section on how to decide which job offers to take and which to pass over, she describes two separate instances where she was offered jobs outside of magazine publishing but turned them down. In one case, she declined an offer to become president of a well-known cosmetics company. She refused because, as she writes, they needed “someone who lives and breathes cosmetics,” and Black did not think she was that person.
Similarly, when she was offered a top position at a Silicon Valley start-up, she turned it down because she didn’t feel familiar enough with the field:
It would have been an exciting and potentially lucrative new field for me, but as I walked around the company’s offices, looking at the rows and rows of people silently tapping away at their computers, I just kept thinking, “I’m such a fish out of water here. What in the world do I bring to this party?”
But Black says there are times when it makes sense to take a job that’s far afield from your interests and expertise — when the new job may be a strategic stepping-stone to something else.
“Don’t be afraid to take steps in your career that are strictly for strategic purposes,” she writes. “Yes, you want to follow your dreams, but sometimes the path to your dreams involves a carefully thought-out detour.”
The book also gives clues about how Black may run the Department of Education’s central administration. Black has said that she intends to lean heavily on the team of deputy chancellors that Klein has put together — though one of those deputies quit almost immediately after Bloomberg’s announcement and it’s unclear whether others plan to stay.
She writes in the book that, unlike many executives arriving at a new company, she prefers keeping the old team in place rather than making drastic changes right away. When she was hired at Hearst, she writes, she began making changes so slowly that she attracted criticism from outside observers.
“We needed an infusion of new energy, and part of the reason I was hired was to provide it,” she writes. “Yet I didn’t storm in with bazookas blazing. The last thing I wanted to do was come in and shake things up just for the sake of shaking, which would have led to upheaval and mistrust on the part of Hearst management.”
In the book, Black describes how she approaches laying off staff, which she may be forced to do next year in the face of steep budget reductions. She explains how she made the decision to shutter a struggling magazine, experience that some have suggested might come in handy when the city tries to close as many as 60 schools this year.
Black also writes about her commitment to diversity in the workplace. The Department of Education and the Bloomberg administration have been criticized for their largely white, male ranks. Black writes that she has received criticism for hiring too many female executives; at Hearst, she dispensed with that idea by acknowledging it directly at an executive meeting, then asking all of the women in the room to stand. The women made up about one-third of the meeting’s attendees.
She writes that she prefers to hire employees of “different backgrounds, ages, temperaments, and experience” not just for ethical reasons but also because it makes good business sense.
“It’s best to mix it up, as hiring people like yourself simply brings you more of the same perspective and skills, rather than the diversity of skills that more often leads to success,” she writes.
Throughout the book, Black describes an approach to managing that is mostly personable but also direct and sometimes almost brusque. And she says she has a thick skin for hearing when people think she is wrong.
“You can take it or leave it, but don’t fear criticism,” she writes.