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The Rise, Demise (and Rise?) of Cathie Black

"One of the things I've had to work on over the years is recognizing the difference between a funny remark that's just funny, and one that's cutting. Humor is an incredibly valuable asset -- a good laugh has a positive effect in the office -- but all it takes is one ill-considered remark to set someone on edge and cast a pall on a good working relationship. If you find yourself inclined to make cutting remarks, there's probably some deeper reason behind it, and your colleagues and employees will sense that. Also, it's best to be straightforward about problems or issues you have with people, and save the humor for lighter topics."

Cathie Black, "Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life)," p. 223.

Gentle readers, especially my New York readers, you will come to appreciate the irony of this if you have not already. Read on.

About two weeks ago, my husband, Black Man Not Blogging (BMNB) and I ran across a brand new library one town over from ours. We loved it -- the layout, the collection, the children's book area, all of it. We came across the used books for sale as part of th library's "Friends of the Library" fundraiser, and I was drawn to a book with a powerful and content-looking woman on the cover. It was titled, "Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life)" by Cathie Black, who was president of Hearst Magazines at the time. I can't tell you how many career self-help books I've bought over the years, but I figured, hey, for a $3 donation to a good cause, I might find something of use in this book. Boy, did I ever (and not just the quote above.)

As I read this book, it was as if Ms. Black knew every mistake I'd made in my career and wrote about it. She had advice on everything from office politics to team management to negotiating a fair salary if you're a woman to having what she called a 360 degree life -- fulfilling career, marriage and family. It was so practical and so useful, I almost felt like she wrote it knowing I would read it. I said repeatedly to BMNB, "I want to give a copy of this book to every woman I know. Heck, I think men should read this book, too." I still think it is a great read, especially for the next generation of career women.

So while I was checking the New York Times online today to see when my husband's employer was going to shut down, I happened on a story about a Cathleen P. Black who had been dismissed from her position as Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools. Could it be the same woman?, I thought. Nah. There have to be a gazillion Cathleen Blacks in New York City.

But no. She was one in the same.

How could a woman who wrote such a fabulous book on career and life advice geared towards women, a woman who headed a multi-million -- if not multi-billion -- dollar publishing behemoth, have crashed and burned so miserably? Here's how: She didn't heed her own advice.

I included the quote from her book above because I read that Ms. Black made some unfortunate remarks regarding parents' concerns about impending school overcrowding, asking, "Could we just have some birth control for a while? It could really help us all out alot here." I'm sure she was joking. But when she made a reference to "Sophie's Choice" when talking about the the overcrowding, she pretty much dug the grave for her tenure with the New York public schools.

I can't imagine what she was thinking. She came into the post without any background in education, no graduate degree to speak of, no constituency rooting for her and what appears to have been no experience in government. And she came from a position of privilege -- the Hearst Company -- to work for one of the most diverse and, in some cases, marginalized people in New York. If I had to guess, she came with the head of a manager when she needed to come with the heart of a servant. A little humility can go a long way when you're in government service. You don't control who is hired or fired; you have little control over job responsibilities or budgets; but you sure as hell will get the blame when you don't produce results. All you really have at your disposal to get people to achieve your objectives is your ability to humble yourself to and empower the people who are indispensable to achieving your objectives and keeping your job. She needed to submit and empower instead of lecture and belittle.

Could she have been so culturally tone deaf to realize the implications of a privileged white woman who adopted her children late in life and thanked all her nannies in her book joking about birth control with a group of what I would imagine was a racially and socio-economically diverse group of parents? Yes, I guess she could be.

Let this be a lesson to those of you in private industry who think you can enjoy equal success in government, particularly education. The private sector and government are not the same. Good, bad or indifferent, public sector employees don't have to accept your management style if it's offensive or abusive. The constituency you serve can either get rid of you or get rid of the people who hired you just because they don't like you. Relationships may be enough to get you into a prestigious public sector job, but at the end of the day, they're not enough to keep you there if you offend the people you were put there to serve or fail to produce results.

I'm not writing this to throw salt in Ms. Black's wounds. I think her book is an amazing read chock full of useful advice, one piece of which came from her former boss at Hearst, Frank Bennack:

"You can make a big mistake. And you can make a bad mistake. Just don't make a big, bad mistake. "

Basic Black at p. 264. Yes, I think Ms. Black made a big, bad mistake. Or two. But if she's half as resilient as she appeared to be in her book, I know she can come back from this if she so chooses. Although I've never met her, I'm rooting for her because if she can rise above this bump in the road of what appears to have been an illustrious career, she can again teach all the rest of us aspiring women how to overcome our mistakes, too. I'm almost twenty years younger than Ms. Black, and I know I'm not done making mistakes. I hope to learn from her how to overcome them.

I hope she reads her book again. I highly recommend it.


fourcharlie said…
Observant, insightful, considerate and well written commentary. The sentence "..... she came with the head of a manager and not the heart of a servant," resonated with me. I'm glad you took the time to address it as I'm still wondering if going "public" didn't just increase the audience to Ms Black's true colors, or if, as you say, it was just a big, bad mistake.

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