On Basic Black by Cathie Black

I first encountered this title whilst reading Mariel Chua's No-Nonsense Career Advice, a post she's written about her experience at Hearst, parent publisher of magazine titles such as Seventeen, Cosmopolitan and Harper's Bazaar.

I've searched far and wide ever since, for maybe a number of months and completely got enslaved by the books I have at hand {which I never seem to eradicate from my bedside}. It was during an impromptu book shopping that I got lost at the Management section of BHS' Fully Booked and candidly asked for a copy of Basic Black, because I felt bad I wasn't walking away with anything functional and not purely for literary entertainment.

As the SA {Fully Booked SAs are the best, BTW} approached me with a copy of the book, my heart sank as I saw how Cathie's face was on the cover {nothing against her, I just abhor books with people in CEO-ish poses in front} but still went ahead to buy it.

Cathie Black's Basic Black graduated from my bedside
to my bed itself. I couldn't stop reading it.

Armed with a truckload of books, I got home, plonked myself onto the bed and reached out for the first book within arms-reach and started reading this, despite my aversion for such-covered books.

In typical Don't judge the book by its cover fashion, I found myself devouring chapter after chapter, not even bothering to highlight passages because all of them were useful for this 25-year-old writer/digital strategist. 

I have a habit of checking out book reviews at Amazon before buying a book and I'm truly glad I did not let the reviews affect me {like how my friend R tells me}. 

I had a little nagging thought that career advice might be all the same, as I have recently read Mireille Guiliano's Work, Women and The Art of Savoir Faire recently. The biggest difference was of course, Black was Irish-American and Guiliano being French meant they had different, probably opposing principles when it comes to career advice.

However, short of saying they're almost the same, it is to be gleaned that truly, there are no shortcuts in whichever career one decides to pursue. I could draw a bunch of akin principles, if only to say that the best advice are often universal in nature.

Cathie Black is currently President of Hearst Magazines, tells her story of how she came about one of Forbes' 100 Most Powerful Women and Fortune's 50 Most Powerful Women in Business. With those credentials, one can imagine women all in power suits, walking along 5th Avenue and barking orders in their Blackberries. What I found interesting was aside from Cathie sharing her triumphs, she also shared her mistakes. In the beginning of the book, she shared how she photocopied her resumes in the office copier and left the original, only to be seen by the president. She shared a blunder, the magazine Talk, which she said she had a hard time pulling the plug on, but she had to do it. My favorite case study has got to the one on Oprah's O Magazine. I never realized Hearst was the publishing house behind it and the way she and Ellen Levine pitched the idea to Ms. Winfrey herself was awe-inspiring. 

Best of all, Cathie was not one to charge it all up to her own learnings. Throughout the book, she consistently mentioned her mentors, USA Today's Al Neuharth {such an interesting man!}, Victor Ganzi, Gloria Steinem, among others.

Surprisingly, the book had so much heart, and I'm sharing some of my favorites.

1. Know the rules, so you know which ones to break. Or know what areas do not have existing rules yet. Instead of recounting what Ms. Black said about her experiences, let me tell you what I think {and have done so far my five year-strong career}. 

I work in an industry considered one of the most conservative and strictest in the landscape of careers. When I first entered the company, I constantly found myself wondering what was I doing with people whose strengths lied in numbers, statistics, mortality, Value of New Business, familial photos, stringent branding guidelines, and what have you.

Constantly and over the years, over dinners, drinks and sometimes, after-meeting chats, I was often asked: What's the thing you love most with working here? I had only one standard answer: I loved {and hated, sometimes} how I am a square peg in a round hole. It was a little late when I realized that subconsciously, and hopefully, strategically, I was hired to shake things up a bit. Colleagues have asked my boss why it was I that he chose, and despite never admitting this to his face, I consider it one of the best compliments of my life:

There were many others who were smarter, made lesser mistakes, had greater writing but Tara stood out because I saw that the company needed her. From how she dressed and how she presented herself, she sparked with life, there wasn't a trace of nervousness, she wrote a funny piece on her Sun Life experience and related herself to Carrie Bradshaw. On an interview piece. Who does that?

- My boss {of course that's not verbatim because I had to translate it into English but you get my his point}

Three years down the road, I have learned that some people were not meant to follow all the rules. Some of us were meant to read up on the guidelines, know them by heart and work around it and learn which ones we can afford to break. For Black, it was getting Bill Clinton as a speaker despite his speaker fees. As for me, it was exhausting the powers of the digital media to the extent that worked for the brand without breaking laws or cheating. More on this when I write my book, harhar.

2. Take the credit when it's yours. I realized that as we go up the ladder, we tend to get receive more responsibilities, more projects to spearhead and more people to manage. When I had my latest annual job review, I was shocked to have received a rating much higher than what I have expected. This was where I was wrong.

Sometimes, we get too lost in the daily tasks that once we tick off the to do things in our lists, we immediately move on to the next one and forget the triumph, no matter how small, that we just had. My 2010, career-wise, was the most stellar yet, as affirmed by my boss. I was dumbfounded when he was telling me this because I couldn't recall what I did to achieve that. But as I looked back {my BDJ planner was a great help}, I decided to give myself a pat on the back once and for all and accepted the rating with graciousness and a smile. 

True, it's hard to accept criticism, and even compliments and credit. I have been trying to master this for the longest time and as I have been telling a friend, "When someone pays you a compliment, why can't you just  smile and say thank you?" It's so hard to do that for fear of seeming pompous. In traditional Filipino culture, we were trained to be humble. Humility gets one far in the business. But not 100% of the time. "Accept it, you've earned it," says Black.

3. Power = Understanding what you can and cannot control. One of the best lessons my friend T has taught me was this: Stop worrying about things you cannot control. Control is a powerful word. I remember a phrase from Eat, Pray, Love, where Richard said something like "If you cannot control your mind, you're dead meat." Simply put, there are too many things in life and in the workplace that we cannot control. When I started, I was always bothered by the fact that some people's working style did not match mine or my team's. I was too caught up with trying to get on everyone's good side and fitting in that I have lost sense of who I was. Could I control what people felt about me or my job? No. But I could control myself by doing the things my way, responsibly and with dazzling results. Being in control of how things affect us is indeed, POWER.

 Kim Raver's Nicco Riley is my power peg forever.

4. Don't personalize things that are not personal. Easier said than done, yes? It's very easy to fall into the trap of feeling slighted or annoyed with colleagues who present opinions or contradict us during meetings, or ones who doesn't include us in lunch meetings. I should know, I used to do this. However, somewhere in the progress of my career, I realized that it was much easier, to take the good from the bad, to discern whether the act was personal or not. More often, it wasn't. Sometimes, our bosses or colleagues see something in the bigger picture that we don't. Sometimes, people communicate their ideas differently than we do. Sometimes, people have {and this is my favorite} deep-seated childhood issues that have no reprieve. It's nothing against me {or you}. It's just the way it is.

In fact, I've been so good at it that even heartbreaks and breakups are not personal in my book. But that's for another story.


5. Make your life a grudge-free zone. Oh how hard it is to not to break into a fit of profanities and insults and complaints when I hear so and so's name. It's true, some colleagues tend to bring the worst in us: full of delaying tactics, too much slave-driving, not knowing what they want out of a project, and many things that can have us curling into a ball of stress and near into exploding. 

Many times, this has happened to me and the first times were comforting, being able to blab in succession to willing listeners. But anger tends to make us say things we'd rather have not said, emails we shouldn't have sent. Keeping grudges is a heavy burden to carry and to let it affect us is a disservice to no one but ourselves. I still have not worked on not getting angry with colleagues who doesn't match my working style, but I am working on not keeping a grudge, in fact, letting go of the entire issue as soon as I step out of the office, and somehow succeeding.

6. Tell your boss what you want. Every single time my boss and I have to talk about planning my career goals at the start of the year, or at the end of the year to assess what I have done, I am always dumbfounded on what to say when he asks me: What do you want to achieve after?

This stems from a whole list of reasons, mainly: I am afraid of stepping into boundaries {What if what I want oversteps his turf as my boss?}, I am afraid of being looked upon as too ambitious and I am afraid of not achieving it by the deadline. Fortunately for me, my boss stumbled upon my list of personal {by personal I mean SECRET} career goals in some weird, serendipitous mistake and during our last talk he casually mentioned how he knows how much I want to manage people and move up the ladder sooner.

I was dumbfounded and paralyzed with fear.

To this day, I cringe outwardly when he jokes about it, but thank the heavens inside. If my boss hadn't seen that, I never would have gathered the courage to tell him that I want to expand my roles and spring off my own section and manage people. If he hasn't seen that, he wouldn't have been able to help me develop my weak points and steer me towards the direction I so richly craved.

7. Measure yourself by your aspirations, not by your limitations. This by far, is my most favorite. In the corporate world, we, most of the time, back off from promotions, responsibilities and projects, thinking, "I can't do that, yet." I would know, I am guilty of this. Cliche as it may be, we will never know what we can do until we try. When I had my first post where I work, I constantly called myself the next level in my career ladder. It helped me achieve my goal of being promoted plus, when I look back at the year that was, I amaze myself for having done all the things that I did. Doesn't hurt to prove some people wrong, too =P

Those are only a whiff of what's inside Basic Black. Just like what Mariel said, this book is a must-read for women who want to advance in life and in their careers. It's a great book that doesn't feel overbearing and pushy nor does it feel like you're talking to a bossy author.


Pretty much and in the same intensity, I completely recommend this book to women like me, who are either starting out or well way into their careers. We all need the mentoring we can get. This book does part of the job.


Read any career books lately?