"The Story Teller"
"When I look back at my career, I realize I have been threading a necklace.”
Joanna Coles has been finding and telling stories since she was a young girl. She has been a writer, a publisher, a salesperson, a journalist, a reporter, an editor, an author and on-camera talent in a reality-tv show.
She’s an original thinker, a ground breaker, a glass ceiling raiser, a mentor, and a reference point. She’s also the inspiration for a new tv show based largely on her life.
She has worked for some of the world’s most iconic publications. The Spectator, The Guardian, The Times of London, and she has been the editor of Marie Claire and of Cosmo. And a year ago she was named Chief Content officer for Hearst Magazines.
I talked to Joanna about her early lessons as a very young writer, about how a double murder changed the course of her career, and about her correspondence with the Queen.
- The importance of being goal centric. That allows you to remove the noise and your own hesitation and say, 'I want to get there.'
- Openness, in terms of accepting ideas and possibilities from other people. The willingness to hear what other people have to say.
- A relentless curiosity about what comes next, and interest in finding out what is possible, both in yourself and in the world around you.
- Live life on your terms. Don't make apologies for the choices you've made and the things that matter to you.
"Fearless Creative Leadership" Podcast - Transcript
Episode 16: Joanna Coles
Charles Day: Hello, you're listening to fearless, where we explore the art and science of leading creativity, that unpredictable, amorphous, and invaluable resource that's critical to every modern business. Each week, we talk to leaders of the world's most disruptive companies about how they're jumping into the fir, crossing the chasm, and blowing up the status quo. Leaders who've mastered the art of turning the impossible into the profitable. Today, the world needs leaders who can unlock creativity like never before, fearless leaders. Why shouldn't that be you?
Leadership is very much about telling a story. You have to be able to convince a lot of different people that you have a vision of the future that will be better than the life they're leading today, and that you have a way for them to get there. Which is actually an awe-inspiring responsibility when you look at it through that lens. It requires the belief that you know something that they don't, and that you are the person that can make it happen, the person they should trust their lives to.
That sounds a bit dramatic, doesn't it? But when you're leading creative people, people who are original in the way they think and act, there is almost no separation between what they do and who they are, their work defines them. And so the choice of who they work for comes, in their minds, with enormous consequence, as it should. Because leadership matters. All else being equal, leadership is the difference between success and failure. That usually is the difference, but even when all else isn't equal. Not unreasonably, talented people are pretty selective about who they work for, about who's story they buy into, about who's vision of the future they want to adopt as their own. Which means, that when your the leader, the story you tell is one of the most valuable assets your company possesses. A great story attracts talent and wins clients and customers. A weak story leaves you clinging to the status quo.
A leader's ability to tell a story shows up in another important way: the clarity and consistency with which they tell their own personal story. Who am I? What do I believe in? What choices do I make? Do I make those same choices when I'm under pressure? These are critical questions that have enormous consequence on your success as a leader. Take a few minutes and write down the things you want people to say about you, that's your story. Is it how you're showing up?
Joanna Coles has been finding and telling stories since she was a little girl. She's been a writer, a publisher, a sales person, a journalist, a reporter, an editor, an author, and an on camera talent in a reality TV show. She's an original thinker, a ground breaker, a glass ceiling raiser, a mentor, and a reference point. She's also the inspiration of a new TV show based largely on her life. She's worked for some of the world's most iconic publications, the Spectator, the Guardian, the Times of London. She's been the editor of Marie Claire and of Cosmo. And a year ago, she was named chief content officer for Hearst magazines. I talked to Joanna about her early lessons as a very young writer, about how a double murder changed the course of her career, and about her correspondence with the queen.
Charles Day: Joanna, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for being here.
Joanna Coles: Thrilled to be here.
Charles Day: The place I'd like to start actually, since the podcast is about creativity and unlocking creativity, is what's your first memory of something being creative?
Joanna Coles: Does pushing someone off a slide count? I think my first memory of being creative is probably ... And this won't mean anything for American readers. But there was a brilliant television show in Britain, which my generation, so Boomer children, grew up on called Blue Peter. And every episode ... It's rather sexist, actually. There were two male presenters who both had German shepherds-
Charles Day: And we could name them, couldn't we, if we wanted to?
Joanna Coles: We could. Peter Purves-
Charles Day: John Noakes.
Joanna Coles: John Noakes. And then there was Valerie Singleton. Valerie was the woman who had a cat. You can't make this stuff up anymore. And Valerie, every episode, there were two episodes a week, would make something. And I was fascinated by watching her make something. And sometimes it would be a kitchen for a doll's house, or it would be a pharmacy that she'd managed to make out of toilet rolls and what she called sticky back plastic. And I would immediately go off and try to do it. So I remember copying from television ... Which of course now kids do from YouTube videos, my own kids definitely do that. So I do remember always wanting to try and build things.
And then I was fantastically precocious as a kid, wrote essays for a local paper, the Yorkshire post, which was a very good, very strong, regional paper. For which I got paid two pounds, the equivalence probably of four dollars.
Charles Day: How old were you when you started writing essays?
Joanna Coles: About ten. And I realized I could make money from writing, extremely exciting. And then I created my own little magazine, which I would drop off at neighbors. Completely unwanted, I like to think it was the beginning of junk mail. But my dad would photocopy on his work photocopier, and I sent a copy to the queen. And she had her maid in waiting send me a lovely letter, which I still have, saying that the queen was very excited to get the first issue of this magazine and would be looking forward to more. And that was really all I needed to embark on a career of writing, journalism, magazine making, and now all sorts of digital and television projects.
Charles Day: That's a lot of validation and affirmation very early in life. Where did you get the desire or the inspiration to start writing in the first place? Where did that come from?
Joanna Coles: I think probably just a real desire to express myself, and watching how excited my parents were when the newspaper arrived. And I was ... I couldn't wait to get my hands on my mum's magazines that would come. She had Good Housekeeping, she had Woman's Own, Woman, and they had the most extraordinary tales, usually of sort of marriage betrayed in them. Which I was just so fascinated by. And I bought all sorts of comics, I spent all my money on books and comics and magazines, just couldn't get enough of them. And I did endless cartoons and graphic stories, and I just loved them. And my friends loved them too, and we would share them, we would discuss them. And really, that for us was like outside life coming into this rather provincial town where I grew up. And that was like a finger to the future, beckoning me forward.
Charles Day: What did your parents do?
Joanna Coles: My dad was an English teacher, and my mum was a social worker.
Charles Day: Do you have brothers and sisters?
Joanna Coles: I have one younger sister who is six years younger.
Charles Day: You were exposed to, or you discovered this sort of wonderful world of creativity at a very young age. How long before you moved out of Yorkshire?
Joanna Coles: Well I moved out of Yorkshire after I finished high school. The other thing I would add that I also spent a lot of time doing ... Which I never connected the dots until I was older. And one of the things I find fascinating about your podcast, and also about listening to creative people, is when you go back and you find clues in your childhood. And I had actually forgotten about the letter from the queen until my mum reminded me of it, and found it. She had kept all my early clippings, she kept the letter, she gave them all to me in a big envelope that she'd saved. Which is heaven for me. And I actually picked them up kind of recently.
But I used to make dolls clothes too. And when I got to a fashion magazine, when I edited Marie Claire and then later Cosmopolitan, the fact that I had spent so much time as a youngster designing clothes, making clothes for my dolls and trolls, it all began to fit. And I saw this consistent passion of journalism, of magazine making, of drawing, of painting, of creating, that it was an entire through line. And it didn't always feel like that when I was going from job to job to job, it never felt like there a consistent through line. But now I look back, and I see it was like I was threading a necklace of ... Not necessarily pearls, or perhaps faux pearls. But I was definitely threading a necklace with the same kind of bead.
Charles Day: And much more by instinct than by design.
Joanna Coles: Absolutely by instinct.
Charles Day: So when you left Yorkshire, you moved where?
Joanna Coles: I moved to Paris for a year after school between college. Then I went to the University of East Anglia in Britain, to study American and English Literature. And I knew growing up in the north of England, I had to get to America. And it just felt like the dominant ... It felt like Britain was a satellite of the mother ship, America. When I watched television, American television was the thing that called to me. I watched Mary Tyler Moore religiously, I had no idea Mary Tyler Moore was actually set in Minneapolis, I thought it was set in New York. I couldn't believe it when I got here and discovered actually, if i really wanted to meet Mary Tyler Moore I would have to move to Minneapolis, that was too much.
Charles Day: No plans for that.
Joanna Coles: Never any plan, much too cold. Beautiful city, love the Twin Cities. Don't need to live there. And the sky scrapers a sky scraper to me. But very much felt the siren call to America, as I think a lot of American ... A lot of British boomers felt. And after college and studying American literature and studies, American culture, I moved to London and went into journalism.
Charles Day: And why journalism specifically?
Joanna Coles: Because it seemed exciting, because it seemed more doable than writing novels or books. And I loved the idea ... I've always been fascinated by the news. I mean, I love Twitter now, I love staying as up to date as I possibly can about all the things going on. And I just love the romance of newspapers, and having written a column when I was younger and watched newsroom, it seemed like the most exciting place. People always rushing around, terribly, self-importantly as I later discovered, often full of hot air. But there's nothing like getting a great scoop, and everybody following it, and you knowing that this was your hard work. It was invigorating.
Charles Day: Was the audience important to you? Having an audience, was that important?
Joanna Coles: Great question, actually. Probably, probably more important than I realize. But what I really loved was the process of doing it. I mean, it was hard, writing a story is hard. You have to get it right. And it's exhilarating when you get it right. And also working to a deadline, which I always enjoy because it means you ... There's an end to it. And so I found it exhilarating, and I think the audience bit probably came later.
Charles Day: Does the deadline element of this help you in general? Do you need a deadline, are you one of those people that responds better when you've got a deadline? Do you find you procrastinate if you don't? I mean, you seem like you ... You're so, there's so much to your life. You're doing so many different things. I'm just curious as to where the energy for that comes from.
Joanna Coles: I think everybody's better with a deadline. I mean, a never ending possibility is exhausting for anybody. And also, there are certain projects you just to need to have them done, you have to make a decision. And I think that people who don't like deadlines are people who can't make decisions. And actually, there are many things I find difficult, but making a decision is not one.
Charles Day: I know your first job was selling media, wasn't it selling advertising space for-
Joanna Coles: Well my first job was a mixed bag of graduate training. So I sold advertising, I learned how to work on circulation, and I edited books pages. And in those days, it felt much more ... They felt more co pathetic than perhaps they do now. But it was enormous fun, it was a small magazine, everybody pitched in. And we did everything.
Charles Day: And is that where your business sense started to grow from?
Joanna Coles: I think so. Understanding the economics of journalism or a magazine, incredibly important. And I learned that way round, as opposed to what a lot of editors and writers do, which is edit and write and think funds are unlimited, and then they hit a point when they realize oh god, there's an economic reality to this. And I always understood how something is financed, the importance of advertising, the importance of circulation revenue when there is some in the model, and how the whole thing had to make sense. And I'm so grateful I had the opportunity to learn that way forward.
Charles Day: You actually had a lot of discipline and structure pretty early on, in addition to the creative expression of wanting to craft stories and wanting to tell stories. You started to realize, through deadline and through ... You said getting the story right. And through the means of creating economic reality to this stuff, that there were two sides to this equation it sounds like.
Joanna Coles: Yeah. I hadn't thought of it like that, but I guess it was fairly structured. You had the daily deadlines, and you have an economic reality. And then within that, you have enormous amounts of freedom.
Charles Day: So you said you were always trying to get ... So you had this yearning to get there. How long before you made it over?
Joanna Coles: Well in retrospect, I wish I'd come much earlier. But I came in '97, I like to say I voted for Tony Blair, who I was a great fan of at the time, and then left the country. But it took me I think 13 years, that I came for the Guardian. And I didn't want to come to America randomly, with nothing to do. And so excitedly, or excitingly, the Guardian needed a new New York corespondent, and I came to be that.
Charles Day: And you ... Tell us about the evolution of your journalism career into the fashion side of your life.
Joanna Coles: Well, I came as a correspondent, travel around America, and really write about America. Which was a fantastic job. And also, a wonderful way to get to know the country, because you could go to all these places that most people don't go. I like to say there was no small town where a violent crime had been committed, that I didn't get the opportunity to go.
And I really covered everything, from the British nanny murder trial up in Boston, to Oprah's cattle trial, to school shootings. I mean, you saw America in its best and its worst state. And I did that, I was a reporter for four years, traveling around America. First for the Guardian, and then for the Times. I wrote a weekly column, I got to interview people, it was a fabulous job. And then the paper wanted me to go back to America ... Sorry, the paper wanted me to go back to London. And at that point, I realized I didn't want to go back, I wanted to stay. And I moved to New York magazine, which was my first entrée into the American market.
And it was quite interesting, because I realized I didn't know anything about New York at all. I'd lived here for four years, I got to the first meeting at the magazine and literally every single person's name I'd never heard of anybody they were talking about. And I realized I had been writing about America on this very surface level. In fact, interestingly, the desk in London, at the times and the Guardian, were always fascinated by Donald Trump. Like once a month, they would call to see if I could get an interview with Donald Trump. I always held them at bay, thank gosh. But they were always fascinated by him, and I felt like I was writing a tourist level, really.
So it was great to get under the skin of New York, and be at New York magazine. And from there, I moved to Marie Claire to be the editor and chief, which was a wonderful job.
Charles Day: And what was the impetus behind that jump? Because that's a fairly significant jump in terms of discipline and perspectives on the world I guess. What was the impetus for you? What made that interesting?
Joanna Coles: The impetus very clearly for me was I had children. And with one children it was very easy to travel and write about things. With two children it became impossible, my husband was also traveling. I wanted a job where I knew roughly what my hours would be. And on my oldest son's second birthday, the newspaper called me up, the Times of London called me up and said we need you to go and cover a double murder at Dartmouth college in New Hampshire. And it was literally my son's second birthday, I had people coming for a party, and I said well I will do it, but can I go tomorrow, because I really want to, it's his birthday. And they said fine, and then they called me back half an hour later and they said actually no, you really have to go up and cover this double murder.
So I hopped in the car, found a photographer, we drove up to Dartmouth. It was a horrible story. We spent a lot of time talking to the neighbors, we sort of saw the house, there was blood absolutely everywhere. It turned out to be a random, very unfortunate murder of two local youths who murdered this couple to steal 10,000 dollars, in theory to get to Australia. It was a sort of strange story. But what was infuriating was having gotten the story, talked to everybody involved, written it, filed it five in the morning, they then held onto it for four days and didn't run it. And so I thought, why am I doing this? I missed my son's birthday ... Which of course, he doesn't remember at all, but I still remember it.
And I thought, I need a job that I can actually get to my son's birthday party if I've organized one. So it was a very straightforward decision to move into magazines. More control, didn't have to run around chasing the news. Which I'd loved doing, but things had changed. And it was enormous fun to also suddenly be in charge of a team of people, and to have a bigger vision play out and go from one story to a monthly collection of stories that I was in charge of.
Charles Day: And as you took that opportunity, how did you suddenly see yourself differently?
Joanna Coles: Well the thing that I was most surprised about, and I talk about this a lot with women in charge, is how much more fun it is to be in charge and to run things than you are ever expected to find it. And I suddenly found gosh, this is fun. People will do what I ask them, I can create something and really see it through. I'm the person that the buck stops with, which is fun, and I can take some risks. And I absolutely loved it, and I had a wonderfully supportive team I had great managers above me, and my first year was ... I really learned a lot during the first year, and I had tremendously helpful people at Hearst who nudged me back when I was straying off the path.
But it was such fun, and it's a wonderful ... Time magazines were probably it there, they're sort of pinnacle. And we had endless ... It felt like endless resources, tremendously interesting material, because Marie Claire is a wonderful magazine that writes about women. We were just beginning to see the beginning of the new feminism, and the dawn of female empowerment, all of which we could channel. And you got to go to Milan and Paris and London for the fashion shows, it was so much fun.
Charles Day: Did you ever doubt yourself, that you were gonna be able to make this work or be successful at this?
Joanna Coles: I remember three months in, having an issue that I'd expected to be more successful than it was. And I had a wash of Christ, what if I am completely wrong, and this is gonna be an absolute disaster? And I remember thinking the only solution is to work really hard, and to cut out everything on the periphery. And so for the next year, I literally put my head down, I don't think I went out to do any kind of social life. And I got the thing where I needed it to be, both business wise with my publisher partner and editorially. But I remember very consciously making the decision that this is too important an opportunity to waste, I have to give it absolutely everything I have.
And I did nothing between work and family, work and family. And obviously, sometimes those sort of blend into each other. It was enormous fun, but I worked really hard.
Charles Day: And the story that by which you got that job is, I think, a great one. I think I heard you on a YouTube video I was watching the other day about you, tell the story. And I'd love it if you'd tell this audience that story again, about how you literally chased down a town car.
Joanna Coles: Well, what happened was I got a message ... I was on holiday in London when I got a call asking if I would like to come in and meet the then head of Hearst magazine's Kathy Black, who's a legendary figure in our business, I mean one of the really dominant figures, for a meeting about Marie Claire. And I hadn't picked up the voicemail because I'd been in London for a week. And I came back on a Sunday night, picked up the voicemail, and the meeting was for the next day. So I left them an email that ... Or I left them a message that night, Sunday night, saying absolutely I'll be there, looking forward to it.
Got up very early on Monday morning, went for a run, washed off. Literally bought a new suit, a new top, new shoes. Had my hair blown out and got a manicure all by 11:30. Rushed to the office where they promptly told me "Oh, we didn't hear back from you until last night, we assumed you weren't interested. Kathy's actually going to France, in fact she's on her way, she's about to set off to the airport." So I said, well ... And it fell out of my mouth. I said, "Well can I ride in the car with her to the airport?" Because I didn't want to let all the effort I'd made go to waste. [crosstalk 00:21:02] That was really my concern.
Charles Day: That was your instinct, was to grab the moment.
Joanna Coles: Grab the opportunity.
Charles Day: Yeah.
Joanna Coles: And they said "Well you, can but she's leaving her house now. If you can get to her house ..." They called her and she said if you can get to my house in time, then you can ride in the airport ... You can ride to the airport. So I literally head out of the building, I stopped a cab on sixth avenue. I pulled the poor man in the backseat out, tossed him to the curb, I shouted "This is an emergency." We rode over to Park Avenue, Kathy's black town car pulled out from where she was, and we literally drag raced up Park Avenue with me frantically waving. And the cab driver had totally gotten into it by this point, he was like cheering me on.
And she finally saw what was going on, pulled over, I hopped in the car. And by the time I got to the airport, I knew I had the job.
Charles Day: What a great story. It's actually better this time, the way you just told it, that's fantastic. I mean, talk about resilience and just deciding I'm not gonna let this situation beat me. There's a real lesson in that, I think.
Joanna Coles: Well, and it was also the training of being a reporter, and just knowing that at a certain point you have to go after what you want, the story. And in that case, it was the job.
Charles Day: So that's a great point actually, because ... So the experience you had as a reporter drove you towards the objective, which was the story. And you removed ... Tell me, I don't want to put words in your mouth. But it sounds like you removed your own obstacles to that, that the story became the destination, became the purpose. And so whatever you had to do to achieve the goal became the thing you had to do.
Joanna Coles: Well, and it's very helpful, having it go like that, because it gets you over the things you don't want to do.
Charles Day: Yeah.
Joanna Coles: So often when you're doing a story, and you're after something that someone is trying to stop you from getting, you have to call people you don't want to call who don't want to talk to you, and they put the phone down, and you have to go to people's houses or go to people's offices and ask them for interviews that they don't want to give. You have to wait for them in the waiting room so it becomes impossible for them to ignore you. You sort of have to wear them down. And you're always doing it because you've got something in mind that you want to get to. So it's sort of that the goal gets you over the difficult things to do, and you sort of somehow don't mind them. And in fact, the more obstacles people put up, the more you think ooh, this is really worth getting because they don't want me to get it.
And that wasn't the case in this situation with the job, but I knew very clearly I have to get to her apartment. I'm gonna stop a cab, I'm gonna get the guy out of the cab ... And the cab driver was so excited, it's like people live for this kind of drama, right? He was like oh my gosh, I'm sure he's still telling this story at this crazy woman, she pulled a man out of the back of the cab, we drag raced up Park Ave. And the poor man who was tossed to the side of the curb, I think I threw him ten dollars and ... Whatever, he's probably still got sciatica.
Charles Day: So you're at Marie Claire, you're embracing the world of fashion and taking on the challenge of being the leader, and deciding that you have to really focus. What did you find as you started to take charge? What parts of that did you really enjoy, and what parts did you find were real challenges for you?
Joanna Coles: Well, I really enjoyed the management part of it, I really enjoyed talking to people, trying to get their ideas. I'm a very non-hierarchical idea finder, I love it when people that you don't expect to have ideas have good ideas. And often they do, it's just that they've been channeled into a situation that they can't often give them. I was sort of fascinated by the different hierarchies in the fashion world, from sitting on the front row to the different designers to the way the fashion departments worked at different places. It was a very fast learning curve for me, but I had covered some fashion for the Times of London, so it wasn't entirely new for me to go to fashion shows.
And I've always loved clothes. I mean, I've always collected clothes, I have clothing memories of things. I love clothes. So it was great fun to be able to have a passion that I could explore through the lens of work. And I loved the financial challenge of it, and working really closely with a publisher to come up with big ideas that we could interest advertisers in. Which allowed us to fund more and more crazy ideas. And actually, I look back my first episode of Marie Claire, or my first issue of Marie Claire, they asked me to do a thing on American fashion. And we shot ... Literally we shot Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, John McCain, and Rudy Giuliani, my first issue, it was fantastic. And everybody said oh, you'll never get them, they'll never do it, which made me want to do it all the more.
And we had the most fun, and it remains one of my favorite issues.
Charles Day: You like a challenge.
Joanna Coles: I love a challenge, I love it. And I love it when somebody tells me it can't be done.
Charles Day: What made you decide to move to Cosmo?
Joanna Coles: Well, Cosmo's the biggest magazine in the Hearst stable. I had been at Marie Claire for six years, I didn't feel like doing the merry go round one more time. And David Kerry, the editor of ... The president of the magazine division at Hearst, asked me if I would be interested in taking it on. And at the time, it had 61 editions globally, and it was this beast of a magazine, a brilliant American institution. Which I was really excited to have a go at.
Charles Day: And when you walked in the door there what, did you discover, were the biggest leadership challenges you faced?
Joanna Coles: Well, I think how to keep a brand like Cosmo relevant, at a time when it's leadership was segwaying online. This was five years ago that I took over Cosmo, and so the female empowerment issue was beginning to really bubble up. Literally the first person I called was Sheryl Sandberg, and I knew that she had a book coming out. I flew out to see her, I started the job in September, I flew out to see her and I said, "I don't care what it takes, I'm going to excerpt your book." And she was kind of "Gosh this is crazy, Cosmo's interested in this?" And I was like, "Absolutely." We did a 24 page excerpt, it was fantastic. And she came on board as the careers editor, and we really rode a moment of great excitement and conversation about why weren't there any female leaders?
And it really took her book, which remains one of the great discussion points for any working woman, I think. It took her book to point out there were no female leaders. And we knew this instinctively, we knew there were three percent of fortune 500 companies, now it's five percent, big f-ing deal. But we ... No one had put it all together and said "Look, there's a problem here." There are a lot more women going to college now than there are men, and that's been the case for years. And yet women aren't rising up the leadership ranks. What's going wrong? And it took her to focus everybody on that. And it really became ... Cosmo had always been about sexual empowerment. Now we could be about work empowerment, money empowerment. And it was really exciting.
Charles Day: And had the empowerment of women been an issue or a theme for you before that? I mean obviously now it's a very prominent theme for you, but when did it become such a ... I mean, it's almost a calling, it feels like a calling from the outside anyway.
Joanna Coles: Well, I had always been ... Just because of the demographic, I was almost just sort or tail end of boomer. I'm like the last year of boomer. I had actually always benefited from the fact that people were looking for women. So when I ... I remember interviewing at the daily telegraph, and Max Hastings the then editor literally looked across the desk and said "You're under 30, and you're a woman. I need both of those categories, you can start on Monday."
And that was literally the job interview. I didn't even have to say "Oh, I grew up here," or "I'm interested in this." He was like, "You answer my need, I'm hiring you." Which was thrilling, I didn't care. And it was ... When I look back on my time at Fleet Street, women weren't allowed to order drinks in the bars on fleet street. Now my friends and I didn't realize this was fantastically sexist, we were just thrilled we didn't have to pay for our drinks. But looking back on it, I now realize it was absurd. Happily I saved some money over it though.
And so I've always been aware of it. I wasn't aware of the lack of female leadership. Also having grown up at a time when Margaret Thatcher was in the ascendant ... And I met Margaret Thatcher actually, in 1979, shortly after she'd been made the conservative leader. And so ... AND because also actually, there's a female head of state, the queen in Britain. It didn't feel quite as dire then as it suddenly did when [inaudible 00:29:34] pointed out that there weren't any female leaders. And so I think I became much more conscious of it in the last five, ten years.
Charles Day: And being in the states now ... And obviously, we've gone through this very dramatic election last year. As you look at the reality for women in business today, what do you see as being positive, and what do you see as being the obstacles that they still have to overcome?
Joanna Coles: Well, I think there's a tremendous amount of women supporting women. That is exciting, you saw that from the woman's march. I think it is really hard to get institutions to change, unless there is really conscious effort to change. And at the moment, I'm executive producing a terrific show on freeform called the Bold Type. And in the process of making the Bold Type, which is loosely based on my experiences at Cosmo and my memories of what it was like being a young woman at a magazine, forming great friendships. Which then went on to be my big friendships for life. I realized there were very few positive role models in popular culture for women in the workplace. And it sounds like a really obvious thing once you say it, but actually there were very few of them, and even the troupe in my own business, which is the Devil Wears Prada, is that it's a crazy woman who's mean and nasty to everybody, and makes a big deal out of really unimportant things in the fashion community.
And also parodies the fashion community, which actually for the most part is an extremely creative, very commercial, incredibly successful industry, but was somehow reduced by this form. And I was fascinated by how that had happened, and how all the female bosses I had had, had actually been extremely smart, very capable of telling me when I was making a mistake, and very capable of encouraging me when I was doing the right thing. And I wanted to represent that on television, and so did the team that made the show. And that was important to me.
Charles Day: And did that make you start to think about how you wanted to show up as a leader, through the lens of I am a woman and I'm a woman leader, and therefore this now is how is need to show up or want to show up?
Joanna Coles: I don't think of it in terms of how I show up. But the two things I do talk about are one, it's so much more fun being a leader. And I think a lot of women are nervous that they can't do it on top of having kids, or that they're better off being a number two, or they're better off staying in middle management. Which is the worst possible place to be, because you have no control. And I love Kirsten Gillebrand, the senator from New York who talks openly about it's fantastic being a senator with children, because you set your own agenda. You set your own diary, if she wants to pick the kids up at four she can. And if she wants to start work again at eight in the evening, she can. She makes her schedule. And having an element of control is what makes a job enjoyable and doable, I think.
So, I try and always talk about how important it is to have fun doing it, that it's fun to be in charge, that you get much more money and you get much more support the more senior you become, which is oddly not a message that young women hear. And I'm constantly asked by bushy tailed young woman about balance. And I'm always very frank and say there is absolutely no balance. And if you want balance, don't do what I do, and maybe don't run a company, don't get a leadership position, because there is no balance. But if you're someone that likes extremes and you're good with contradictions, and you can work extremely hard and then take a break, then leadership is a great thing for you. But you can't go into leadership expecting balance, because there is no balance.
Charles Day: Do you look at yourself as having made compromises or sacrifices?
Joanna Coles: Well inevitably, one makes compromises, because you're often with a deadline. You make a compromise, the thing isn't what you wanted it to be, done is better than perfect, I gotta get this thing out the door. So there are always those kind of compromises in terms of excellence. And there are sometimes business compromises you need to make, just for the economic reality. But I don't feel I've made any great compromises to my soul, not in the work place anyway.
Charles Day: So you don't have that feeling that quite a lot of women obviously have, in looking back and saying I've missed too much of my child's upbringing, or I've missed ... I haven't been able to deliver in terms of my professional success?
Joanna Coles: I actually don't feel like that. I had a working mother, my husband had a working mother, so we both came from environments where both parents worked. My husband's extremely flexible, he's an author and used to travel a lot. Traveled a little bit less as my job grew more demanding, and I was traveling more. But I actually don't feel like that, I feel like my kids have really benefited from what I did. They always saw that I was working hard and enjoying it, they now work hard. And I actually don't feel I compromise ... I didn't really want to go and sit at sports games, and my parents didn't come to my sports games, and my kids don't seem wildly neglected from that.
And also, my husband grew up in the third world, and so my feeling was my kids are safe, they're fed well, they're dressed well, they have a great life. Why would I feel guilty?
Charles Day: It's an interesting reference, I had talked to ... Interviewed Wendy Clark a few weeks ago-
Joanna Coles: I love Wendy.
Charles Day: Amazing. One of the things that struck me about her was how present she is. And she talked about her relationship with her children, and said that her ambition is when she is with them, to be very present with them. And described their reaction when she got the DVD job and how they are much more upset about the potential loss of access to Coca Cola world.
Joanna Coles: Right, of course because it's all about them.
Charles Day: Exactly. And so it's interesting to talk to women who have risen to positions of real power and authority, and to see how they have done that. So it's ... There's a theme I think, about how you engage in the moment of being present, or being connected to whatever it is that you're doing in that particular point. And then committing yourself to the next thing, whether that is professional, personal.
Joanna Coles: I would say that certainly when the kids were younger, it was work and it was the kids, and there wasn't anything else. I mean, I would love to have joined to choir, would like to have learned a musical instrument, all those kind of things which I might do now they're leaving home. But I ... There was absolutely no time for that. And also, you lose a lot of friends ... You don't lose friends, but you don't see friends along the way, because there is no time. Clearly your kids take priority when you're not at work. And if your kids are ill, then it's very clear what your priorities are. Your priorities are your children.
But I'm not somebody that's steeped in regret, sitting back and forth, rocking in the fetal position. I'm on to the next thing.
Charles Day: Complete aside, do you sing?
Joanna Coles: I used to sing, and I would love to sing. I drive people mad by singing, but I would love to sing in a choir. Or actually even better, a band.
Charles Day: So you express yourself very easily throughout lots of different medium. You seem very comfortable in every medium, whether it's television, or radio, or print. You write, sing. I'm curious, how do you go about nourishing that in yourself, and then follow up question to that is how do you help other people to express their creativity?
Joanna Coles: Well, I try to create an environment where people feel that they have to work hard, but that they want to work hard and produce something good. So I'm always trying to push people to create their best work, and I sometimes say to people "Could this be better?" And they immediately go "Oh yes, it could be better, and I would do it like this and this." And I'm like "Okay, well why don't you go off and do that?" But at the same time, I get terribly excited by work that's brilliant, and I roar around the office showing it to everybody. I'm like this is fantastic. And I get very excited about it. And I'm very clear if I think something's not good enough, I'll immediately tell people. And if it's really good, I will tell people.
And how do I keep myself nourished? Great question, and one I don't think about enough. Reading, really helpful. Really helpful to stare out of a cab. I don't take the subway very much, because I love driving around New York, I get such a kick out of being here 20 years after I moved here. I love the buildings, I love the noise, I love the people, I like to watch all of it. I do like to watch people on the subway, but slightly different environment. And I would say I really refuel by reading, because I need new words coming in. And by talking to much smarter people than me. So it might be bright young kids or interns, I have a terrific intern at the moment who I'm learning lots from.
Or just very smart older people who know more than I do. I'm a great ... I'm very, I'm quite an extrovert. But I'm also quite a good listener, you wouldn't know that from this podcast, but I can sit and listen to people for quite a long time and I get a lot from that. I don't spend very much time online, and I don't spend very much time watching television.
Charles Day: You strike me as very accessible, that you seem to like being around people and being ... You're interested in people.
Joanna Coles: I love people. And also, I learn from people and I get energy from people. I'm not someone that has to sit on my own in a darkened room.
Charles Day: Where do you find time to read, given the schedule that you've got?
Joanna Coles: I don't have very much time to read. I read a lot on planes, I never watch movies on a plane, I always read. And I try and read a variety of things. So obviously, I spend a lot ... Having said I spend no time online, I spend a lot of time on Twitter because it's such a good gateway and portal to all sorts of things. But I try and read books as they're coming out. I download a lot of books on my iPad and read them. And I try and read a bit before I go to bed, and I try to read in the morning. I've just actually written a book, so I've been getting up very early in the morning and spending my weekends doing that. And at the end of the weekend, I would find I was depleted because I haven't had enough coming in. There's always ... I think it's like calories in, calories out. You want roughly the same, and I can tell when I've just not gotten many words left in my head. But then I'll have dinner with a friend who's very smart, and I'll perk right back up again.
Charles Day: That's a fantastic concept actually, the intellectual feeding of ... And emotional feeding, to give you the fuel to actually express original thinking. That's a great concept.
Joanna Coles: Yeah, I'm very conscious of needing an intravenous drip of people and ideas and questions. And you know, the great thing about being online is you can read really widely. But I think one of the huge differences for me is being able to download a book immediately. So if you have half an hour and there's something that you want to read, you can download it and start immediately. I'm halfway through about thirty books. But Margaret Thatcher used to say "Never underestimate what you can do in ten minutes."
Charles Day: Yeah, it's incredible, I remember that. Do you miss physical books? Do you find-
Joanna Coles: Well I have lots of physical books too. I'm a great ... I remember actually, I think it was the author Richard Rainer saying to me that the one thing he never ever stinted on was buying books. If you he wanted a book, he would buy it every which way. And I've often downloaded the book and the audiobook and bought the physical book from Amazon at the same time. So I knew that whatever way that I needed to ingest this book, I could.
Charles Day: So turning back to leadership, what are the ... What do you think are the big challenges today, leading a dynamic, creative company of any size? I mean obviously, you manage a huge company of hundreds of companies effectively. What do you think are the big challenges today to unlocking creativity in creative businesses?
Joanna Coles: I think overcoming people's anxiety and fear of what's going on is really important. I think that trying to keep people focused, because there's so much happening in my business, the content business. And making sure that the content is of good quality, and fast and quick. And not getting distracted. What I see is people getting very distracted by things that aren't important. So trying to stay focused, and really enjoy and have fun with what you do. Because you can really sense it in something.
Charles Day: And how do you provide the framework that gives people the filters to say unimportant, important, for instance?
Joanna Coles: Well often if you're working within a magazine context, and I use the word magazine loosely, deadlines create that to some extent. And also as a leader, I've always been super decisive. So I'm not having people work on three or four things, and then hoping one pans out. I'm like, we're doing this, and then always finding a way to use something that we've spent money on producing. And then I think being really clear with people about what you feel will work best for what they're trying to achieve. And being clear about what's not working, as well as what is working.
Charles Day: Where do you think you got the confidence to be that clear and that decisive about this is good, this is not so good?
Joanna Coles: Really having worked with some of the best people in the business. I mean, I worked with ... Spectator magazine was a magnificent magazine to start on, the people were so smart. I worked at the Daily Telegraph when it was the biggest newsroom in the world. I worked in the Guardian, which is the best liberal newspaper, second perhaps only to the New York times. I worked at the BBC. So I worked with tremendously smart people. And then when I got to a position where I could hire people, I would hire the smartest people I could find, preferably much smarter than me, so I would have this safety net of people around me that if I made the wrong decision, they would say "Actually no, we should be doing it this way." And they would often be right.
So I think great confidence in the people around me. And the more experience you accumulate and the more it's worked, the more you feel able to take chances and know that if the chance doesn't work, well too bad. You're not gonna be only judged on that. And I think sometimes things create momentum. I remember when I got to Cosmo, it was fantastic momentum we had with lean in. Our first real cover was Miley Cyrus, it was a fantastic picture of Miley Cyrus, she looked absolutely wonderful in a white suit with a ... She'd just gone blonde, it was just a brilliant cover. I knew it was a brilliant cover. We threw it out on newsstands, and then about two days after it went out on newsstands, we started getting calls from retailers, news agents, saying you've got to stop this, you've got to stop this. Other magazines are complaining. And we didn't know what they were talking about.
And it turned out that Miley, dear Miley Cyrus ... And I will always love her for this. Despite the foam finger, she had tweeted her smilers, as she called them, and told them to run to the news agents and cover jack. We invented a new term cover jack, which meant to cover every other magazine with her copy of Cosmo, which was fabulous for us, and then to send her the pictures of them having done it. And then the next thing we knew, hundreds of photos all over Twitter from smilers, and it just developed momentum. And when you hit something right, and the timing's right and you're doing a good job, and everybody's aligned with the mission, which is incredibly important, the thing gets momentum and it's bigger than all of you. And that's so exciting. And I had a really good run at Cosmo with that happening, and it was so exciting.
Charles Day: When you walk into a new job, are you conscious of I need to declare the mission?
Joanna Coles: No, not necessarily. I mean, I was particularly with Cosmo, because it was such a venerated American brand. And actually, Helen Gurley Brown, who really reinvented it in it's new incarnation in 1965 to coincide with the pill, had just died. So she died, and I arrived, and there were just hundreds of brilliant obits about her. So I was able to read those, I went back and I read all her issues, which were incredible. I read the issues of Kate White, the editor who'd been there up until I took over. So I had a very strong sense of the possibilities of this brand, which we were then able to recreate for a new generation on Snapchat, which was thrilling actually. So lots of people know the brand Cosmo, understand what it stands for, but have never actually picked up the physical manifestation of it. They look at it every morning, first thing when they wake up.
Charles Day: There's' obviously tension in leadership, we have to reconcile opposing forces, creativity and commerce being the most obvious in a creatively run business. One of the tensions that I find leaders really struggle with is firing people. How do you view that? What's the challenge for you in terms of firing people?
Joanna Coles: Well, I think there's' a difference between having to fire people because your resources are ... Have been cut back in some way, and having to fire people who aren't doing a good job, when you've tried to help them do a good job. Or when they're clearly just not a good fit and they're not having a good time. And so I always feel that by the time someone is fired by me ... And I've always been quite happy to do the firing, it's part of a job. I love to hire, don't love to fire but I'm always up for doing it. I don't shirk that as a responsibility. The person knows, they will have an inkling, and usually it's a relief. And it's a relief for me, and it's a relief for them. And once you've made your mind up, it's just you want to get it done.
Charles Day: One of the other big tension points obviously, when we're running a creative business is that creativity is fueled by and requires risk. You have to try stuff that we don't know the outcome to. How do you reconcile those two? How do you manage that? How do you reconcile the risk of actually turning something off too quickly, without knowing what might have happened? I'm sure you read this story, a lot of people are talking about it, that Facebook shut down this artificial intelligence initiative in the last couple of days because they got afraid that the AI had developed its own language and was communicating in ways that the engineers couldn't understand. And so they shut it down. You could debate the pros and cons of that, but we don't know now what would've happened if they'd let it go. So who knows what would have been discovered as a result of that.
In a more sort of day to day basis, how do you reconcile the importance of investing in uncertainty and unpredictability against the need to run a bottom line business?
Joanna Coles: That's a great question. I mean, it's a romantic story, isn't it, that somehow Facebook created something so magnificent that it was able to develop its own language, and it was so frightening Facebook closed it down. I don't know if that's the reason they closed it down, I know that's the reason they said. It's judgment in the end. You're running a bottom line, you can't waste resources, you just have to figure out how many resources and what kind of people do you want to apply to the thing that you hope or you sense will grow? I'm in that position in the moment, wondering how much energy and time to allocate to emerging technologies. It's unclear how they'll be supported by advertisers, which is really what finances my particular business, content business. And it's unclear, but we definitely have to try.
And it's also making sure that people feel up to date with things. So you know, at home I have a Google home. In the office, I had an Amazon Echo, but I've just changed it to the little television screen Amazon. So it's that sense of constantly challenging yourself to stay on top of things, and asking the people around you to stay on top of it, and making it clear you need them to. And also, I think making sure that everybody feels they have an economic stake in the business. As long as they understand the economic pressures of the business, I feel people are educated in terms of knowing where their priorities should be. And there are some people that choose not to be interested in that, in which case I'm not interested in working with them.
Charles Day: And how do you define success these days? For you personally?
Joanna Coles: You know, I really don't think about it. I don't define it in those terms at all, it's like am I excited to get up in the morning? That will be my biggest ... What keeps me moving forward, who am I getting to hang with, am I still getting ideas? And I do remember a period in my life when I was really exhausted. And actually around the point of having young children, which I think is the great issue for people in the work place, you are absolutely exhausted. And the American workplace is so unforgiving in terms of flexi time. And I remember worrying that I might not have any ideas again. And then I realized actually what I needed to do, and I took myself off for two hours and I literally drove around Manhattan in a cab staring out the back window. And it cost me 120 dollars, but I remember in that time just sort of sitting back, head against the back of the cab seat, and ideas coming back into my head.
And now I know if I have a period where I think I'm not gonna have an idea, it usually precedes a really good idea.
Charles Day: That's-
Joanna Coles: That's almost like a sort of pre migraine migraine. It's sort of odd, all the excited relief you get after a migraine. I don't get migraines, I don't know why I'm using them as an analogy. But I usually have a sense when I'm about to get a good idea.
Charles Day: And last question, are you afraid of anything?
Joanna Coles: Of course, I'm afraid of tons of things. Of course. But I'm less afraid than I was I think, because the more experience you accumulate, the more you understand how things get resolved. And I think the more sense of trust you develop in people around you, and you know who you can trust and who you can't trust. Which is not something you know as your younger, so I would say I was more afraid when I was younger. And I constantly feel like I had no idea gonna have to hustle this hard. And actually, I was in a city not so long ago where I had four meetings with quite legendary figures, and I was nervous about going into each meeting, just because these are very smart people that you don't want to make an ass of yourself with. And at the end of the day, I thought well I actually have a sense of accomplishment, that was ... I managed to stay on top of things, I understood what we were talking about. I think it was useful for them to meet me, it was very useful for me to meet them.
And I think you get your ... Different things frighten you. Different things.
Charles Day: Such as?
Joanna Coles: Well the challenges grow. So although I'm much less anxious than I was when I was in my 20s, because I have much more experience, the challenges I now set up for myself are much more demanding, and require more from me. And I often think, why did I set this meeting up, I'm terrified this person. Or why did organize this, this is gonna be three hours of my life I'll never get back. And what if I can't pull it off? But you always manage to pull it off.
Charles Day: I like to wrap each episode with what I've come to describe as three themes that I've heard, that I think are indicative of or in some ways responsible for where you are and how you show up. So let me take a crack at that, and see whether they resonate with you.
First is I think you bring ... You're very goal centric, and you're really focused on I want to achieve this thing. And as you said earlier, that allows you to move the noise and even to some extent your own hesitation and say that's the thing, I want to get there.
Two I think is that you have a real openness about you, in terms of accepting ideas and possibilities from other people, and clearly as you said earlier you really enjoy people. And I think that willingness to hear what other people have to say is the mark of many great leaders, and I think is very powerful.
And I think the third thing is this relentless curiosity about what comes next. And the interest in finding out what is possible, both in yourself and in the world around you. And I think that again, when you tie that to the other two it just opens you up to creating new possibilities that people might not have otherwise seen before, and as you just said, that you weren't even sure you were capable of initiating and creating. Does that resonate with you?
Joanna Coles: Thrilling, yes it does. Well I like to think it does. I'm absolutely thrilled about being goal oriented, and I wonder if that probably blinds me to things at times. Definitely I think I'm open, because when you are a reporter, you are deeply competitive about ... With other reporters, because you're all after the same thing, so you know you have to be better. And that I was able to hone really ... Like I would always make the extra call, I would always go to the place rather than phone in. And so I was pretty sure I could outwork the people on the other side, and I could probably outsmart them. Not always, but 90% of the time I could get it when no one else could. I felt very confident about that.
And also the strategy involved, and I like the strategy of it. And then, I like the idea of relentlessly searching for the next thing that feels new. I'm interested in the new too, I get bored very quickly so I love the idea of emerging technology, or new people on the horizon, new ideas.
Charles Day: Thank you so much for being here, it's been a great conversation. I'm excited to see where you go from here.
Joanna Coles: So am I. If you find out, let me know. Thank you very much.
Charles Day: After Joanna and I had finished the interview, it struck me that there was one more theme that I should have mentioned. It's this: I think Joanna lives her life on her terms. She doesn't make apologies for the choices she's made and the things that matter to her. And I think that's contributed greatly to her success as a leader, and in life.
You've been listening to Fearless, the art of creative leadership. If you like what you've heard, please rate us on Itunes. It helps a lot. If you want more information on this episode or any of the others, go to fearlesscreativeleadership.com. And thanks for listening.