Top Tips

The 10 success secrets bosses rarely tell you about but should

No-one knows more about making it big than Cathie Black, president of Hearst Magazines, the company that publishes the US edition of COSMO. In her new book, Basic Black: The Essential Guide For Getting Ahead At Work (And In Life) (Crown Business), she shares her awesome tips for a kick-ass career.

1. Playing It Safe Can Backfire

Most people see taking risks as opening themselves up to unnecessary, maybe even dangerous chances. But the truth is, avoiding risks won’t keep you safe, nor will it guarantee a smooth ride at work or in life.

In fact, the opposite is often true. It’s like the monkey parable: a monkey sees a nut in a hole and reaches in to grab it. Once he’s closed his fist around it, he can’t get his hand back out of the narrow opening. Now he’s stuck. He can’t free himself unless he lets go of the nut but because he’s afraid to lose it, he won’t let go.

Trying to avoid risks is like clinging to that nut. You may think you’re playing it safe by holding on to what you have but in reality you’re just hindering your own progress.

2. Failing = Success

The consequences of failure – much like the potential consequences of taking risks – are almost never as terrible as they seem. Just about anyone you can think of who’s hugely successful has overcome failure to get where he or she is today. Think Michael Jordan, who was cut from his high-school basketball team; or JK Rowling, who was turned down by a number of publishers before one finally decided to take a chance on her manuscript about a young wizard named Harry Potter.

3. Heed the Two-Step Rule

Anyone can go the extra mile. Try to make a habit of taking a step or two beyond what you’ve been asked to do.

A couple of years ago, an article in one of Hearst’s magazines, House Beautiful, misidentified the legendary Estée Lauder chairman, Leonard Lauder. It was an innocent mistake but an incredibly stupid one, and once I was told about it, I knew we needed to fess up immediately. It was a Friday afternoon. I phoned Lauder’s office and learnt from his assistant that he and his wife were travelling in France. Hearing my desperation, the assistant gave me the number of his hotel in Paris.

‘Leonard, I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘And most of all, I’m embarrassed.’ He laughed and told me all was forgiven. And, as he later told an interviewer for a magazine article profiling me, he was pleased I’d gone to the trouble of tracking him down to apologise.

4. Give Up Control … Sometimes

In an office environment there are many factors you can’t control. The trickiest of these are often interpersonal. People get on each other’s nerves, step on each other’s toes, vie for each other’s jobs and, sometimes, get inappropriately involved with each other. At one point much earlier in my career, I had a boss who was having an affair with a subordinate of his, an awkward situation that made all our lives more complicated. It would have been easy to get upset about the situation – but to what end? The only thing you can do is accept what you can’t change and work around it. This will allow you to have a degree of power over it.

5. Show Your Ignorance

The act of asking is one of the most important elements of success. All too often, people fear that asking questions reveals ignorance, yet the opposite is true. The root of the word ‘ignorance’ is, after all, ‘ignore’. When you ask about something, you’re taking a step towards understanding it. On the other hand, if you ignore the fact that you don’t know something, you won’t get away with it for long.

6. If You Think You Know the Answer, Check Again

There’s an old saying among journalists: ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it.’ And you can be sure that the minute you take something for granted, it won’t be what you thought it was.

Take my name, for example. When I was in high school – a skinny, awkward preteen with big dreams – I decided I wanted to be different. So one day, I changed the spelling of my name from Cathy to Cathie. Silly, I know … but what can I say?

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve received letters addressed to Cathy Black or Kathy Black or Kathleen Black. It may seem like a small issue but it’s a big deal to me – and it’s the quickest way to lower my opinion of the person who wrote the letter.

7. Sometimes You Have to Boss Your Boss

When I watched the movie The Devil Wears Prada, one scene that stuck in my head was when the assistant, Andy, stood behind her boss Miranda’s shoulder at a party, whispering the names of the guests as they approached. Smooth as satin, Miranda greeted each person, coming off as an attentive and caring hostess rather than the frosty, bored snob she really was. There’s no quicker, easier way to earn your boss’s respect and gratitude than by helping him or her look good.

8. Have a No-Surprises Policy

Never surprise your boss. If you have bad news, tell it. If you have good news, share it. No-one likes to feel left out of the loop – and hiding a crisis from someone who needs to know about it virtually guarantees the problem will be compounded. Think of your boss as a small woodland animal: make no startling moves or strange gestures. Do the work to make things easier on him or her.

9. Be a Little Naughty

Breaking the rules is an underappreciated and underutilised skill. If you look at any list of highly successful people, it’s invariably populated with rulebreakers – from university dropouts such as Bill Gates to Internet wunderkinds such as Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who refused to believe that a little start-up couldn’t take on the biggest, richest companies in cyberspace. These people trusted their ideas – and themselves – enough to know which rules they could break. You can do the same.

10. It’s Not PC, But Looks Count

The way you present yourself makes a huge difference in how people perceive you – and not just in a superficial way. People make judgments about your abilities, self-confidence and savvy based in part on what you choose to wear and how you carry yourself.

When I was looking for my first job after finishing my studies, I wrangled an interview at Condé Nast, then one of the biggest magazine-publishing companies in New York. I dressed in a nice, conservative suit and felt pretty good about how I looked … until I stepped into the elevator in the Condé Nast building.

I immediately felt the penetrating gazes of half a dozen fashionably dressed young women as they looked me up and down, several of them clutching Louis Vuitton bags. Suddenly, I felt like a complete hayseed. I couldn’t help but be self-conscious – exactly the opposite of how you want to feel when going for an interview – and all because I hadn’t given enough thought that morning to how I should dress. The experience taught me a lesson I never forgot.