“Limos, private dining rooms, designer labels and corporate jets were the trope of publishing life for Ms. Black.”
Who Wrote the Book on the New New Public Schools Chief? She Did
By SARAH MASLIN NIR November 10, 2010 NYTimes
Years ago, when Cathleen P. Black, New York City’s newly appointed schools chancellor, was named president of USA Today, she was undermined by a colleague. “I’m not going to be reporting to you,” he told her.
Ms. Black soon got a measure of revenge when Allen H. Neuharth, the paper’s founder, put her in the corporate jet for a business trip — and the colleague had to take the commuter shuttle.
That’s just one of the many personal anecdotes to be found in Ms. Black’s book, “Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life),” her combination memoir, self-help tome and platitude-filled dos-and-don’ts career guide aimed at women, published by Crown Business in 2007. At the time the book came out, she was president of Hearst Magazines. More than 175,000 copies have been sold.
Except for a mention that she is a trustee of the University of Notre Dame, there is no reference to any experience in the education field. But the book is perhaps a window into Ms. Black’s leadership style, one that seems characterized by calculated risks and the ability to respond to and evolve from criticism that tempers the occasional Miranda Priestly moment.
There was the near “torches-and-pitchforks revolt” by her advertising staff at Ms. magazine. “They confronted me just six months into my tenure” — reacting, she writes, to her self-described “brusque” style. “ ‘Either you go or we go,’ they told me, threatening to quit en masse.”
No one quit, after Ms. Black agreed to dial down her tone. Nevertheless, she writes, “focus on being respected rather than liked.”
Ms. Black’s responses to sometimes similar challenges have been strikingly different. Shortly after joining Francis Ford Coppola’s San Francisco-based magazine, City, for example, she became convinced it would fail. So Ms. Black “resigned and went on a skiing vacation.” While she was away, the magazine closed. In other instances, she persevered through years of difficulties, and she is credited with helping turn USA Today into a profitable paper.
“I’m not an advocate of starting a new job by throwing bombs left and right, firing the old team, and leaving the survivors in shock,” she writes. Yet she championed the decision of Bonnie Fuller, a one-time editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, which Ms. Black oversaw at Hearst Magazines, to gut much of that publication’s staff when she took over.
Limos, private dining rooms, designer labels and corporate jets were the trope of publishing life for Ms. Black, who was once the subject of a 1992 Washingtonian article questioning if she was worth the around $600,000 it said she earned at USA Today. In the book, Ms. Black calls the article sexist, and she defends her salary. (Joel I. Klein, the departing schools chancellor, makes $250,000.)
The book’s edgiest moment comes when Ms. Black explains why she missed meetings with E. Neville Isdell, at the time the chief executive of Coca-Cola, and others: she accidentally swallowed several of the sleeping pill Ambien, thinking it was Tylenol.