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The secret weapon that will make you a winner (and save your butt)

9 min read


The following is an excerpt from ” I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know,” (HarperBusiness, September 2013) by Kate White. The book is available at the following sites: Amazon, Apple, B&N, Kobo.

About a week after I landed the job as editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, I sat down for a meeting with a man named Chris Butler, the consumer marketing person I’d be involved with on a regular basis. Chris oversaw subscription and newsstand sales. I’d worked with him while I was at Redbook, and I was pleased that our partnership would continue. Not only was he very smart, but he’d been on Cosmo for a while and already knew the ins and outs of the magazine.

Chris was one of the few people I felt comfortable admitting the truth to — that I was more than nervous about my new job, a job I’d never even applied for.

“I don’t know a freaking thing about the audience,” I said. “And there’s just so much at stake.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Editing Cosmo is unambiguous. You’ll see once you get to know more about the reader. It’s very clear what they’re looking for from the magazine.”

And he was so right. As soon as I started seeing e-mails from readers and hearing them talk at focus groups, I discovered that they were gutsy and fun, and they came to the magazine for very straightforward reasons — to be informed and entertained about men, sex, fashion, beauty, health, and living life to the fullest. If I paid attention to what readers were telling me about their needs, I’d be okay.

In fact, there was a chance I’d thrive.

What Chris was reminding me of that day is that knowledge really is power. When you are making any kind of key decision or move in your job, information is your secret weapon. Of course, it seems stupid to call it a secret weapon. In many jobs we’re encouraged to constantly acquire info, and thanks to technology, that’s easier to do than ever. Yet we often fail to use knowledge to our advantage. We either don’t gather it on a regular basis, or we reject what we discover.

“Just like in love, people in business tend to hear what they want to hear — or discredit where it’s coming from,” says Trendera CEO Jane Buckingham. “Sometimes bad news is too hard to take, so people just pretend they didn’t hear it. One of our clients once was a TV network that had a show by a great producer and writer, but unfortunately it just wasn’t a good show and everyone who saw it disliked it. But the network really wanted to be in a relationship with the writer and producer and ignored what viewers of the show were saying. The show was canceled four episodes in.”

The other reason people don’t use knowledge is that they don’t program their minds to really consider it. They let their eyes skim over what might be of value without gaining any traction. You have to set your brain on “inquiry” and make it a habit to seek and question. Though I regularly listen to my gut to make decisions, I also rely on research, and from the moment I began at Cosmo I did a ton of it. And over the years that information guided how I evolved the magazine. For instance, I saw from studying the ratings that the health column that was running in Cosmo when I arrived scored poorly, except when gynecological or breast issues were addressed.

That made perfect sense, actually. Readers were hardly coming to the magazine to learn how to handle a head cold or dig a splinter out of their foot. Their mothers could tell them that. What they craved was info about sexual health and facts about their bodies they couldn’t find elsewhere. So I started two brand-new health columns, one called “Gyno” and the other called “Your Body,” where the main item would be breast news. They became two of the highest-rated columns in the magazine.

I also began to see through research how much readers liked it when we explained the male mind to them. Yes, they wanted info on how to navigate their relationships, which had been a staple of Cosmo for years. But they also yearned to know what made men tick. When I was in my twenties and thirties, there seemed to be a sense that if we forced men to drink enough chardonnay, they’d become more like us, but the new Cosmo readers knew that was never gonna happen. They accepted that guys were hardwired differently from them but wanted to understand the differences. The four-page section called “101 Things About Men,” which I started in 2011, quickly became the highest-rated section in the magazine. So turn knowledge into your secret weapon. Here’s how.

Make information gathering a regular part of what you do.

It shouldn’t simply be a matter of conducting an annual survey or holding an occasional feedback session. Always be picking people’s brains, listening, investigating. Train your brain to be on the lookout for info relevant to your field, and snag what might be essential for you. Sue Leibman, the president of Barking Dog Entertainment, who manages the careers of many celebrities, worked for Warren Beatty early in her work life. She said Beatty is a brilliant, always inquisitive man, whose favorite line was “Tell me what you know.”

Accept info only from people who have a freaking clue what they’re talking about.

I’m sure you’ve noticed this by now. People love to weigh in on all sorts of things — even when they know absolutely nothing at all on the subject. In my business this is particularly true when it comes to covers. From the time I started booking celebrity covers — as far back as my early thirties — I read everything I could about celebs, tracked box-office results, and researched magazine sales. Unfortunately, there’s no science to picking a cover subject, but when you’ve educated your gut, you at least have a hint of whether someone’s image will sell. But people with no expertise, people who haven’t done their homework, will happily volunteer their opinion and perhaps even try to force it on you. With everyone who offers info, ask yourself: How much does he know on the subject? Where is he getting his information? Can I really trust what he’s saying?

Set up a Google alert or get the Flipboard app to provide you with a regular flow of information on any subject you should be informed about.

Things are moving too fast today to simply count on the right information finding you.

When you hear or see something intriguing, don’t just note it:

Think about how it could be used effectively. Dari Marder, the chief marketing officer of Iconix, which designs and markets products for companies such as Candies and London Fog, is a master at gathering info and using it to design awesome campaigns for her products. She used those skills superbly after she’d signed the model Gabriel Aubry to appear shirtless in bed for a campaign for Charisma Bed & Bath products.

“At the same time we were shooting Gabriel,” says Marder, “I was trying to book his ex, Halle Berry, for another campaign. Someone on her team mentioned that she had just shot the September cover for Vogue, which is usually a pretty closely guarded secret. I decided to hold the release of my Charisma campaign until the same period, and then time my PR strategy to a day or so before the Vogue cover was released. My hope was that every time the media did a piece on Halle’s cover, the news of what her ex-boyfriend was up to would be folded into it. It worked. The launch of the campaign garnered about 250 million PR impressions. Not bad for a campaign about sheets, towels, and comforters.”

Toughen up.

Yes, the truth can hurt sometimes, but tell yourself to get over it. You want to be not only open to what’s negative but also willing to seek it out. As Bill Gates put it, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Then listen carefully. Write down what you’ve heard. (Yes, even if it makes you cringe.) Writing it down not only gives you a sense of control in the moment, but also guarantees you won’t miss anything important. Ask questions. Get below the surface. This is especially necessary when you need to orchestrate a turnaround. As much as info may sting, it can also guide you out of the woods.

Shortly after I started running Child magazine, a parenting magazine for upscale parents, two researchers from the parent company visited me to present a study on the market they’d been asked to conduct. And talk about info that stings! They’d discovered that the number of parents who had high incomes and kids under the age of two was actually very low. I mean really low. Too low to make a magazine for. But after accepting that number for what it was (the ugly truth), I immediately refocused the magazine for parents who were educated and successful but not super affluent. I doubled the newsstand sales the first year.

Know that some info is just plain wrong.

When I was at Redbook, women in focus groups sometimes told us that we should put women such as Sandra Day O’Connor on the cover. I guarantee you, if I’d followed that advice, I wouldn’t be sitting here giving you tips on success. Sometimes it’s hard to spot a phony “fact.” But the more of an information gatherer you become, the easier it will be.

When you have a setback, double your research efforts.

But recognize that the sources you’ve been using may be wrong. Get new sources, new voices. Dare to ask a whole other set of people.