Advice from a former Cosmo editor: how to make an impression at the office

No guts, no glory for working girls

No guts, no glory for working girls

Santi Visalli/Getty Images

Legendary Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown used to go home after a long, challenging day and, after she changed, would take a whiff of her underpants. This is how she savoured success, according to Kate White, who worked for Gurley Brown before taking over the top job in 1998. It took guts for Gurley Brown to admit to the sniffing, and gutsiness is what White believes is the key to propelling women to the top of their field.

“It means that she loved kicking off her stilettos at night and relishing the day she’d just spent at her demanding, yet fantastic job,” White, 61, writes in her new book I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know.

On Sept. 4, White stepped down from the magazine to concentrate on writing books and public speaking; she looks forward to a little more personal time. Her nuts-and-bolts advice in I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This covers all the practicalities, from how to get your foot in the corporate door to how to behave as you ascend the ladder.

“I really dig a great cover letter. It’s a cover letter or an email, far more than a resumé, that makes me decide if I want to meet a job candidate,” White explains in the book. “Relax and let your personality come through,” she writes. Avoid sounding spoiled, like one candidate who suggested she’d spent months in Aix-en-Provence drinking plenty of rosé.

White’s most-loved letter included the line: “My favourite afternoons are spent in mismatched pajamas, coffee in hand, flipping through the glossy pages of Cosmo.” “She had me at mismatched pajamas,” White writes.

The trick is to convey your skills and interest and avoid sounding egocentric or clichéd. Don’t say, “this is my dream job,” White said on the phone last week. Tell the employer what you can to do for them, not how they can fulfill your dream. At the interview wear impressive shoes, don’t cross your legs, keep both feet on the ground (it signals you’re grounded) and be exuberant. “Some job candidates tamp down their passion,” writes White. “Maybe they’re afraid that seeming effusive will make them look goofy or unprofessional. But here’s what you must remember. It’s the hot tamale who wins the day, not the girl who’s cool as a cucumber.”

Early in her career, when White was interviewed for the job of Redbook’s editor-in-chief, she spoke passionately about her work. “You turned beet red in the interview,” she was told later. When she heard that, “I nearly died,” White said. “But you get the point. I’d shown the love that day, and it had worked.”

In an interview, never, ever let the sentence, “No, I think you’ve answered everything” escape your lips. Have three intelligent questions ready to ask, and don’t get too cutesy. One Gen Y girl asked White, “How’s your day going so far?” “That just seemed too nosy,” White said on the phone. “I don’t want to talk to her about my day.”

If your boss shares personal information with you at work, don’t share back. “It could be used against you,” says White. If you’re late because your child threw a tantrum, say you got stuck in traffic. “I’m a firm believer in using statements such as, ‘I need to leave at 4:30 today,’ rather than ‘I have to run my daughter to the pediatrician.’ Be vague.”

If your boss stares at you when you walk in at 9:30 a.m., it means she wants you in earlier. And if your boss calls you onto the carpet, do not interrupt, don’t bristle, just listen. “If you start to cry, glance at a bright light. It’s been known to squelch tears. If that doesn’t work, say, ‘Sorry, I want to hear what you have to say but I’m reacting a bit strongly now. Can I schedule a time to talk to you in a little while?’”

Once promoted, you can look and sound more powerful by smiling less, writes White. “It’s nice that we connect so well to others but smiling or nodding too much can make you seem needy to please.” The main thing is to go against the grain, White advises. “Have you ever noticed how people who are very powerful operate differently from the rest of us?” Be bold and confident. “I had lunch with Helen Gurley Brown after I received the Cosmo job. I noticed she ate her salad with her hands. She told me she thought it just looked sexier!”

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