Wolaner, Robin

Robin Wolaner
Robin Wolaner started as a copywriter at Penthouse, helped launch Runner's World magazine, managed Mother Jones in the '80s, and founded Parenting magazine as a joint venture with Time Inc. in 1986. Adweek's "hottest magazine in America" for two consecutive years, Parenting is one of the most successful women's magazines, with readership four times what its original business plan had as a target. Robin's experience with Parenting is the subject of a Harvard Business School case study; to date, more than 10,000 students at numerous schools have studied her partnership with Time. From 1992 to 1995, she was President and CEO of Sunset Publishing Corporation, a subsidiary of Time Publishing Ventures. In 1996, Robin left Time Warner to pursue her interest in the Internet, and in 1997 she joined CNET Networks as a member of the executive committee. She left CNET to write Naked in the Boardroom: A CEO Bares Her Secrets So You Can Transform Your Career.

Photo is © 2004 frankie frankeny, frankenyimages.com

Naked in the Boardroom book cover

tompeters.com asks …

What prompted you to write this book, Robin?

RW: Two things. I was brought into CNET Networks by the founders specifically to mentor a generation of young people who knew a lot about the Internet, but didn’t know a lot about management. They were so hungry for stories of workplace issues and career development that I found myself telling my stories over and over again. I was there on both sides of the bubble. I started in ’97, and left in 2002, when the company returned to profitability for the second time. During that time period, I had a daughter. She’s now seven. I realized that by the time she was as old as these CNET people, I probably wouldn’t remember the stories to tell her. So I began the book as a letter to my daughter, Bonnie, about being a woman in business. Because I spent my life in magazine publishing, I know a lot of people on the book side, and they encouraged me to make it a book.

Why is it aimed only at women?

RW: Actually, it wasn’t. Most of the people that I coached at CNET were men. But as I talked to various book publishers, they really wanted a general advice book for women. I think it changed the tone of the book a lot. I tried to make it sharing confidences among girlfriends, big sister kind of language. I would have loved to have written a general advice book, but a very wise book publisher, not the one who published me, but one whom I met in the process, said, “Well, Robin, there has never been a general business advice book that men have bought that was written by a woman.”

That’s my point. Guys can write books for men and women, but for some reason, if a woman writes a book, then it has to be for women.

RW: I’m not that impressed with the entire book publishing industry.

With good reason.

RW: But something rang true to me when he said it. When I was doing newsstand circulation for magazines, what we learned when using a non-celebrity model (the celebrity model is very different), as most of the women’s service books do, is that if you put an African-American woman on the cover, it depressed sales. The reason was that African-Americans would buy a cover with an African-American or a white or an Asian. They bought whatever race you put on the cover, whereas whites did not buy minority covers. I think it’s the same kind of thing with women and business books. We’re the minority in business leadership, and men won’t buy it. Is that too oblique? Did that make any sense to you?

It makes plenty of sense, but that’s a discussion for another day. Although, all the people who wrote endorsement blurbs on the back cover of your book are men.

RW: No, that’s not true. Arlie Hochschild, Jenny Ming, Cathleen Black, and Pat Heim are women. It’s actually 50/50.

Okay. I believe Arlie is the only one on the back of the paperback edition.

RW: Sorry, I forgot who was on the back of the paperback because we couldn’t fit very many. The woman who wrote the Fortune blurb on the front cover is female. So we have a little bit of a balance there.

Good. Well, I make the comment because I think this is a great book, and very readable. I think this should be mandatory reading for guys because given that the world is more or less 50/50 in the workplace, guys would do well to understand how a woman is thinking. I just love your honesty in this.

RW: Thank you. When I first wrote the book, it was much more in memoir form than advice. One of my dear friends, Adam Moss, who is now the editor of New York magazine read it and called me. He said, “Robin, this is the most honest business memoir I have ever read.” I think it stayed true to that through the editing and crafting into an advice book. Adam’s next point was, “But I love you, and I love magazines. I think you need to change the focus so that people don’t have to love you to buy it.” My editor worked with me to do that.

I could see you writing a memoir. You jump around in time a lot for the sake of the lessons, but I became curious about the chronology. I don’t think you get a clear sense of your history from reading this.

RW: The funny thing is that it was first written chronologically. Basically, the aim not just of my editor, but of my agent as well, was to take what was a straight narrative and craft it into advice. I told the story pretty directly. But as all the editors who have worked for me on magazines over the years have told me, it’s much harder to do good advice and good service than it is to just tell a story.

On about the third revision, where we all were agreeing that it was still primarily a memoir, and we hadn’t moved it enough into the advice column, Doris Cooper, my editor, said, “You’ve got to break up the chronology.” It was really hard to do. But she was right, because it basically shaped the book around the lessons instead. My boyfriend, Stewart Alsop, is a former journalist. He insisted on reading it in the uncensored, full memoir form. But I do think it’s a better book this way. I think there are very few people who really care about my life as much as he does.

Well, I didn’t know who you were, but I think you’ve got a great story. And you’ve got a great voice.

RW: Thank you. What’s odd is that the biggest achievement of my life in the business world so far, the founding of Parenting, is a postscript, because my editor said, “Oh, who’s going to actually start their own business? It’s too high out of the reach of your audience.” But I fought her, and I said, “I have to have this in here.” We ended up putting it in as a P.S.

One of the chapters that was dropped was called “Board to Death,” about my service on various boards of directors. She won on that one. She just said, “Come on, boards of directors? Too far out of people’s reach.” So that was a sad one for me to leave out. I had a lot of fun writing that.

Oh, you see? You have to do another book.

RW: No, I’m starting a business. I don’t have time.

We’ll circle back to that. Early on, you write clearly to a young female audience, “I know that a great result of early menial jobs was that I thrived without feedback from my supervisors. Today’s young professionals are hungry for feedback, and feel entitled to it.” When I read that, I thought of when I sit around with my friends who were waiters and we always say, “Everyone ought to be a waiter in their life. Otherwise they are never going to be able to function properly.”

RW: I completely agree. It’s interesting, because in some ways, I feel that people coming out of college and business school today are less resilient than I was or than the women that I interviewed for the book were. I interviewed a couple of dozen CEOs and C-level executives. Because we were doing something that was not expected of us, we sort of bounced around a bit more.

Today, the expectations are really high for women starting their careers. As a result, I think they’re very thin-skinned. If they’re not getting praise from their bosses, they are sensitive about it. They’re looking for praise and they’re looking for continued advancement. They’re not very resilient, which I think is a big problem. That’s why I talk about that instant report card, the waitressing kind of report card. If you set your own goals, and you measure yourself, you’re not as dependent on other people’s views of you, which can be influenced by all sorts of things.

Right. And it’s a kick to get a huge tip.

RW: Oh, I loved it. I was never as rich as when I waitressed at Hal’s Deli in Ithaca, New York.

Even our leader here, Tom Peters, was a busboy, I think, all the way through college. A lot of his stories refer back to that, doing that kind of job and making the effort to be exceptional at it, which is his point.

RW: That’s right, absolutely.

You have a chapter on hiring people. Can you talk about the main questions that you would ask someone you’re interviewing?

RW: Sure. I’m not sure I included them all in the chapter, so I’ll do them from the top of my head. For example, due to having worked on the Internet since ’97, which is somewhat less structured than magazines, my favorite question now is to ask people for an example of a roadblock or a barrier to success that they encountered in their job, and what they did to get around it. The follow-up question is for an example of a roadblock or barrier that they couldn’t get around, and what they learned from that.

Given the level that I’ve been at for such a long time, I’m usually interviewing managers. So I ask for a specific, granular example of a person with whom you succeeded as a manager in adding value to their performance, and then give me one where you didn’t, and what you learned from that.

That’s been startling over the years. There was a man who’d been a manager for 20 years, so he’d managed lots of people, and insisted that he had never failed anyone as a manager. I thought it was breathtaking.

I could be a defensive male reader, but I thought that the guys really took a beating in that section. You don’t seem to highlight a woman in particular for an answer—

RW: Oh, I didn’t? I was trying to be an equal opportunity skewer. I did, in fact, probably interview more men over the course of my career than women.

You speak about firing as well. What’s the most important point with that?

RW: Well, for one, it’s silly, but I think it’s the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you’d like it done unto you. Think about getting fired. I think it should happen to everybody in the course of their career. It happened to me once and I talk about that in the book. Think about how you’d want to be treated. It’s not just about money, that’s really not the point. What I said to Jerry Levin at Time Warner after I’d been fired was, “You guys could have saved a lot of money if you’d cared about my emotions instead of being embarrassed.” Think about yourself in that person’s shoes, their dignity, how they’ll be treated in the future, and how their reputation is left from the firing, face-saving, those kinds of things. I try to make it as easy as possible on someone.

The main thing is that no one should be surprised by a firing unless they’re in complete denial. It’s too late by the time you’re doing the firing, so you have to prepare. I’ve had many people who have been shocked when I fired them, because I come off as a very nice person. The fact that we’ve been talking for months about their deficiencies, and I had set timelines for them that they had missed somehow would escape them, and it was still a shock. But that’s denial. I mean, you as a manager can’t do anything about that. But if you’re doing your job right, they’re not surprised.

Along those lines, you write, “Men are wimps. Virtually without exception, they avoid discussing performance problems.” You say that you’re very clear about discussing this with anyone long before they get fired. Any thoughts on why that’s the case?

RW: Well, I don’t know if women are better than men. I’ve only worked for men, and found them to be wimps on this. So I can’t say that women are better. I know that men are terrible. No one likes giving bad news. It’s deeply personal. When I’ve had performance concerns about anybody who worked for me, I script the conversation. The human tendency is to be vague and make allusions to bad performance, as opposed to being clear enough that the person has a chance to figure out what you’re saying. HR people sometimes don’t make it any easier, because they give you euphemisms, but a good one will role play with you to be sure you are communicating clearly.

When I left CNET, I’m very proud of the gift they gave me, which is a giant blowup of the CNET front door, with fake headlines about me. People wrote on it about my loving, brutal honesty. Both adjectives are important to me.

You mention it can be important to have a going away party for someone who gets fired, for the sake of the troops left behind.

RW: I think that’s part of the dignity thing. I’m not talking about firing somebody who’s been a failure from beginning to end, as many firings are. But when someone has had tenure at a company and then for whatever reason, change in company direction, change in their performance, whatever, it’s time for them to go, I think to ignore the history of their contributions basically sends a message to the other employees that you’re only as good as your last week. That’s very short-term, and I think that’s contributed to why people don’t like companies, and don’t feel bound to them.

I am a real toady about companies. I mean, it took me until last week, I kid you not, to ditch my Time Warner 401Ks. I’ve known for 10 years the company was in trouble. I am just a loyal company person and I like to instill that in people who work in my company.

With guys, there is an embarrassment issue with failure. If someone beneath them has failed, then they just want to ignore it and move on. That’s why I think reading this book would be so important for many male managers; they have to try to understand that mentality, which is much more humanistic, actually. It’s like guys breaking up with girls. They just want it to end, be over.

RW: Yeah, do it on a Post-it note.

What about manners? You spend a fair amount of time talking about good manners. Why are they so important?

RW: They’re just so easy that I don’t understand why anybody wouldn’t want them. It’s so basic. There’s no good reason not to do it. The fact is, with how fast we’re rushing, few people take the time to have good manners. A little thing like saying “thank you” sets you apart. It’s been shocking to me.

An example I use as probably my biggest pet peeve is thanking someone for a reference. I will always give a reference for someone that is truthful. There are very few people that I can’t give a good reference for, and most of them wouldn’t ask me. The ones who ask me generally know that I’m going to give them a good reference, and I do. They almost never thank me, or let me know if they got the job. It’s the exceptional person who does. That’s mind-boggling to me.

I’ve thought about that. Is it that people are working so hard to define the difference between their personal life and work life that they get confused about this and forget to carry some of the personal stuff over into work?

RW: I think that’s a good point. My first “naked truth” is that business is personal. To the extent that you humanize your work life, it only can be good. Now, I have become friends with a lot of people that I’ve worked with. I find it harder to hire a friend into a job. But I have found that friendships get forged at the workplace, and that’s because if you really bring who you are in, you can connect.

I think we’re still in the hangover of the 9-to-5 day. For anyone I know, there’s no difference between their work and their home life. All these borders have long since been crossed. Yet I think a lot of people are still trying to carve out that difference, and that’s what leads to so much confusion for them.

RW: Yes. Although I have wondered about the home lives of some of the people I’ve worked with. If they’re really out of touch 9-to-5, I can’t imagine that they’re that in touch when they’re not at work.

So, what’s your next venture? You said you’re on to something new.

RW: It’s still in development, so I can only tell you a little bit about it. The most amazing thing is that I’m doing it at all.

I happened to be in Boston a few months ago on the day they were teaching the Parenting case study at Harvard. It’s one of the most popular case studies there, and it’s required of all first-year students. So I went in and saw 900 students. One of them said to me, “Oh, you’re doing a new venture. Are you a serial entrepreneur?” I said, “No, I’m a reluctant entrepreneur.” Twenty years after having the idea for Parenting, I had another idea. It’s in the Internet space. I really didn’t want to be a company founder again, because I know how hard it is. I have a 7- and a 12-year-old. I have a boyfriend who travels a lot. I have a really close network of friends. I didn’t have to do it for the money. But I was convinced that I was the right person to do this. It’s a giant idea and I’m doing it. I’m sort of amazed.

It’s in the angel phase right now. I raised 1.1 million from eight angel investors. We are building an Internet product, and we’re going to launch it in January.

This book will serve as the HR management manual for the company?

RW: That’s funny because when I sent the book around to people to give me blurbs, my friend David Martin said, “Are you sure you want to publish this? You don’t think you’ll want to ever work for any of these people that you skewer again?” I said, “I actually think it’s a great screening device, because people are going to read it, and they’re either going to want to work with me or invest in me or not. We can cut through a lot of time that way.”

I absolutely agree. I think you’d be a very interesting person to work with, based on this.

RW: Well, I’m not a book writer. I’m not going to do another book. But this was a really fun experience. I’m glad I didn’t have to make a living doing it.

I think you’re going to write the other memoir later on, 10 years down the road.

RW: I will never say never.

Okay. Thank you very much for your time.

Book Website: www.nakedintheboardroom.com

Blog: robinwolaner.typepad.com/keep_on_growing/

Email: robin (at) – teebeedee.com