When Kate White—a novelist and speaker on work, leadership, and success—calls to talk about her upcoming event in Connecticut, she is in her office in her winter home in Uruguay next to an open window with a view of a hummingbird buzzing about, a parrot’s nest, and a quiet bay with a beach on either side.
White is coming to Madison at the invitation of R. J. Julia Booksellers on Wednesday, March 22, at noon, to Café Allegre, at 725 Boston Post Road in Madison, to talk about her leadership and success advice, along with her new novel, The Secrets You Keep, a psychological thriller about a self-help author who “suddenly finds her life spiraling dangerously out of control.”
White, a New York Times bestselling author, shares a few characteristics with the protagonist in her new novel. She’s an author. She gets to work from home. But, far from a life that is spiraling dangerously out of control, she has a life she is quite pleased with, one that she attributes in part to taking her own advice years ago. That advice is what she will be sharing with those who will be joining her for lunch on March 22. At the event, co-sponsored by the Madison Chamber of Commerce and the Guilford Savings Bank, White will “share her secrets for going big, building confidence, asking for what you want, and becoming the unrelenting architect of your career.”
White recalls the time when she was editor in chief at Cosmopolitan magazine, a job she loved passionately. “It was one of the most fun jobs I could imagine,” she says. “I often felt like I was in a television show. It was over the top. Cosmo kind of attracted over-the-top types, so it was a very diverse staff. Some of them were a little crazy. But it was fun. And people brought their dog to work.”
As much as she loved it, she noticed that something was missing in her life “time to just be alone and write.” And she and her husband had been talking about living someplace warm in the winter.
“I began to long for a certain amount of freedom, and to call my own shots. As much as I am a good corporate citizen, I wanted a chance to work for myself,” she says. Being a good corporate citizen, and one to plan ahead, she gave two-year’s notice. And then, shortly before she left, she got offered another magazine job, a huge opportunity. “That was right before I left. There was a moment where, if I wanted to change my mind, I could,” she says.
But it took only a moment for her to think about it. After 14 years at Cosmo, she left that job in 2013.
“I had to pretend I thought about the decision overnight,” she says. “It seemed unprofessional to say ‘no thanks’ right away. But I knew pretty much the minute I was asked. I didn’t want it. I never regretted it.” So now she and her husband have their house on the beach in southeastern Uruguay in a charming town not too far from a big resort area. “It’s a little bit like Miami, and a little bit like parts of the Riviera. Right now that little humming bird is darting in and out of my window,” she says.
“You may have seen, the average person will have five careers. I think most of us do reinvent ourselves at some point. I just wanted to do a reinvention,” she says.
A Side Hustle
Part of the key, she says, was that she had already, while in her Cosmo job, started “a side hustle.” Having fallen in love with mysteries and thrillers as a kid after reading her first Nancy Drew novel, she had already started writing murder mysteries and thrillers. And she loves talking with people about their careers, so she decided to combine both of those in her new life. She is now the bestselling author of 11 novels, including six mysteries written with a co-author and five psychological thrillers. She also is the author of several best selling career books, including Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead but Gutsy Girls Do, which will be re-issued soon with a rewrite and update by White.
“I really do feel that women have gotten much bolder in the 22 years since I wrote that,” she says. “But there are still moments when our good-girl gland takes over, when our good-girl instincts prevail.”
She gives as an example, asking and negotiating for salaries. “Seventy percent of women accept the starting salary they are offered. And that is the case even when so often the person on the other side of the desk is prepared to negotiate. So you’re leaving money on the table if you don’t try to negotiate,” she says. Since a salary at one job often helps determine the salary at a subsequent job, failure to engage in this kind of negotiation can lead to over the course of a career, lead to losses amounting to $600,000 or more, she says, based on some calculations.
“People in their 20s and 30s make the mistake of thinking, ‘I’m young, I can always get more down the road, but percentage wise, it’s all coming from where you start,” she says.
Other advice that she likes to give includes “go big or go home.”
“Sometimes we think the way we get ahead is to do our job and do it very well,” she says. “But if you look at big success, it always comes down to going big or going home. You have to go beyond what you’ve been told to do. You have to come up with big ideas for your department, your company, ideas that set you apart from the pack and make your boss say ‘wow.’”
Going big or going home is beneficial not only for the employer, but also for the employee, White explains.
“Here’s the great thing, and something people don’t understand sometimes, when you go big, so often it is in your favor that it gives you confidence to go even bigger next time,” she says.
White also recommends, quite simply, to ask for what you want, even when that is not easy.
“Yes, that can be very hard,” she says. “When you know it’s important, we sometimes talk ourselves out of it. We come up with certain excuses.”
But asking for what you want is an essential step to taking the next step, White says, which is to “become the unrelenting architect of your career.”
“One thing that is so true is that when we are busy, so busy with our day-to-day jobs, we don’t put as much time and energy as we should into managing our success,” she says. “I’m a big believer in taking time every week to ask yourself, ‘am I happy?’ And, ‘what could make me happier?’ Is my boss really giving me an opportunity to really run with my professional brand and my strengths?”
On the other hand, she says, there can be such a thing as being too happy in your job.
“Often when we are happy at a job, it’s because we’re comfy,” she says. “That means it’s time to think about it. Sure, we like our job, no one is chewing us out.” But sometimes that might also mean that the employee is not pushing as hard as they should, not asking the questions that need to be asked, and not going big because it might rock the boat.
It’s important to always take that next step, she says, whether that means getting involved in a professional organization, networking, teaching a class, writing a blog. “All of those things can help your brand,” she says.
White also recommends making a career map. “Look at men and women you want to emulate. When did they hit certain marks?”
As for her new novel, White says she’s excited to talk about that as well.
“I’ve never written a book about marriage before. My characters have always been divorced or single. I really wanted this character to be in a marriage, and to have her worry that something isn’t right. There is just such a creepiness to that,” she says.
The character in The Secrets You Keep also struggles with writer’s block, brought on in part by traumatic events. White says that’s something she’s learned to deal with through her past work.
“That’s the great thing about having been a magazine writer. You learn to deal with writer’s block. You just have to do it because it’s all going out the door the next day. They’re not going to wait for you to fiddle with that line forever. You just have to get something down on paper and work on it,” she says.