Susan: A Magazine Executive Tells Her Story, The Zigs and Zags of Moving Up
Susan was my college roommate and is my best friend. We are very different people and had very different careers, though we both worked until retirement. Susan and I sat down one afternoon to talk about her take on all of it—and I even heard stories that I had never heard before. I hope you find her perspectives as interesting as I do. The rest of our conversation will be posted soon as Part II. Erica.
Let’s start by setting the stage. Talk about your career and how you think about it now.
For the majority of my career, I was in the magazine publishing business. I think of myself as a successful business woman. My career involved a lot of zigs and zags and I am proud of what I accomplished—which is more than I could have ever expected. I became confident and self-sufficient. It’s allowed me to have independence and freedom. I thought I would be like my mother... work for a few years, get married, have kids, not work. It wasn’t until my second job—in sales at Playgirl Magazine—that I realized I loved what I did. I don’t know whether I loved it because I was good at it or vice versa, but it didn’t matter. It was fun. I enjoyed the success and winning. I loved the freedom and the financial independence. School wasn’t my thing. Work showed me I could do anything I put my mind to.
Being financially independent, and having confidence in myself and my decisions, gave me the guts to get divorced. Later, after I gave birth to my daughter, I made different career decisions. But I never stopped working full time until I reached 69. I actually never thought I could financially stop working.
How was Playgirl Magazine—the women’s lib version of Playboy? It had a semi-nude centerfold of Burt Reynolds. Did you put Playgirl on your resume?
Playgirl was great. Everyone at Playgirl was a woman except the boss, and he treated all of us with respect. It was congenial and fun. No harassment. I loved working there and always put that job on my resume, as it gave me my start in the publishing business. The strange thing is nobody ever asked me about the centerfold. I would have thought it would be a great ice-breaker, but I guess they must have been embarrassed.
My favorite Playgirl story involves a sales call I made on a vibrator company whose offices were in Times Square, which was very seedy at the time. I walked up three flights of stairs. I was ushered into a tiny, dingy office to meet the owner/boss. I look on the wall and there’s a Harvard MBA. I asked him if it was real. He laughed and said yes. Told me it was a good business and he was having fun. A true gentleman. And a sale.
Why did you love sales? Why do you think you were so good at it?
I liked not sitting at a desk all day and being able to convince people. I think I was so good at it because, first and foremost, I am good listener. But I am also strategic, persistent, honest, forthright, and good at solving problems for the client.
I became confident that I could do it. I had objective evidence. In sales, there are clear winners and losers. I knew I could sell. That confidence provided a base. I never networked. I never had a mentor. I had male colleagues who were friends and we helped each other when we could.
You mentioned that there was no harassment at Playgirl. Were you ever harassed?
Of course . Men in power hit on me all the time. But they took rejection well. I never thought my job was in jeopardy. There was no backlash to my saying no.
At my first job in advertising, I was in a taxi with one of the co-owners of the ad agency who tried to get more than the usual fresh. I don’t know why but I didn’t think twice about telling his partner what happened and that it had made me uncomfortable. I am sure they spoke. It never happened again and it was never awkward between us.
At my third job, at the NY Times Company (which at the time owned magazines), I was the first woman in a traditionally all male sales team. I was badly hazed—it was an extremely hostile environment. The guys, who had been there for years, wanted to make life so miserable for me that I would quit. They got together every morning to tell dirty jokes and talk about sex. Until I arrived they watched porn movies on Fridays in the conference room. Most wouldn’t even talk to me. They tried to sabotage me. I once went on a sales call to an ad agency and the Media Supervisor said I would get the business if I slept with him. I threw the magazine at him and walked out. Turned out some the guys I worked with put him up to it to haze me and see what happened.
That’s the job when I realized who I was. They were never going to get me to quit. It was a challenge. Who were these guys to tell me I couldn’t.
So you were at the NY Times Company for 16 years. That’s a long time, especially for today’s workforce. Why did you stay?
I started there around the time that the government said that businesses needed to hire women. They didn’t want to, but they had to, and women who had some experience in sales were rare. So I was a pretty hot ticket and was recruited heavily. I decided to go with the Times because it owned one of the most widely circulated magazines—Family Circle---and circulation means advertising.
Hostility was everywhere. But I was determined not to fail, and the good thing about sales is that your performance is quantifiable. You either sell or you don’t. Selling is hard. You have to be able to take a lot of rejection. Relationships matter. Listening and strategy matters. And the results speak for themselves.
I decided to ignore the guys and focus on doing my job. My job was to sell and I sold a lot. After a while I earned their respect. Some even became friends. But I never tried to be one of them. I was always true to myself.
My male bosses identified me as someone who would be good at management. I never thought about my next steps and never asked for a promotion. But I got many—always from men. Ultimately, I was in charge of sales at seven magazines. It turned out that I was good at management and I liked it. I am very competitive and love winning.
I thrived for many years at The NY Times Magazine Group. I left after all those years when the management and culture changed and someone got the job I knew I should have had. I was good at what I did, had a great reputation, and competitors often tried to recruit me. I picked up the phone and got a better position at Reader’s Digest.
Reader’s Digest was where your family first impacted your choices. Talk about that.
I ultimately ran the Special Interest Magazine division at RD. The biggest job I had so far. Then I was asked to be first woman Publisher of Reader’s Digest. It was a very big deal as it was one of the most widely read magazines in the world and I would have been the first woman publisher. The position involved a lot of travel overseas and weekend entertainment. They were willing to accommodate me to travel less, but I wasn’t willing to accept the position unless I could do the job like it should be done and give it 150%. I also knew that if I turned it down, I would have to ultimately leave the company. After 7 years, I left the company when they decided to divest of the Special Interest Magazine division. I never regretted my decision.
As you moved up the ladder, were you paid fairly?
I was not for many years. And it surprises me now, but I never spoke up. It never entered my psyche to ask. I knew I could make significantly more elsewhere but working in a culture that fit my personality was most important to me. Once when I was interviewing at another well known magazine company I was turned off when, during the interview process, the prospective employer talked about their generous severance packages. I wasn’t worried about keeping my job. I was more interested in loving my job. It was self-respect. Pride. Working with and for people I respected in a culture where I would thrive and grow. I thought of myself as a career woman—not just driven by the money. Today, of course, I would ask, and receive what I should be paid. I did that later in my career.
And then your career took a turn and you became entrepreneurial. That must have been a very different challenge?
The good news was that I had two excellent opportunities to consider when I left RD. One was at another well known publishing company. The other was, at the time, one of the largest creative catalog agencies in the US—when print catalogs were strong (pre-internet). My personality is so opposite of entrepreneurial, that I thought it would be exciting and challenging to try something out of my comfort zone. I knew the owner and when he offered me the role of President (so he could retire to Florida), my immediate reaction was that I didn’t know anything about catalogs. The owner said he had 70 people who knew everything about catalogs but he didn’t have anyone he could trust to manage/run the business and bring in new business. And those things I knew.
I took the risk, stayed 3 years and was successful at it. However, I did not find the catalog business interesting. In addition, the internet was just starting, and print catalogs would not be a long term play. The business needed to evolve but the owner didn’t want to invest in online. He decided to sell. I said I would stay until we got that done. I got it sold and at the last minute the deal blew up. I told him I was going to look for another job—since I needed to work for at least another ten years and this business clearly wasn’t going to last that long (and it didn't). I looked for a new role and he looked for someone else to run his business.
And then a woman—who you thought was a friend—did a dastardly thing. Is this the only time in your career you were sabotaged by a woman?
I loved working with women. Although at that point I never had a female boss, I had many great women colleagues and women who worked for me. We supported each other and had a lot of fun. Many of them are still friends. But this particular situation was a big (and costly) learning experience and a huge disappointment. I still can’t believe it happened. I got a job offer at a prestigious publishing company as a group publisher. One of my best friends worked at the company. I told my current boss at the catalog agency that I was finalizing my contract and that my leaving was imminent—to give him lead time to find someone else. I asked my close friend about the company, to get a head start. And then what happened? She went to her boss and said if you hire Susan I will leave. Her boss, the CEO, called me and told me what happened. He said he couldn’t afford to lose her. He rescinded his offer. My close friend saw me as competition and did me in. No job. I was panicked to say the least. I learned never to tell anyone till the deal is done.
Going forward, I never said a word to anyone I worked with about what she had done. Karma came when my next employer bought the company she worked for and did not bring her on board.
How did you get your next job after leaving the catalog company?
I was lucky. I called two publishing companies where I wanted to work. The Chairman of one of the companies had been my boss at the NY Times. He said he didn’t have a publisher job for me at that time, and he couldn’t pay me what I deserved, but would I be willing to go into a Managing Director role with the promise that the next publisher opening would be mine. I said I would do it. Thankfully, a publisher job came up within a year and I got it. I stayed seven years and ultimately was a SVP, Group Publisher, and paid fairly. Then a new boss came in and a lot of people my age got laid off. I was fired. It was tough. I moved forward using my varied experience and expertise to land a great new role.
Your next job was as a CEO. Did you know you would be good at it?
By this point in my career I was confident I could tackle a new challenge and be successful. I know how to evaluate a business. I do my homework. I'm a good listener and learner. I can identify and keep good talent and hire the right people. I am not afraid of controversial and unpopular decisions. I don’t need to be loved, but need to be respected. I am tough but fair. That said it was a huge challenge and another great learning experience.
More to Come in Part II……..
Susan Baron is a magazine and media executive who retired after working for decades at companies like The New York Times, Reader’s Digest and Meredith Corporation. Today, Susan is a Coach for Girls On The Run, a learning program that inspires girls 8-13 to be joyful, healthy, and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running.