Black hired or retained talented lieutenants, like Hearst publishing director Michael Clinton and editor Kate White, whom Black moved from Redbook to Cosmo. “She did an excellent job for us,” says former Hearst Corporation CEO Victor Ganzi. “She was innovative at looking at new products, and she wasn’t wedded to the way things had been done in the past.” But Black’s claim to have “managed 2,000 people” at Hearst draws surprise, even from her friends. “Hmmm,” says one senior executive at the company. “Well, 2,000 people were under her. There are many different kinds of people on top. Some are great managers, and they move ahead, and they’re not going to walk around saying that they’re great managers or counting the number of people they manage, and they do a fine job.” Which wasn’t Black’s style: A Financial Times story called her “the First Lady of American magazines,” and she enthusiastically embraced the ceremonial aspect that the phrase implied, accumulating nine honorary degrees from colleges and universities. “She is a great platform speaker,” says a former colleague, when asked to name Black’s primary talent. “She can stir a group. You put her on a stage and she emotes, even with speeches that have been drafted for her. She’s encouraging and inspiring. She’s not poetic, but there’s an emotional component. It’s never facts and figures. It’s a rapture of ‘I believe in you, and I know you can do it, and this is what we need to do.’ What she says has some specific content, but it’s more about a belief system.”
Her aphorism-stuffed how-to-get-ahead-in-business memoir, Basic Black, came out in 2007, and Hearst threw a series of parties to help promote the book, rankling some staffers who thought Black was hogging the spotlight. One guest, a longtime colleague of Black’s, was reminded of a different setting. “I remember going into her home library, and it’s all these books: Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School. All these self-help business books, hundreds of them: ‘How to do the direct eye contact,’ ‘How to learn how to shake a hand,’ ‘How to learn to tell people you’re listening.’ All these tricks!” She was less of a superstar manager, in this view, than a gifted saleswoman of magazine ads—and herself.
Last June, the 66-year-old Black was kicked upstairs to a newly created position, chairman of Hearst Magazines, and replaced by 49-year-old David Carey, who’d been at Condé Nast. “She was given a certain period of time, a year or eighteen months, as chairman, as a gesture of respect and to ease the transition,” a friend at the company says. “Her time at Hearst had an expiration date. I’m sure she was deeply upset to have been replaced.” Black claims she was unfazed. “All batons have to be passed,” she says evenly. “I thought it was great for the company. In all of life, you just move on. I’m a glass-half-full person, always.”
“Her library is all self-help books. ‘How to make eye contact, shake a hand, tell people you’re listening.’ All these tricks!”
When Joel Klein accepted the job of schools chancellor, he told the mayor he’d be happy to stay for two full terms. But then Bloomberg decided limits didn’t apply to the mayor’s office and asked Klein to stay through the start of Bloomberg’s third term. Quietly, the mayor began looking for a new schools boss. As the Times first reported, Bloomberg approached Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, who decided to stay put. Michelle Rhee, the combative ex-head of Washington, D.C.’s schools, also would have been a logical contender, but she was on her way to launching her own multi-million-dollar school-reform operation. So Bloomberg, in a move many of his top aides didn’t see coming, turned to Black.
It made a kind of sense to the mayor. Bloomberg prides himself on his quick, instinctive assessments of people—it’s part of what he, as a superstar manager himself, believes in. “You’ll leave a meeting with the mayor, and he’ll say, ‘That guy was really smart,’ and it sticks in his head,” a Bloomberg adviser says. “He keeps a mental list of bright people who he knows from various circles and who he thinks could do a great job in any setting in the administration.” And that is what happened with Cathie Black. “She had been in the back of his mind for some time,” the adviser says. “She runs in a similar social circle, and he was impressed with her. His view is actually simple: ‘Great manager, totally against type. People will think I’m brilliant for thinking outside the box on this—and anybody that doesn’t get it is wrong.’ ” Black didn’t deliberate long before taking the job. “I said to the mayor, ‘If you think I’m the right person, and this is the skill set you believe is really important to run the DOE through the remainder of your term’—it didn’t take me days of gnashing my teeth and rolling around and wondering if I should do this,” she says. “He has been in the trenches on this for almost nine years. So let’s go ahead.”
That Black is friendly with Diana Taylor, Bloomberg’s girlfriend, didn’t hurt her chances. But this hire was all Bloomberg. Choosing Black ratchets up the pitched argument that the mayor and others have been waging with the public-school Establishment for the past decade. In Bloomberg’s CEO-minded view, public schools are a closed society dominated by self-interested unions, desperately in need of free-market shock treatment. If only enlightened capitalists could wrest control of the schools from the hidebound, unionized teachers, the schools’ problems could be solved. This is a tremendously fashionable idea among the country’s business class, partly because it is so flattering to their self-image, and it’s reflected in the cult of Waiting for “Superman,” the 2010 charter-school-glorifying documentary starring Canada and Rhee that’s a favorite of the hedge-fund set.