Book Review: Basic Black

Cathie Black is a powerful woman in the publishing industry. During her career, she has been in sales at Ms. Magazine when it first launched, the publisher of USA Today (also soon after its launch), and is now the president of Hearst Magazines. She has launched businesses, closed businesses, hired and fired, and commanded entire companies. She did all of this by starting at the very bottom. Her new book Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life) is part biography, part guide to both work and life. This is the book I wish I’d received as a college graduation gift, or maybe even for high school graduation. It’s also important for women to read because it includes advice men are socialized with, but women still aren’t usually taught.

Important Topics

Black weaves together important business and personal lessons while also incorporating case studies of businesses that thrived or failed. In addition, she lays down certain basic business rules everyone should know. The reason I think this book is better for women than men has little to do with her tone – she’s a powerhouse, no matter her gender – but because it’s important for women to see how other women can succeed and still balance their lives.

The book contains nine chapters:

  • Drive
  • Risk
  • People
  • Fear
  • Power
  • Passion
  • Attitude
  • Leadership
  • The Future Is Now

Her advice is drawn from her own experience, but she also recognizes that everyone has their own way of doing things, and their own way of responding. She explains how she learned to temper her own expectations and attitudes about how the workplace should be with the realities of other people. Doing so made her a better leader because she learned to speak to other people in their own language. At heart, the entire book is about becoming a good leader.


She discusses at length the idea that women no longer have to “have it all.” She stresses the importance of balancing life with work and of finding a workplace that accommodates the balance you require to thrive in both spheres. Her solution isn’t right for everyone, which she acknowledges, but everyone can find balance.

How to Get What You Want

The most important lesson from this book is her discussion of how to get what you want. This is valuable for both men and women, but it’s something more women need to learn to do because we’re not trained to do it. Her method doesn’t refer to raises, but to other situations, like avoiding interaction with a difficult co-worker, launching a new project, or requesting flex-time. Her suggestion is to create the solution before you ever present the problem to your boss. Be prepared to back up your argument with facts, and then ask the next steps before you leave the room.

Other Basic Business Advice

Several sections cover basic business advice we don’t learn in school anymore. She mentions things like taking the credit when it’s yours, which women often have a hard time doing. We always want to share it.

She also offers advice about:

  • Office parties
  • Presentations
  • Hiring
  • Firing
  • Making a good impression
  • Interviewing
  • Resumes
  • Being a team player
  • Being a boss
  • Overcoming fear

Basic Black is a good, basic business book packed with important lessons for any woman at any level, but that are especially important for women just entering the workforce.

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