Joanna Coles makes exquisite, commanding eye contact; her eyes are bright green, black-rimmed, silver-shaded, and make the person in front of them feel like they’re under a soft spotlight. That’s the first thing you’ll notice.
The second is that Coles is a quick wit — and she’s her own favorite send-up. Her humor seems self-deprecating on its face, but the actual effect is slightly different: It either disarms or directly elevates the person she’s speaking with. A young cameraperson asks her what three words people would use to describe her, for instance, and she says: “Really very annoying.” The awkward formality is broken. Another high-powered businesswoman interviews Joanna, and she lauds that woman’s new venture before saying: “And she does that on top of having five children, and I’ve only got two. Competitive? Moi? Possibly. I’m running off after this to have three more children.” The audience, who has come to celebrate Coles, is now considering the accomplishments of the interviewer.
Coles’ precise blend of command, charm, and razor-sharp intellect has enabled her to rise straight through the ranks of the media boys’ club while simultaneously parenting and publishing. Twenty years ago, Coles moved to America from her native England to be the Guardian’s New York correspondent. She’s since been the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire, the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, and the editorial director of Seventeen. She’s also the only woman on the board of directors for Snap. And in 2016, Coles was appointed Hearst’s first chief content officer, a role that extends globally and involves overseeing more than 300 magazines.
Coles’ extroverted nature has afforded her a work life beyond the world of magazines. She’s appeared in front of the camera on several reality television shows, including Project Runway: All Stars, and works as an executive producer on The Bold Type, a scripted television series inspired by her life.
In each of her roles, Coles has had a significant impact on the lives of young women, who represent both a pressing concern and anthropological fascination of hers. Coles’ just-released book, Love Rules: How To Find a Real Relationship in a Digital World, offers a blend of case studies, common sense tips, and provocative advice for that same audience. Some of her advice is truly refreshing real talk; some of it bears scrutiny; some of it feels jarringly out of step with our cultural moment. But it all sparks interesting conversation.
We caught up with Coles at a NeueHouse LA x Girlboss event to celebrate the Love Rules launch. Ahead, she gives Girlboss readers some of her best advice on work, love, and finding balance. (The latter, Coles says, is overrated.) This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Read the negotiation situation
I think young women are so anxious to negotiate for themselves because they’ve been told it’s important to. As a result, I’ve seen some doing it in an incredibly clumsy way. You want to be able to read the situation and persuade by using the work that you’ve done, [showing] how valuable you are, and getting other people to give testimony about how valuable you are. And if you’re going to use another job offer [as leverage for more money at your current company], you can only do it once.
Do some research to figure out what the going rate in your business is. I’ve had people ask me for outrageous amounts of money that nobody was being paid. I once had someone ask me to pay them more than I was being paid, which indicated to me that they were unrealistic about the business.
When you get near the top, bring in backup
When you reach a certain level of seniority, you definitely want to hire a lawyer to negotiate your contract for you. It’s hard to negotiate with someone that you have to work with. It’s easier to have someone else take on the fight.
Motherhood does entail making career compromises — but not forever
I always dreamed of being a foreign correspondent. When I got to come to America as a foreign correspondent for the Guardian and then for the Times of London, I was in heaven. I had a love affair with America, and I had a love affair with writing, and I finally was able to marry the two things together. I did it for four years, and then I had my second son, and I realized I couldn’t do it anymore, because I wanted to see him.
To be a successful correspondent, you needed to be able to travel when there was a story, and you had to get there as fast as you could; that is incompatible with having children and being around a home every evening. The job hadn’t changed, but my priorities had. So I switched jobs and segued into an industry where I had a little bit more control over my schedule.
But you’re not giving up things forever. There’s an ebb and flow to being a parent. There’s an ebb and flow to a job. You don’t always realize that when you’re at the beginning of something. You think it’s always going to be like this. In fact, life changes all the time. Sometimes you just have to sort of float midstream and see where the current takes you. If you stop trying to control the current all the time, you can relax into it a bit.
The top job has better work-life balance than the middle job
What upsets me about the dialogue around women’s careers is that we always talk as if women shouldn’t strive for the top job because it will be too stressful. The truth is, the top job is where you get more money, more support, and more control over your schedule. That’s what actually makes life much easier. I remember commenting on this to a couple of very senior female friends, and they were like, “Oh yeah. That’s the thing that no one tells women.”
What’s really difficult is being stuck in the middle of something and trying to balance kids and a schedule that you’re not in control of, with not enough money, and being be beholden to a boss who is unsympathetic to your needs. That’s stressful.
Choose side hustles that complement your main gig
While I hold multiple roles, it’s not like my spare job is working as a dermatologist, which has no connection whatsoever to working in the media.I try to take on projects that feed into each other. For instance, when I joined the Snap board, that was a great portal for Hearst to get its brands onto Snapchat’s Discover. What I’m writing about in the book is a lot of information that I learned over my ten years at Marie Claire and Cosmo. “The Bold Type” is very much about my experience working with younger women at those magazines. And Love Rules is aimed at the many young readers of Hearst titles.
I hope doing lots of different things makes my work better informed. That’s how I get my energy. I’m an extrovert and I love meeting people. I don’t want to be stuck in a room or at a desk all day. I’d be miserable — and I wouldn’t be good at it.
Balance is boring
The current word is balance, which is something that might not be achievable. I’ve never been able to find balance, and I’m not interested in balance. I like extremes. I like being extremely busy or having a moment of pure downtime.
If you’re trying to find a partner, make your life bigger
Dating apps have the amazing capacity to put you together with people that, left to happenstance, you’d never run into. The flip side of that is that they can make people feel interchangeable. You want to use them as one arrow in your quiver. I urge people to get offline and go out and join clubs.
Most people’s social life in college revolves around their dorms, or friend groups that are made through sport teams, or through the college magazine, or through the newspaper, or through the student groups that you have a close connection to. And that often stops when you leave college.
If you’re trying to meet someone, try not to let those interests go. Stay involved in creating something that’s bigger than you are. You’ll get to know more people — and you’ll have fun.
By doing things together, suddenly you may notice that someone who you took for granted as part of your posse takes on a romantic connotation. It totally happens. And it’s more likely to work, because you’ve got a shared history. You’ve got memories, and suddenly you have a narrative. That’s very compelling.
There’s this tendency now to assume you can contract everything out to digital and digital will fix it. Actually, real life has some great things going for it, too.
You don’t just need great mentors. You need great peers
My advice to someone starting their career is: Have fun! Really enjoy your peers around you. A lot of people talk about how important it is to have a mentor. Actually, your peers are your mentors. You will all rise together at roughly the same time, and they will be the people that tip you off about other jobs.
You don’t need an all-knowing, all-being mentor. You need to be a great colleague, you need to watch what the people around you are doing, and you need to be honest about where they’re better than you. Don’t be curled up in a competitive crouch. If you help each other, you can rise together.