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Rule 7: It's Easier to Ask Forgiveness Than It Is To Get Permission


Over the next few days, I thought about my reaction. If I was embarrassed to be caught speaking like that in front of someone, then why was it okay to do it when no one else was around? Wasn't it better to deal with people in ways you didn't need to hide? Or, more important, in ways you want to be dealt with yourself?

Besides, what had I really expected to gain? Sure, it felt good to let off some steam—but this was a fool's errand. My ultimate goal was not, after all, to make her feel bad or regretful. It wouldn't have helped the team at all if she took my criticism personally, which she was more likely to do considering how I delivered it. The ultimate goal, of course, was to improve her performance, so she wouldn't make such mistakes again. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized there were two ways to help do that: Be generous with praise—and careful with criticism.

When I started at Hearst, I instituted an annual management conference—a chance for executives to get together and talk freely about big issues facing the company and the industry. Because we want people to feel inspired, informed, and energized, we usually hold the conferences at resort locations. We bring in a variety of speakers and encourage our executives to mix, mingle, and share ideas.

A few years ago, as we were planning the event, I wanted to turn up the voltage. I decided to bring in a speaker who would knock everybody's socks off, a man legendary for his speaking skills and personal charisma: Bill Clinton. I knew that having Clinton there would get everyone buzzing, excited about the conference and by extension excited about Hearst. He'd bring the "wow" factor, which employees would carry back to their jobs when the conference was finished.

The only trouble was, Bill Clinton does not come cheap. Because he is one of the most sought-after public speakers in the world, we'd have to be ready to spend considerably more on him than we usually spent on speakers. I was prepared to do that. But I didn't think my boss, Victor Ganzi, would be.

So I went ahead and did it anyway, without asking Vic. Once it was a done deal, I told him we'd gotten Clinton for the event, and his response was what I expected.

"How much did that cost?"

"A lot," I said with a smile. "But it's worth it."

Now, Vic and I know each other very well. I have a track record with him, and we've established an essential layer of trust. The fact is, there are certain bosses I've had over the years who I'd never have responded to in that way. But I knew the rules, I knew Vic, and most important—I knew which rules I could break with Vic. (Remember that lesson: Know the rules, so you know which ones to break.)

After that first inquiry, Vic asked me a couple more times about the cost of hiring Clinton. The final time, he and I were on a plane together. He must have realized there was nowhere I could escape to 30,000 feet in the air, so as we were reviewing some monthly numbers, he looked up and said, "Cathie, you know, you never did tell me how much Bill Clinton's fee was."

I looked right at him and said, "Vic, the truth is, you will never know."

And that, in a nutshell, is one of my favorite rules of all: It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.

Cathie Black served as the president of Hearst Magazines, which publishes O, The Oprah Magazine, from 1996 until 2010.

Adapted from Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life), by Cathie Black. Copyright © 2007 Cathleen Black. Published by Crown Business, a division of Random House.    

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