Leadership by Geoff Colvin

Cathie Black vows to come back: "I'm a warrior"

April 8, 2011: 1:18 PM ET

by Patricia Sellers

Few career falls are as swift and spectacular as Cathie Black's.

It took just 95 days for the former boss of Hearst Magazines -- and alum of the Fortune Most Powerful Women list  -- to get ousted as chancellor of New York City public schools.

Since her exit yesterday, Black had not talked to the press, except for "60 seconds in front of my apartment building last night," she said when she called me late this morning.

"I feel fine," she says, even laughing at the absurdity of her rapid rise and fall in the non-business sphere.

I mentioned one theory that could have been at play: "the glass cliff." This is practically the reverse of the well-trodden "glass ceiling" that keeps many women from reaching the top. Ambitious women find themselves on the "glass cliff" after well-intentioned men, in pursuit of diversity goals, appoint them to positions beyond their level of competence. Women can't say "no" to the opportunity…and then they fail, usually quite publicly.

"There may be some truth in that," Black says, all but admitting that for a manager like her, with no professional experience in education, heading America's largest public school system was above her capabilities. "It was like having to learn Russian in a weekend -- and then give speeches in Russian and speak Russian in budget committee and City Council meetings."

Black had a terrific record in business -- before managing magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Oprah's O, at Hearst, she built USA Today for Gannett (GCI). But as a newbie in education, she got pummeled in the press -- and by colleagues as well. The public immediately saw Black's inadequacy, and she hardly had a chance to win. Her public approval rating had sunk to 17% by yesterday morning, when Mayor Mike Bloomberg, her longtime friend, called her into his office and told her that her time was up.

Her successor is Dennis Walcott, a deputy mayor with plenty of education experience.

Even as she recognized her inadequacies, Black says she has wondered: "If I were a guy, would I have had the pounding that I did?

"And the worst pictures!" she says, obviously referring to a horrid closeup shot of her on a February cover of New York Magazine.

Clearly she's disappointed, but she is also relieved -- to escape the paparazzi, dress in designer clothes again, and eat at old haunts like Michael's, the media-elite lunchtime canteen.

And basically get back to the life she enjoyed. This morning, she had breakfast at Three Guys, a diner near her Park Avenue home. When she got up to leave, she said, people clapped.

"I'm a warrior," vows Black, who is 66 -- and apparently game to move on to another major gig.

"Different options to consider," she says, adding, "I'm not in a rush."

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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