Leslie Morgan Steiner Leads and Writes
Wharton Club of DC Alum of the Month
by A. J. Schuler, Psy. D.
Leslie Morgan Steiner (WG í92) and I had far too much fun during and after this conversation. Conducted in the cafť of a DC bookstore, we became too loud for one of our neighbors at the next table. I havenít been scolded like that for laughing since I was in grade school!
Dynamic, energetic, incisive: thatís Leslie.
Do you read the Washington Post? Do you enjoy Splenda? Do you know a woman who struggles to find her balance in life between work and family?
And while youíre at it, visit her website, where you can read excerpts from her current book, ďMommy Wars.Ē
AJ: What was your area of study at Wharton?
AJ: And what are you doing now?
LESLIE: Iím an executive, currently on book leave, from The Washington Post Company. For the last five years, Iíve been the general manager of The Magazine and Special Sections group. We havenít yet settled on what Iíll be doing when I return next year.
AJ: What is your writing project?
LESLIE: Iím working on Mommy Wars, a book to be published by Random House in March. And I have three kids, soÖ Iím busy!
AJ: Ok, weíll get to the book, but letís backtrack a little. At the Post, what have been your responsibilities?
LESLIE: When I joined the Post in 2001, I took over the Post magazine, the business-side running of it. The Washington Post magazine had never made money in itís seventeen-year history. It was a wonderful magazine, but no magazine should lose money for more than a couple of years. Wharton really taught me the basics of running any kind of business to make a profit. I applied all that to the magazine. Within a year and a half, the Magazine had become profitable, after losing millions of dollars a year for almost twenty years before that.
Afterward, I took on a lot more responsibility, running the department store category, which was about a $72 million business. I also took on the Special Sections Group, which is another business with approximately $10 million in revenue. I worked on the launch of the Washington Post Express, that is the free publication that gets distributed to about 250,000 via the Metro.
AJ: Iím sure a lot of our alumni are familiar with the Express.
LESLIE: Itís a wonderful product, and one that was really important strategically to the Post because so many major U.S. newspaper markets have experienced a lot of success with the free-pub model.
AJ: So what was the key to creating that turnaround?
LESLIE: Telling everybody who worked on the magazine that we had to make money. Nobody had ever told them that. When I was hired, I was told very publicly that all I had to do was contain the loss. It just curdled the Wharton blood in my veins to hear that! So I told the staff, the president of the company and the publisher that we were going to make money, or that I was going to recommend that the magazine be shut down, and that I wouldnít work on it anymore. That really got everybodyís attention.
AJ: Did that prompt a revolt?
LESLIE: People were thrilled. They knew a lot of newspaper magazines had been shut down over the last twenty years because they didnít make money, and I think every single person who worked on it knew it was possible to turn a profit.
But the turnaround was not just my work Ė far from it! I inherited a very talented staff from my predecessors. My two key people, the business manager and the production manager, had worked on the magazine for over ten years. They knew exactly what to do to save money. We also had a very strong sales staff.
We focused on growing revenue and cutting costs Ė day in and day out. At every single staff meeting, I painted that picture. We started talking about the revenue and profit figures a lot more publicly than we ever had, and we shined a spotlight on the fact that we needed to make money. It was an extraordinary experience because everybody was happy that I was doing it, and everybody pulled together. In the first year we came in significantly under the budget for the loss and then the next year we made money.
AJ: Are there any specific experiences prior to your joining the Post that helped prepare you for your role?
LESLIE: I worked at Johnson & Johnson for many years. I was based in the U. S., but I was an international marketing person. I launched a product called Splenda, a low-calorie sweetener thatís now the number one sweetener in the United States.
Johnson & Johnson is one of the largest, most successful companies in the world, but they let me have an incredible amount of freedom, which was an unusual experience for somebody right out of school, just great. I also had a boss there, the president of the company, who was one of the first people who really valued my opinion. It gave me so much confidence to have somebody of his stature believe in me, just for what was in between my ears. He inspired me in many, many ways.
AJ: You mentioned that you have three children?
LESLIE: Yes, three. I have an eight year old son, a six year old daughter and a three year old daughter. A lot of my professional thought and energy have gone into creating the right balance to ensure that I make time for my kids while performing my professional duties. Thatís the genesis of Mommy Wars.
Working motherhood is great. I think Wharton helped me quite a bit there, too. Wharton really taught me how to negotiate, and women in particular are not often taught how to negotiate and compete with much grace. But at Wharton, you had to compete and negotiate all the time, and they specifically had negotiations classes that served me well when I got out in the workforce. When I became a mom, I had to negotiate not just for myself or for my products, but had to negotiate time with my family and time with my kids. You know the stakes are really high when you get to that level. And I find that so many women, even really ambitious, successful women just give up and say ďOkay, Iím going home.Ē I think what I learned at Wharton helped me stay. I also took entrepreneurial classes, where a guy named Ed Molt had a real impact on me.
AJ: In what way?
LESLIE: He taught me to look for opportunities and how to look for shortcuts. Thatís what he taught everybody in the class. Not for ethical shortcuts obviously, but just the fastest way from point A to point B. Point B always being a successful, profitable company. That was one of the cornerstones of my Wharton education.
AJ: You mentioned to me before that there are other Wharton links in your family.
LESLIE: My husband is Perry Winter Steiner, WG í93.
AJ: I understand Mommy Wars is a collection of essays by mothers?
LESLIE: Yes. To write a book, you have to be really passionate about the subject. I was really passionate about being a working mom, but I was even more passionate about trying to understand how stay-at-home moms could be happy. I honestly couldnít understand moms who stayed home before I wrote this book. I wasnít judgmental of them, I was fascinated by them, but I couldnít get them to talk to me because I was a working mom: I was seen as being from ďthe other camp.Ē But once I started getting people to write about it, I got the stay-at-home moms to open up. Thatís why I wrote the book, because I was wondering what was inside their heads. How could women who were really well educated and ambitious be happy being home without work and without an income, without that independence? I was driven to understand them.
I found that if you canít get somebody to talk about a subject, in regular social settings, you can always get them to write. Writing is such a private thing, and reading is a very private thing. This subject, because itís a bit taboo among women, is something that lends itself to a book, to writing and reading. The truth was that I was dying to find out what stay-at-home moms were all about and this book answered it for me. Itís made up of essays by women reflecting on their experiences and choices involving work and family life.
AJ: In your work, what do you enjoy most?
LESLIE: I love managing people. But when youíre editing other peopleís writing, itís different. You donít approach that as management. Instead, you just try to get inside their heads and understand what are they really trying to communicate with their writing. Still, there are similarities.
One of my favorite essays in Mommy Wars is by a stay-at-home mom who had suffered some degree of postpartum depression. But in the early drafts, something was missing from the essay. I finally pushed her really hard and she confessed that her mother had also suffered from postpartum depression and had physically abused her as a girl. She included this perspective in her final version of the essay, which stills makes me cry even though Iíve read it 50 times.
For me, both editing and managing share a common denominator: helping people find and express their potential. I enjoy the process of drawing the truth out of people and drawing something out of them that makes them more productive and happier. Itís incredibly gratifying to help people find their own natural strengths.
AJ: Whom do you admire?
LESLIE: There are many women Iíve known at Johnson & Johnson or at the Post who have encouraged me and helped me. I would say that two of the women who are public figures whom I admire the most are Katharine Graham and Sandra Day OíConnor. They both came from a time when it wasnít the norm to be very successful, professional women who raise kids. They both found their own way to do it.
AJ: Whatís the most interesting thing youíve learned in the last year?
LESLIE: Looking back, the best things that ever happened to me are the things I did not plan or try to control. When youíre a Type A, driven professional, whether itís law or medicine or business, you become so convinced that you have an obligation to control things and that your success rests on you controlling your next step. But often the best things in my life are events that I have not controlled and that I have fought kicking and screaming.
Three years ago, after Iíd been working on the magazine for about two years and it started making money, I convinced the Post to let me work only 20 hours per week, same responsibilities. Then, in the past year, I just had too many things going on. I was working at the Post and writing this book and raising three kids. In the midst of all this, when I thought I was doing a great job of it, I got a new boss at the Post who said, ďYou know, itís great, youíre doing a great job, I really want more of you and I want you to come back to work full time.Ē I just about died that she wanted this!
The process forced me to make some choices. I chose the book and the writing and my kids. I said, ďIím going to take a year off and Iíll come back to the Post full time in a year once Iíve done this other stuff.Ē Itís turned out to be the greatest thing: to have a whole year to work on the book, to write other things and to be with my family.
AJ: Is there anything interesting youíve read lately?
LESLIE: I really liked Judith Warnerís book, Perfect Madness, about why baby boom women are so obsessed with being perfect mothers. Itís a great book. Right now Iím reading Edward Conlinís book called Blue Blood about being a New York City police officer: itís wonderful. I donít read that many business books because I donít like them that much.
AJ: Good ones are not easy to come by!
LESLIE: I know. Thereís a great book of fiction called Gods in Alabama that just came out that is wonderful. Bob Woodwardís A Secret Man is terrific. Itís the story of Mark Felt, aka, ďDeep ThroatĒ from the Watergate era. But to me, the secret man is really Bob Woodward: the book is really a memoir about Bob Woodward. I think thatís great; I read that the day it came out. Obviously, working at the Post, I followed that a little more closely than others.
AJ: Youíre far more well-read than I am!
LESLIE: I am a voracious reader. When you asked what I like to do, thatís what I really should have said: reading. Iíve even considered learning Braille just in case I go blind! I just canít imagine a world without reading.
AJ: Is there anything else youíd like to say to Wharton alumni or Wharton audience?
LESLIE: Iím so glad that I listened to that part of me that said that I wanted to get an MBA, to be a woman in business, and Iím grateful that I chose Wharton. Wharton does a better job than any other school at teaching you the nuts and bolts of how to run a business. It served me really well at Johnson & Johnson, and later at the Post, in two really different places with really different business models. In writing and promoting the book, I use what Wharton taught me every day.
AJ: Thank you so much.
LESLIE: No, thank you.
A. J. Schuler, Psy. D. is an organizational development consultant and executive coach. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "Revolution: How to Transform Your Company from Within."