Joanne Gordon – New York Times bestselling author

Joanne Gordon

Childhood Games to Career Success

By Caroline Cox

New York Times bestselling author Joanne Gordon is truly living out her childhood dream: With her love of writing stories as a girl coupled with an innate curiosity about what makes people tick, she feels that her current job – as a ghostwriter – allows her to get a rare peek into others’ minds as she helps them write about their life and work. Essentially, Joanne gets paid, and has permission, to spy on others.

A former Forbes reporter, freelance writer and author for nearly 15 years, she’s interviewed some of the most respected minds in business (along with a few characters) – from Cathie Black and the CEO of Mattel to Donald Trump and the founder of Netflix – telling their stories and learning their success secrets. Most recently, she co-wrote the bestselling book Onward with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, which has been translated into 13 languages and this past spring reached the no. 1 slot on The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller lists.

Here, Gordon talks to PINK about the best business advice she’s received, three things businesswomen may not realize and that time she jumped out of a plane over the Mojave Desert.

PINK: What’s the secret to your success?

Joanne Gordon: After working in marketing and journalism for almost 20 years, I refocused on a niche – collaborative writer, or ghostwriter – that plays on my strengths, indulges my interests and aligns with my values. I’m able to capture other people’s voices on the page, and I have a fascination with what makes leaders succeed or fail. Working with people whose ideas I believe are worth sharing gives my work meaning. When I am challenged and passionate about a project, I am fully engaged and at my best. I also owe my professional achievements to hard work. The people I partner with value professionalism. I do what I say I am going to do, I respect other people’s time, and I communicate frequently and honestly. Never underestimate the power of a quickly returned phone call.

PINK: What do you think are the biggest issues professional women face today?

JG: Unfortunately, two of the biggest issues women face right now are also two of the oldest: prioritizing our personal and professional time, and being paid appropriately for the value of our work. Women need to be more comfortable saying “no” so we can say “yes” to the truly important things – be it at work or at home. We need the conviction to request the money we deserve. Worth should be measured not in how many hours we work, but by the inherent value of what we produce.

PINK: What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

JG: One of my college journalism professors encouraged her students to “embrace their ignorance.” Journalists are paid not to know, but to find out. If I think and act as if I have all the answers, I am not doing my job, as a reporter or a co-writer. It’s not easy (especially for women in the workplace) to admit to others (especially to men) what we do not know. But I’ve grown comfortable telling CEOs, experts and editors that I do not understand a particular concept. Today, I try to own my ignorance, and I like to think I become a little wiser every day.

Joanne Gordon

PINK: What did you learn about business leadership from Howard Schultz that surprised you the most?

JG: In Howard’s book, he says that when it comes to leading others, he pushes people further than they think they can go, but not further than they are capable of going. I think Howard often sees potential in others before they see it in themselves. His belief in their abilities, coupled with his own high expectations, propels those who work with him to reach inside themselves and achieve high goals, often exceeding their own expectations. The lesson for women is that we are usually capable of more than we give ourselves credit for. Trust your skills, call upon your experiences, question, listen and believe in yourself.

PINK: After interviewing business leaders for the past decade, what are the three things that most women may not realize?

JG: Almost every leader is scared of failure; failure is part of every leader’s history. The really great leaders learn from failure and refuse to let it define them.

PINK: How do you balance Life/Work?

JG: For me, writing can be an all-encompassing activity – consuming my time and dominating my thoughts. Because my work as a co-writer also requires that I live someone else’s life, my challenge is maintaining my own life, especially as a parent. I designate specific hours where my attention can be focused on my [six-year-old] son, and I pick activities that engage us both, like board games and reading or building with LEGOs, so I can be truly present.

PINK: What is it about your background that has resulted in your success today?

JG: The games we play as children reveal a great deal about the work that will happily engage us as adults. As my friend and author Kevin Carroll asks, “What did you do when no one was looking?” As a young girl, two of my hobbies were writing stories on a little blue typewriter, and spying with friends on other kids, our parents, even neighbors. Today, being a ghostwriter and reporter indulges my innate love of writing as well as my curiosity about others’ lives. Essentially, I get paid to spy, and then write about what I see.

PINK: What do you do to relax and rejuvenate yourself?

JG: Interviewing and active listening require a great deal of social energy, and mine is easily sapped. So I need time alone to let my thoughts wander. Walking, yoga, reading or creating something artistic rejuvenates my social battery. Laughing and even crying are also escapes, so over the years I often collapse on my couch after a long day and lose myself in my favorite TV shows with compelling characters and great writing. These days, I love Mad Men, Friday Night Lights, 30 Rock and Jon Stewart. I was also a huge fan of HBO series The Wire, The Sopranos and, when I lived in New York, early episodes of Sex and the City.

PINK: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?

JG: I jumped out of a plane over the Mojave Desert, and it was one of the most exhilarating yet selfish things I’ve ever done. Would I do it again? No. Parachuting once is gutsy. Twice is stupid. That said, every new writing project is like taking a leap, but unlike skydiving, I have a lot more control over whether the parachute opens.

Joanne Gordon
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PINK: What is one personal goal you haven’t yet achieved?

JG: First, let me say that I will never run a marathon. I am confident enough in myself and familiar enough with my running abilities not to pretend a marathon is even a remote possibility. That said, I would like to learn how to play a decent game of tennis. I started lessons again this summer.

PINK: Do you have a favorite quote?

JG: “The inevitable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

PINK: How do you define success?

JG: I feel successful when my writing affects positive change in the lives of the people I write with, the people I write about, as well as the people I write for. If I can go to sleep at night believing that I have achieved these ends, I feel pretty damn good.

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