The mythos around longtime Vogue editor Anna Wintour is that she is icy and ruthless.
The press has often called her “Nuclear Wintour” (her last name is pronounced “winter”) and her former assistant turned author Lauren Weisberger used her as the basis for the antagonist of “The Devil Wears Prada.”
But regardless of anyone’s perception of her, there is no denying that she is a leader who commands respect and drives results.
After taking over Vogue in 1988, she transformed it into the definitive authority on American women’s fashion. And after helping the magazine rebound from the Great Recession, she became the artistic director for all of Condé Nast’s properties in 2013. Wintour remains a fashion authority who can make or break a new designer or create new interest in an established brand.
For his recent book “Winners,” former British prime minister Tony Blair’s press secretary Alastair Campbell sat down with Wintour to discuss her leadership style. She highlighted the key management principles that guide her.
Be decisive, and trust your instincts.
Campbell wrote that part of the reason Wintour can come across as “stern and snappy” is because she decided long ago to never become like a bad boss she had.
“She was incredibly indecisive; she would take so long to make up her mind, and then days or weeks later she would change it,” Wintour said. “I learned from that that the most important thing is to be decisive and sure and to impart that to people working for you. … Even if you aren’t sure of yourself, pretend that you are, because it makes it clearer for everyone else.”
Delegate responsibilities, and then stay hands-off.
Campbell said that Wintour was reluctant to call herself a great leader, but would admit that she was a “very good delegator” who avoided micromanagement.
“People work better when they have responsibility,” she said. “We talk about what needs to be done, and then I assume it is done. I like to know what’s going on, but I’m not double-checking and triple-checking.”
Do not reveal insecurities to your team.
Campbell told Wintour that when he worked for Tony Blair, Blair would have occasional moments of vulnerability and reveal his anxieties to top members of his team. Campbell asked Wintour if she ever had moments like that. She instantly replied that she never does, because it’s not her executive team’s job to soothe her fears. It’s “my job to figure things out,” she said.
See the departure of top talent as an exciting opportunity.
It is never easy to see a top employee leave Vogue for another job or retire, Wintour said, but she values a mix of veteran and new talent and takes advantage of a departure “to find someone new with something different to offer, someone who might be able to teach me new things, too.”
Never dwell on the past.
Wintour learned a crucial lesson from Bea Miller, the editor she replaced at British Vogue before moving to New York: Never waste too much time analysing in great detail what worked and what didn’t about a particular project.
“She had just closed an issue and I said, ‘How was it?’ and she said, ‘Anna, it is always about the next one,'” Wintour explained. “I have always followed that approach. We never have post-mortems. … I don’t need people to tell me if it was a good issue or a bad issue; we know, so we just move forward.”
Be inspired by failure.
Wintour told Campbell that one of the most important moments in her career came in the mid-’70s when she was fired from Harper’s Bazaar on the accusation that she didn’t understand American fashion. “I think everyone should get sacked at least once,” she said. “It forces you to look at yourself.” She explained that setbacks and criticism that can seem unfair can still be good opportunities to take a performance review of yourself and determine how to emerge stronger.
Speaking of the time she was fired, she said: “It didn’t feel it at the time, but it was definitely a good thing for what it taught me. It is important to have setbacks because that is the reality of life.”