When “what do you do?” is a ubiquitous ice-breaker, one can’t help but get attached to their specific job title or industry. But Joanna Coles is someone who’ll never be defined by a singular accomplishment (even if you could pick one). For 12 years, Coles was at the top of the masthead of some of the most iconic magazines—Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire, specifically—but since leaving Hearst as Global Chief Content Officer in 2018, she’s embarked on, arguably, her most exciting career chapter yet. In addition to shifting her role from editor to executive producer of Freeform’s now-wrapped The Bold Type and a soon-to-be-seen project with John Legend’s Get Lifted, the UK-born New Yorker was also named CEO of Northern Star Acquisition Company, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), last year. “I have what’s known as a portfolio lifestyle,” she tells us, sharing her excitement to sit on the board of Bark, Snap, and Sonos. What’s next? Limitless possibilities.
ON STARTING NEW CAREER CHAPTERS
My guiding star is curiosity and learning something new. I’ve loved figuring out how to make good television. I’m really excited to learn much more about finance, which I’ve been doing through SPACs, and I love being on boards because you get to see inside a company and figure out how all sorts of different companies work.
ON REMAINING OPEN
Opportunities don’t always come wrapped up in a bow saying “I am an opportunity.” They often come as an email or a call or an apparently random introduction with someone you never heard of. And you may have no intention of ever talking to this person and then you do and it can lead to something you never expected. It’s very important to be open to new opportunities and to be open to working with people you might think you have nothing in common with because that’s how you learn.
“It’s very important to be open to new opportunities and to be open to working with people you might think you have nothing in common with because that’s how you learn.”
ON VALUABLE ADVICE
One piece of advice that was given to me was by Geordie Greig, the editor of The Daily Mail, when I started editing at Marie Claire, which was the first magazine where I was Editor-in-Chief. He said to me, “You’re going to get fired eventually so always make the magazine that you want to make. Don’t make it for other people.” And that was a very good piece of advice.
ON PEER RECOGNITION
Your most important mentors are your peers because they see when you fuck up and how you handle it, they see when you support other people, they see when you throw other people under the bus, and you see that with them, too. Being a good colleague is the best way of mentoring both yourself and mentoring other people because you’re learning at the same time and you rise at the same time and then suddenly you’re in a position to all help each other.
ON HER DAILY UNIFORM
What I really like is wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and a fabulous blazer or a fabulous coat. I also wear vests all the time. I love the clean line of a vest and the freedom of my arms—I’m an expressive person with my hands and my arms so I don’t like being trapped.
ON NOT-SO OVERNIGHT SUCCESSES
The show we’re making now for ABC with John Legend’s company, Get Lifted, is around music and healing and I sold it before Covid. It has a lot of singing involved and it became clear that singing was a superspreader event so we were not able to make the show during Covid. We didn’t know how long we would be sitting on the sidelines. In fact, we ended up having to re-pitch the show two and a half years after we first sold it. I’m so glad we did because it made the show much better and even more relevant now. So, sometimes things that look like an overnight success have taken years in the making.
“I never intentionally want to break the mold, I just end up evolving whatever I’m working on. And then people call you a mold-breaker.”
ON GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN
I never intentionally want to break the mold, I just end up evolving whatever I’m working on. And then people call you a mold-breaker. But it never starts that way. It just starts with trying to develop and progress something and sometimes you end up taking it in directions that feel disruptive.
ON EXCITING WORK AHEAD
I like working with people who can imagine radical changes in our behavior. I find that really invigorating. If you think about businesses like Airbnb or Snapchat, they changed the way we think about travel or the way we communicate with our friends using a camera. I just agreed to chair a German tech company called Grover which allows you to rent tech not have to buy or finance it. Good tech is such a need now, you can’t survive without a fast laptop, and having the latest phone does make a real difference, but they get updated so often you’re much better renting them than buying. We have been programmed to own but why not be a proud renter? What a nightmare to finance a laptop and a year later is almost obsolete because a much better one has come out. It’s happened to all of us. Renting gives you access but doesn’t leave you broke. The goal is also to close the tech divide between those who have access and those who don’t. It's growing insanely fast.