On growing up:
I grew up in Salford, near Manchester and although I loved reading magazines like Just 17, a career in journalism was never on my radar. When you have an Asian father, the options are doctor, engineer or lawyer. The fourth option is failure. The emphasis is on traditional well-paid jobs with security and intellectual status.
It was my older sister who got me into publishing. She started out as a lawyer but she hated it. After winning a competition on More magazine, which involved a date with two models and two weeks’ work experience, she quit her well-paid job to become a junior writer on the mag – and she was made editor 18 months later. She proved to my dad that journalism was a legitimate career and she carved the path for me.
I studied French and English at King’s College London, and spent a lot of my time doing work experience for the big glossy magazines which were based just down the road. Sadly, you still have to do unpaid internships for long amounts of time to get your foot in the door – and that means only certain people in the class system get into journalism. My biggest frustration is that it’s not always a meritocracy.
On moving up:
Keep applying for new jobs. Even if there’s no chance you’ll get it or the job is three steps ahead where you think you should be, go for it anyway. It might get you 15 minutes in front of someone senior. In my early career, I switched to a new role every 18 months. It’s not success that I strive for – that’s just a tiny moment at the top; it’s the grind of getting there that I enjoy.
I was always desperate to work on Cosmo but they rejected me two or three times. After editing Women’s Health and building it into the best-selling health and lifestyle publication in the UK, I was going to turn my back on publishing and open a fitness studio – but then Cosmo finally came knocking.
My task: to reinvent the ailing brand for a new generation and get it back to its number one spot. It wasn’t an easy gig. I inherited a massive team, a massive heritage and a title that still relied on naked centrefolds, sex tips and agony aunts from the early 90s. The former editor was beloved by the team – and I was shunned. Almost 80% of the team resigned within three months. It was a tough and demoralising time. I couldn't just slot in: I had to work hard to earn respect from new colleagues. In fact, as a boss, you have to work twice as hard as the hardest working person in your team, face all the tough stuff, often on behalf of your team and hopefully still have a smile for everyone at the end of the day. That’s a big part of being in charge – and that’s not for everyone. I think we need to be more transparent to everyone about what being at the top really looks like.
Want to hear from more women at the top? Come to Management Today's Inspiring Women in Business conference on 1st November with speakers including BBC presenter Fi Glover; deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson MP; opera impresario Wasfi Kani OBE; and CEO of Commercial and Private Banking for NatWest Alison Rose. Book your tickets here.
What I learned about being a boss:
Another male journalist told me: "You can’t be friends with your colleagues once you become their boss. They don’t want to see you drunk. The thing that unites them is talking about you." That was hard to stomach. Being the boss can be very lonely. I enjoy pushing people but at what point does it become too much? Not everyone has the same drive, the same ambition. I’ve had to learn to adjust my management style to suit the person who is standing in front of me.
On making sacrifices:
Cosmo came up with the "you can have it all" mantra. I think it’s very dangerous. You can’t do it all properly, all at the same time. I decided not to have children – I just didn’t think I could do my job with kids in tow – and that’s been a huge personal sacrifice. I’d go to dinner parties and immediately start defending and justifying our decision but I’m at peace with it now. Bringing up kids is a tough job and you have to really want to do it.
On her discomfort zone:
I’m naturally very introverted. Public speaking used to be my idea of hell. I’d turn up to work events by myself and my natural instinct was to hide in the toilets. The only way to get past that is to practise enough times and say "yes" to everything. I agreed to interview the founder of Tinder in Portugal’s biggest arena; there were 20,000 people in the crowd. What once would have turned me into a quivering wreck ended up being one of the high points of my career.
On staying sane:
I love writing and I still edit every single bit of copy for the mag. My husband [author and journalist Will Storr] is a writer too so most of our conversations at home revolve around that. Since moving to a remote nook of the country, I’m also massively into gardening. It’s a constant struggle and grind – you see something blossom and then you move on to the next thing. The garden is never complete, there’s always something to aim for. I’ve found a hobby that tunes into who I am.
On her advice to younger self:
Nobody at the top knows what they’re doing, they’re just making it up as they go along. The best thing you can say to your boss is, "I’ll take care of that for you".
Farrah's new book The Discomfort Zone is available in trade paperback (Piatkus, £13.99).