For years, I’ve spent Sunday mornings with a latte and the latest issue of Donna Hay’s self-titled glossy in my lap. Flipping through the gorgeous photos of simple, elegant food, it’s impressive to remember that running a successful magazine is only one part of what Donna has on her plate. In the fifteen years since her magazine launched, her career has grown to include hosting a highly rated television show, penning countless best-selling cookbooks, creating weekly columns in major newspapers, and developing a chic range of branded products. Donna’s smart, easy recipes are beloved around the world, while the phrase “I’m doing a Donna” has become a regular part of the Australian lexicon, frequently uttered along with dinner invitations. Read on to find out what Editor-extraordinaire Donna Hay has learned over the course of her iconic career.
Gina: You started your career quite young as a food stylist and writer. By 25, you were Food Editor of Marie Claire. Not long after that, you started “Donna Hay Magazine.” How did it happen that you began your own namesake publication so early in your career?
Donna: Well I was looking for a career change, to be honest with you. As a freelancer, I was just so disappointed by what was happening to my work. I’d just done one of those jobs where you put your heart and soul into it, and you’re absolutely exhausted by the end, but the shoot that you have is just gobsmackingly beautiful. When I saw it laid out in the magazine I was so devastated that I actually pulled up a few contracts and stopped working.
So in my studio, I just started being quite an arrogant, naïve 30-year-old and designing a magazine on the wall. As it happened, word got around that I was designing my own magazine. I was only doing it for fun—but as they say, be careful what you wish for. News Corp heard that I wanted to do a magazine. After a couple of meetings, they said, “Well, if you create a column every Sunday for our newspaper, then you can have your magazine.”
Gina: Wow, meant to be. At the time, did you ever imagine it would become the iconic publication that it is today?
Donna: No —at the age of 31, I really didn’t know what I was in for. I knew I wanted it to be as beautiful and inspiring as I could make it, with the most easy to follow recipes that you could find. I created a lot of brand guidelines, and I followed them as best as I could. But all the other things I just had to learn along the way, from circulation and advertising to marketing and even managing staff.
I’d always been a freelancer, so I had never even managed a big team before—not that I started with a big team. I made a ton of mistakes, and I learned a lot along the way. I always just had my eyes and ears open, and I tried to absorb as much as I could.
Gina: Now managing so many projects, I can imagine your team is much much bigger. Can you point to anything specific that’s changed in the way you relate with people you work with?
Donna: I think when I was really young, I was embarrassed to ask for help or to tell somebody that I didn’t exactly understand what they were talking about. But now, I just say to them, “I’m sorry, I can’t make a decision now. I’ll need some more data around that,” or, “I’ll need some more time to think about that,” or, “What on earth are you talking about, because I don’t understand you.”
That has just come with age and wisdom and being more comfortable in my own skin. I also used to feel the pressure to stay long hours at the office, which was difficult with my two young boys. But now I never apologize when I need to leave the office to be somewhere for the boys—it’s just part of who I am.
I wish that somebody would have pulled me aside and told me that quite sternly in the beginning that you should never apologize for who you are and what makes up your world and and your life. You should always ask for help when you need it. It’s not a sign of your weaknesses or your downfalls—it’s just that we all need help, and you’re actually a stronger person from the help that you receive.
Gina: I completely agree. I’m sitting here in my office right now as I’m putting together the next issue of my magazine, and the walls are covered. I find it funny because the other day, my mother was reflecting on a family trip that we took to the Grand Canyon when I was a young teenager. She couldn’t believe that I just wouldn’t look at the Grand Canyon, because I was just obsessed with magazines and scrapbooks. Now past the age of 40, it seems I’m still obsessed!
Donna: See, that’s what happens to people like us.
Gina: So what advice would you have for a new magazine founder such as myself?
Donna: My goodness—that’s a really difficult question. I think it’s a really tough industry to be in. You need a lot of really supportive people around you that remind you to stick to your vision and believe in yourself. I believe that I need to create a really stable, but creative work environment for my entire team so they can be as creative as they can be. It’s tough. It’s deadlines. It’s relentless. It’s one after the other. So I don’t think it’s for everyone, but you sound like you’re perfect for the job, because people like you and me, they might have missed the Grand Canyon the first time, but we go back and we do a beautiful story on it next time, when we’re good and ready.
Gina: Exactly. Everywhere I’m traveling now, I’m always thinking about what the shoot will look like. I think a challenge for entrepreneurs of any kind—when you have a strong vision and the project or business has your name on it—is to give up some control. At some point the business becomes so big that you can’t be involved in every decision. How have you navigated that line between taking responsibility for your vision and trusting other people with it?
Donna: There’s a time and a place for shaking things up when it has your name on it, and there’s a time for letting it run. I think you just have to kind of feel out that situation. There’s nothing worse than destroying someone’s creativity, so I always feel like I need to manage around that and kind of gently bring that in. I think it’s pretty clear in my office that I want people to embellish my original idea for the better. I want them to have their own input into the story and draw upon their own creativity—as long it’s within the brand lines.
But my team has been with me for a long time, so we get along quite well together. My Food Director is coming up on 11 years with me. He totally understands what I want, but we catch up all the time just so I know that he’s moving in the same direction that I would be moving in.
Gina: Beautiful. It’s not always easy to build a team with such longevity. What do you look for in people?
Donna: I think when you interview people, you see something in them—a little quirky spark in their eye or a tweak in their personality. The people that work in my office are quite unusual, but in a good way. They’re total high achievers, all around the office. I think it’s tough to join our team. I’m always looking for that difference in a person.
Gina: I want to talk more about fostering creativity on the team. As you mentioned, it’s difficult to have to make a decision against what someone wants — to destroy someone’s creativity. It’s such a fine line for me to be firm in my decision without sounding stern or harsh.
Donna: Yes. You know what I do? If I have to deliver something a little stern, I always try and deliver the why with it. I’m really open and transparent. I want my team to know I’m not doing it to make anyone’s day miserable, but that I really have to do it, and this is why.
I always say to them—when you go off into the big wide world and go and work for someone else, then you’re going to be their star performer as well, not just mine. My Managing Editor just started at Rodale a few weeks ago, after seven years. It’s a big transition for me but it’s great to see her have the opportunity to go to New York and continue doing what she loves. How exciting is that?
Gina: It is exciting! So finally, does anyone ever invite you over for dinner?
Donna: My good friends do. I’m getting more and more invitations. But for a long, long time, no. But still, my house is very much an entertaining house, so I have a lot of people over every weekend, that’s for sure. I did go to someone’s house on Sunday night for steak and cake. It’s a new thing.
Gina: Did you get to enjoy it and just relax? What was it like for you?
Donna: Yes, I did. Actually, I sharpened their knives for them at the end of the night, because they asked me to. But other than that, I did nothing.
Gina: Well, thank you so much for taking this time, Donna. Like I said, it’s just a real treat and joy. I’ve bought your products and your magazines for well over a decade now. My husband—he’s the CEO of my company—looked in at my calendar today, and he’s like, “DONNA HAY is in your calendar?” After so many Sundays, Thanksgivings and Christmases of seeing your magazines everywhere in the kitchen, he knows how exciting this is for me. So it’s very, very special to have this time with you. Thank you so much.
Donna: Oh, you’re welcome. That’s so lovely. I wish you all the best with your new venture!