Maria Rodale | Crain's Pittsburgh

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Maria Rodale


Based in Emmaus, Pa., and New York, N.Y., Rodale Inc. publishes several magazines, including Men's Health, Prevention, Women's Health, Runner's World and Rodale’s Organic Life. The company also produces branded events, runs multiple healthy living websites and operates Rodale Books.

Maria Rodale got her start in the family business at age 13, driving a tractor on the farm during the summer and working in the mailroom during the winter. After a stint in progressive political public relations in Washington, D.C., she returned to work for Rodale in 1987, working her way up to become CEO in 2009. Rodale recently published her first cookbook, called Scratch. "I want people to just have fun and enjoy what they like to make," she says. "If you screw up, just laugh. We all make mistakes."

The Mistake:

I didn't trust myself.

I launched a magazine in the early 2000s called Organic Style, and it was based in Pennsylvania. We had a business plan that was very conservative that showed modest growth but profitability after five years, which is typical for a magazine. I had attracted real, world-class talent there to do it. We were not only on plan, but ahead of plan.

At that point, a new president came in who had been more New York-based. ... He said, "This magazine is great. We should grow the circulation super fast, make it really big, and bring the edit to New York."

My background was in circulation; I had grown up in the magazine circulation world. Everything in my gut said, "That goes against everything I've ever learned." But I had literally had senior male executives say things to me like, "Well, what do you know?" So I was questioning myself, even though my own experience and gut said, "Don't do it, don't do it. We're on plan, we should just keep going and be happy with modest growth rather than shoot for the moon with massive but high-risk growth."

When you grow a magazine fast, it's really about getting circulation from an affordable, sustainable level to one that's more on the radar of advertisers, more like a million-plus. Ironically, we were the first magazine at Rodale to have Apple advertise with us, because they liked what we were doing. We actually weren't having problems with advertisers. But the mentality at the time was, if you're not a big magazine, you won't succeed. 

I gave in to all those changes even though I could have disagreed with them; I had enough power within the company to disagree. But I didn't, and it proceeded to kill the magazine. It just destroyed it. It made it so financially unviable that I made the decision to shut it down. 

The mentality at the time was, if you're not a big magazine, you won't succeed.

The Lesson:

Always trust your gut. Trust your own intelligence; don't believe other people just because they're other people. It's always important to get other perspectives and other opinions. But at the end of the day, especially as a leader, you have to be authentic and true to what you believe inside of yourself—and people will actually be happy and relieved when you make a decision based on that. 

Photo courtesy of Rodale Books.

Follow Maria Rodale on Twitter at @mariarodale.