Do it like Oprah

Each week I look at a business leader who has built a successful business to see what we can learn from them in terms of Innovation and Human Resource Management.

This week’s successful business thinker is someone who came from humble backgrounds but is now shaping world politics and is the richest black person in the world – the producer, business woman and TV-hostess Oprah Winfrey.

Born in the rural southern United States in 1954 with a teenage single mother she grew up in poverty and hardship. Being abused by members of her own family she ran away from home at 13 and became pregnant at 14, but the child died short after birth. Throughout the hardships it was clear that she was very bright and when she was sent to live with her father, who believed in education and discipline, her life changed. She became an honor student, talented actress and praised for her skills as an orator. At 17 she won a beauty pageant and ended up visiting a local radio station as a result. What she didn’t know was that this was to be the start of a several decades long career in television.

At the radio station she was offered the job reading the afternoon headlines and at 19 she became the first black female newscaster in Nashville. Her next step was a move to Baltimore to host the news show where she struggled as a journalist, founding it hard to report the news objectively. Then she had, what she thought, a minor setback. She was assigned to co-host a morning talk show instead of being a news anchor. This, however, turned out to be the right element for her and she proved to have a talent for “just talking”. In 1983 she moved to Chicago to host “AM Chicago”, which soon became the most watched talk show in Chicago and renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show”. The rest, as we say, is well known history.

Oprah is today probably one of the most powerful women in the World, a role model for millions of people, and has managed to build up a huge business empire by continuously growing her business in new directions while staying extremely accessible.

To understand her success we can boil it down to five key success factors to learn from:

  1. Be first – In the 80’s when Oprah began her talk show there were almost only male talk show hosts while informality was becoming the new thing in television. In this climate Oprah was the first to dismantle the emotional barriers and was interacting with the audience in a new way.
  2. Yes you can – Have “yes you can”- people in the organization. If you are an entrepreneur, make sure you have someone who believes in you or your idea especially in those moments when your own self-esteem is lacking. Oprah has her lawyer Jeff Jacobs to thank for her share in the Oprah Winfrey show that earned her millions.
  3. Choose the right people – Surround yourself and build your organization with the best people in their field. Everyone who works for Oprah is the top of their game and multitalented.
  4. Build your brand – Oprah has always protected her brand religiously and this has proven to be one of the most significant success factors in building her business. Her ability to be utterly transparent has created a loyalty among her audience.
  5. Think new – Oprah has always had the ability succeed with innovation and think new. Going from a talk show to a business empire requires the ability to find new business models. This includes launching a magazine, starting a book club, charity work, and having her own network.

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