In the last season of Oprah Winfrey’s 25-year-long television program, The Oprah Winfrey Show, the queen of media has been looking back with nostalgia on what she’s built—a global audience and a $2.7 billion net worth—and forward with excitement to what lays ahead. She transitions from network TV to cable in January to cut the ribbon on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which is arguably the pinnacle of her career. She didn’t get here by chance, of course. She led the way.
“She’s the ultimate self-made business leader,” says Scott Testa, a professor of business administration at Cabrini College in Philadelphia, Penn. “Her basic leadership style is unparalleled and incredibly effective.”
Experts agree that Oprah is a leader to emulate. She is uniquely able to inspire her team and execute her vision while maintaining the mass appeal. “She is a remarkable businesswoman,” says Srini Pillay, CEO of executive coaching company NeuroBusiness Group and professor of psychiatry at Harvard University.
But how does she do it? “When deconstructed, Oprah’s success is built on a platform of many factors that came together to form the person she is,” Pillay says. Her basic philosophy extends to three branches of leadership: Her team, vision, and values. Over thirty years she rose from nothing to a media tycoon. ForbesWoman breaks down how she did it.
Oprah Winfrey People
“You can’t build a business by yourself,” says Testa. “She really knows how to motivate people.” Oprah’s people strategy is simple. She invests in top talent, seeks out smart mentors, values her customer and consistently nourishes each relationship.
Like every great leader, Oprah has become the best by surrounding herself with the best. She carefully selects her top team to assure competence and compatible, and then stands by them. Success stories like Rachael Ray and Dr. Phil remain under her management. She also seeks out mentors that she admires who will offer her guidance. Early in her career, attorney Jeff Jacobs advised crucial contract deals and helped her launch her company, Harpo, which has been the key to her wealth. Moreover, Oprah allies herself with other power players, from celebrities like Julia Roberts to politicians like the Obamas.
Oprah is similarly smart not to take her audience for granted. This is her consumer, and without them, success is impossible. She often incorporates the audience into her content, signaling to them that she is listening. She notoriously shows her appreciation with gifts. “Oprah’s Big Give” is a dedicated show in which she gives her favorite things to the entire studio audience. Very recently, she offered everyone a paid trip to Australia. Most importantly, she speaks to them as equals who she cares about greatly. When she announced she’d be moving to the new network, she said: “I want you all to know that my relationship with you is one that I hold very dear. Your trust in me, the sharing of your precious time every day with me has brought me the greatest joy I have ever known.”
Not only does the nurturing of each of these relationships inform her success in the present, it sets up her future success. Investing in loyal mentors, peers, employees, and consumers mean she has a massive team that will follow her anywhere.
Oprah Winfrey Vision
“What are the chances that a poor girl from rural Mississippi can become the richest African-American of the 20th century?” asks Pillay. “If she had believed in what was she would never have known what could be.”
One of Oprah’s principal strengths as a leader has been creating a vision of her success, communicating that vision to those around her and being resolute in its execution. She’s been brave enough to dream big and smart enough to climb step by step. Oprah crafted a focused brand and then slowly built it out by diversifying its distribution. Her underpinning was the television show. Next came her company, the production of movies and subsidiary TV shows, multiple charitable foundations, a magazine, a radio channel and a website. The top tier builds on everything she’s accomplished and requires another epic vision: OWN will fill 24 hours a day with programming inspired and approved by Oprah.
Pillay believes her clearly defined vision and her ability to inspire it in her people enabled “the continuous creation of new growth platforms upon which to build families of businesses.”
To accomplish what Oprah has takes “insatiable ambition, drive, and focus. It takes an iron stomach stamina,” says biographer Kitty Kelley. Oprah’s personal values and those that she’s injected into each arm of her business represent the foundation of her success.
Her message and example of positivity—to “live your best life”—endears her to everyone around her. Leaders who are viewed as selfish or unethical are quickly dethroned. Oprah continuously is held in the highest esteem because her humor, relatability, optimism, and generosity associate her with a greater good.
“She became a billionaire by spreading the wealth,” says Testa. Not only did she often spontaneously give to people in need who came on her show, she established several philanthropic efforts that bettered the world. Her motivations were at times questioned by the press, but giving back allowed her the credibility to continue growing her wealth. She launched the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, a school in South Africa and an audience-mobilizing effort, Oprah’s Angel Network.
Finally, a personal dedication to continued reinvention and resilience has kept her brand strong over the decades. “Oprah learns from her mistakes, forgives herself and moves on,” says Warren Cassell, author of O’Habits: 40 Success Habits of Oprah Winfrey. A great leader cannot hope to achieve perfection. Like Oprah, a great leader hopes to be the one left standing.
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