Oprah Gail Winfrey was born on November 29, 1954 in Kosciusko, Mississippi. After a turbulent childhood with her single mother, Winfrey went to live with her father in Tennessee at the age of 14. Winfrey’s father was a strict disciplinarian and he offered his daughter a stable life rooted in religion, family, education, and hard work. The move to Tennessee proved to be a turning point in the entrepreneur’s life (Koehn & Helms, 2005, p. 3).
Winfrey attended Tennessee State University in Nashville majoring in speech and drama. During her sophomore year, she landed a job at the CBS affiliate in Nashville becoming the city’s youngest television reporter as well as its first black female correspondent. Winfrey quickly progressed to a position as co-anchor. Winfrey did not care for the news reporting and would often deviate from journalistic standards when reporting disturbing stories by showing too much emotion according to her producers (Koehn & Helms, 2005, p.3).
Winfrey moved to Baltimore Maryland in 1976 to co-anchor the evening news. Two years later the station executives decided to remove Winfrey from the newscast. Being under contract, Winfrey was appointed the new co-anchor of the morning show “People Are Talking”. After the first taping, Winfrey knew she had found the work she loved (Koehn & Helms, 2005, p. 3).
In 1984, Winfrey was hired to host A.M. Chicago which was faltering against the stronger Donahue show. The station executives had expectations of just improving the shows numbers with no expectations of beating Donahue. After the first month A.M. Chicago surpassed Donahue to become the city’s top rated talk program (Koehn & Helms, 2005, p. 4).
Winfrey and her lawyer Jeffrey Jacobs formed Harpo, Inc in 1986. Today, Winfrey is an owner and the Chairman of Harpo, Inc.; Harpo Productions; Harpo Studios, Inc.; Harpo Films, Inc.; Harpo Print, LLC; and Harpo Video, Inc., with a total net worth of over $1 billion. Jeff Jacobs, the president of Harpo, Inc., has a 10 percent of the ownership of that company with Winfrey still holding 90 percent. At this time, Winfrey is not willing to go public with any of her ventures (http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/dl/free/0072873744/120285/his73744_ch01pms.pdf).
A participative leader is one who shares decision making with group members. Most organizations prefer this style of leadership since the leader does not always have all of the answers. Oprah Winfrey utilizes a participative leadership style; “It’s all about attracting good people. I’ve always tried to surround myself not only with people who are smart but with people who are smarter in ways I am not.” (Koehn 2005). Consensus leaders encourage group discussion about an issue and make a decision based on the consensus or general opinion of the group. Winfrey encourages input from her colleagues and staff. When Oprah’s Book Club was launched in September 1996, she relied on the opinions of others to aid in the selection of the featured novel. Producers and other staff members are key elements in presenting and choosing new show topics as well as magazine content. Each idea must have intention behind it, and the intention must be in line with Harpo’s mission, to transform the way people see themselves, to uplift, to enlighten, to encourage, to entertain. (Koehn & Helms 2005)
Charisma is the ability to lead or influence others based on personal charm, magnetism, inspiration, and emotion. Winfrey is able to inspire her staff, colleagues and audience through her large scale of humanitarian work. Oprah’s Angel Network was created in 1997 to pool and donate money to a wide range of charities. “In it’s first seven years, the show’s audience, along with celebrities and corporate sponsors, contributed nearly $30 million. The donations were used to fund Habitat for Humanity homes, college scholarships, women’s shelters, youth centers, and rural school construction.” (Koehn & Helms 2005) In 2000 the “Use Your Life Award” was established to recognize the efforts of volunteers. In 2004 she contributed $50 million to The Oprah Winfrey Foundation, an amount that placed her on The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of America’s top donors for the year. (Koehn & Helms 2005) In 2002, Nelson Mandela and officials from South Africa’s Ministry of Education joined Winfrey as she broke ground on the future site of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. “The school will teach girls to be the best human beings they can ever be; it will train them to become decision-makers and leaders.” (Oprah.com 2002)
Oprah Winfrey has the ability to inspire trust within her organization and among her audience. Each November Winfrey airs a show titled “My Favorite Things”. During these shows Winfrey presents a list of products and services that she is fond of. The companies whose products that appear on the show are prohibited from advertising the product with reference to the show. Trust is cited as being the reason for avoiding any appearance of paid endorsement. “First and foremost she has credibility. (Viewers) know she’s not recommending a product on any quid pro quo. It’s because she likes it. Her judgment, her advice – they know she can’t be bought.” (Koehn & Helms 2005).
She inspires leadership within others. All of her humanitarian efforts encourage others to achieve more in all aspects of their lives. Harpo’s official mission statement is “to be a catalyst for transformation in people’s lives, to help them see themselves more clearly and to make the best choices they can using stories, real people’s experiences, information and ideas. Our intention is to create moments in which people can connect to the truest sense of themselves and build from there.” (Koehn & Helms 2005).
Part of Winfrey’s success can be related to her communication style. It is Winfrey’s belief that through the organization’s expertise in communications, the organization can perform a valuable service around the globe. Winfrey has become an expert in communicating to her audience. The audience can relate to Winfrey and the show’s topics. Winfrey can relate to the show’s topics equally as well as her audience members can. She struggled in life with abuse, weight, race and a broken home just like so many others have.
Winfrey is an entrepreneur within the media industry. In addition to the Oprah Winfrey Show, she has been able to purchase rights to films, produce another successful talk show, start a magazine that is in line with Harpo’s mission. Winfrey exudes a high level of enthusiasm as well as passion for her business and the purpose of her business.
Throughout the years, Winfrey has inspired her employees and even rival talk show hosts with her distinct approach. She is usually the first to show up to work and often last to leave. By the 90’s, Winfrey and Jacobs decided they needed more people to help run Harpo, Inc., and hired Tim Bennett to establish a clear business process and develop the organizational charge. This choice was a defining moment in the development of Winfrey, and Harpo, Inc…
Oprah Winfrey has not always been a talk show icon. She has also starred in several television shows and movies. One of the first films for Winfrey to be involved with was “The Color Purple” a movie about a young, poor woman abused at an early age. Her portrayal won her nominations for Academy and Golden Globe awards for her role of Sofia. Winfrey has taken her celebrity status and used it as a platform to become a role model for women in every walk of life. She often connects her talk show guests with assistance for those in crisis, she rewards people who have shown unselfish behavior and she touches on issues that even she has experienced. She speaks of her cocaine use in her 20’s, and of her own abuse as a child. She uses these opportunities to lead by example, to show that regardless of your circumstance, perseverance and effort can overcome the obstacles often viewed as insurmountable.
Two quotes attributed to Winfrey says “My philosophy is that not only are you responsible for your life, but doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.” (www.achievement.org). The second quote is “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.” (www.achievement.org). These quotes, taken separately, can have a wide variety of interpretations on Winfrey’s management style. But looked at together, it shows that she has built a strong foundation on being accountable for your actions, having a sense of pride in your effort and doing the right thing, even if you’re the only one to know you did it.
Motivating employees can be difficult if not burdensome at times, but when you are Oprah Winfrey is comes easy!
Winfrey’s company started with eight employees, and she learned early on she didn’t know anything about operations and didn’t care for the business aspect of being Oprah. She hired her then contract lawyer, Jeffrey Jacobs to be her Chief Operating Officer.
Motivation is the effort expended to accomplish results, from a force within the person (DuBrin, 2006). However, the leader and/or manager is the one to ignite that force. Winfrey learned that the hard way in the beginning. Winfrey will tell you that in her early years she ran her employees into the ground, often expecting them to work sixteen to seventeen hour days. If they didn’t have her stamina, she said good-bye to them. She had a rude wake up call however, when one of her employees after a grueling 18-hour day pulled her car into the garage and fell asleep with it running. Fortunately, she was ok, but it changed the way Winfrey treated her employees.
Since that time, Winfrey’s company has maintained a 10-15% turnover rate, while her top executive team has an average tenure of eleven years. Currently her company employees over 220 employees, with 68% of them being female (Helms & Koehn,2005). With the level of turnover at her company, you can expect that she is meeting the needs of her employees, like recognition, and being valued for their efforts. Winfrey leads by example and her employees understand her vision and mission in life and make it theirs. Everything she does she has an intention about it, so must her employees when they present ideas to her. What good will be done if we do this, is the question she challenges them to ask themselves, whether you’re the receptionist or part of the team creating idea’s for her shows. Winfrey’s employees report that Winfrey’s enthusiasm is rampant among the office and her charisma contagious. The employees share her same passion and they are an extremely committed team. People want to work for her. She pushes them just enough to grow as individuals and professionals, and supports their many personal commitments to charity and mission work as well.
The company isn’t top down managed; she allows the individual departments to run autonomously to meet their goals. She expects everyone to use his or her minds and hearts on the job.
Interestingly, Winfrey requires employees to sign a confidentiality agreement, which prohibits them from speaking publicly or privately about Winfrey while they are employed or after they leave. This agreement also covers any photos in their possession as well. Upon leaving the company, you must return any photos not given to you as a gift while employed, should they show up somewhere, legal action would be taken. Obviously with the company’s low turnover most employees are comfortable with this and sign willingly, understanding the importance of managing publicity to protect and retain image. After all, if Winfrey’s reputation is tarnished, the company loses as well. Her employees are proud of her and take her request for privacy very seriously; pride is often one of the psychological needs for motivation. One former employee did challenge Winfrey on the agreement, stating it was a violation of the First Amendment rights, and free speech. This was the same legal defensive Winfrey used when taken to court by the Texas cattle ranchers. The cattle ranchers sued Winfrey because the defamatory remarks she made about beef made on her show, which in turn caused the beef industry to lose billions of dollars.
The former employee didn’t win the fight, but was glad she tried. She said working for Winfrey was tough, and could get very caddy at times, but there was no doubt Winfrey had talent and integrity, but was much too controlling (http://www.foxchicago.com/_ezpost/data/36602.shtm). In spite of that small bit of press, there is nothing on the internet or in the bookstores as to what type of boss Winfrey really is. Based on the tenure of her top executives and the low turnover rate one can only assume it must be a great place to work.
For their efforts, employees start their first year with six full weeks of vacation time, and fully funded health insurance. At their office, which is an old ice hockey rink, she provides an in house gym and spa for employees to use. Through the offering of these benefits, plus a pleasant work environment, and a company culture that rewards employees for being creative, and an opportunity to work as part of a team, Winfrey meets the needs for employee motivation according the Maslow’s Need Hierarchy pyramid (DuBrin, 2006).
At the companies five-year anniversary she gave every employee a gift of $5,000.00 to acknowledge his or her achievements within the company. Giving it as a gift meant they got the extra bonus of not having to pay taxes on the money either.
Her most recent gift to employees was an all expenses paid vacation to Hawaii for them and their families to celebrate her 20th year anniversary. Both of these are obvious financial incentives for motivation, a common incentive used by managers.
Though Winfrey communicates with the world through so many venues, the communication style when it comes to business operations is kept secret. Employees are required to sign the Harpo Employee Manual and are expected to abide by it. In this manual, it clearly states that during and after employment, the individual is obligated to keep anything dealing with Harpo, Inc. confidential and may not disclose anything. This includes all business activities, dealings or interests of the company.
Therefore one can only assume that her management style within her empire operates through informal communication channels. Winfrey delegated certain individuals to leadership and management roles throughout the different departments within the companies, based on their expertise in a specialized area, or how trustworthy and close they were to her.
The “communication blackout” contract is also a way Winfrey can control negative organizational politics in her business. Preventing employees from saying anything regarding the business outside the office may also limit negative “gossip” and communication internally, in turn preventing negative politics within the business. More time can be spent on operations and job efficiency rather than handling the political games between workers.
Oprah Winfrey is an effective communicator. She understands her employees and her employees understand her and the level of management. Another reason why she communicates so well is that she sees people as she sees herself. Sometimes employees may be overloaded with information on the job and she understands that. She has a way of positive motivation through communication.
Oprah Winfrey started Harpo, Inc. in 1986. In the beginning, Winfrey and her lawyer Jeffrey Jacobs ran the business with minimal staff and little formal structure (Sellers, 2002). At first Winfrey would be one of the first to arrive each day. She personally reviewed the scripts, taped two shows, talked with the audience members, personally signed every key corporate check and edited content for her publishing venture, “O, The Oprah Magazine”. She was fully engaged in every aspect of the creative process (Sellers, 2002). Gradually, however, it became clear that more people were needed to run the growing organization (Koehn & Helms, 2005, p. 9). Winfrey built a team to run her company and gave each division a great deal of autonomy. Winfred is providing the feeling of empowerment which allows the team to have the four experiences of empowerment: potency, meaningfulness, autonomy and impact (DuBrin, 2006). This all leads to a successful team experience. Doug Pattison, Chief Financial Officer, commented “‘The company is not managed from the top down. Each department head has a considerable amount of autonomy to execute it goals. And there is not a lot of micromanaging in these areas. What does get conveyed from the top is leadership.'”(Koehn & Helms, 2005, p. 9). The fact that Winfrey chooses not to micromanage helps foster teamwork by giving the team control over their work (DuBrin, 2006).
Winfrey built a team composed of members that shared her vision and was willing to support her quest for excellence. By having her employees sign a confidentiality agreement, she is providing the team with the common enemy to compete against. In this case the enemy is those that would like to tarnish Winfrey’s reputation. Staff members in all departments regularly logged long days, some days up to 17 hours. Winfrey knew the demanding schedule and constant deadlines strained some staff members. Winfrey commented “‘I have great stamina, and I wear other people into the ground.'”(Koehn & Helms, 2005 p. 9). By having her employees sign a confidentiality agreement, she is providing the team with the common enemy to compete against. In this case the enemy is those that would like to tarnish Winfrey’s reputation. The members of the team who succeeded at Harpo, Inc. became a part of a group deeply prized by Winfrey (Koehn & Helms, 2005). Winfrey was quoted in a TV Guide article, “‘I could weep when I think about my team. It’s all about attracting good people. I’ve always tried to surround myself not only with people who are smart but with people who are smarter in ways that I am not. I have the best team ever. They get me. I feel I’ve created my own extended family here at work, with people that understand the code. We have a code of excellence that has been the standard bearer for us, and everybody gets it. And, if you don’t get it you don’t last very long (Koehn & Helms, 2005 p. 9).
Winfrey by demanding performance helps to sustain her team. The teams reward is the continued success of Harpo, Inc.. By surrounding herself with the best and brightest, Winfrey is providing an opportunity for success of the team and her company as the quality of team members directly relates to the success of the group.
Starting from the ground floor of the television industry, Winfrey has made all the right moves in becoming one of the largest and most successful entrepreneurs in the communications industry. Her highly loyal and motivated staff has risen to the challenges provided by their leader and continues to strive to be industry’s best. Winfrey’s future is still in question as to whether she will continue her successful “The Oprah Winfrey Show” or if she will take Harpo, Inc. in yet another successful direction in the communications industry. As a CEO, Winfrey will continue to be a shining example in an industry that has proven to be tough on CEO’s with more business experience.
DuBrin, A. J., 2006, Essentials of Management, Seventh Edition, Thompson South-Western, Mason, OH.
Koehn, N. & Helms, E., 2005, Oprah Winfrey, Harvard Business School, Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, MA.
Sellers, P., 2002, The Business of Being Oprah, Fortune Magazine, New York, NY.
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