Early in the summer of 1993, Oprah Winfrey was in Miami at the annual American Booksellers Association convention.

Alfred A. Knopf was set to publish Winfrey’s memoir that fall, and the talk show host was there to press the flesh. She and the publisher pulled out all the stops with a splashy presentation and big party.

Winfrey was the talk of the convention; the book was pronounced a certain bestseller. But just two weeks later, Winfrey decided that the finished product wasn’t finished enough. She didn’t think the autobiography was her best work. So she pulled it off the publisher’s list. It has never been published.

imagesoprahHer action showed  two key aspects of her approach to life and business.

First, Winfrey is committed to high quality. If the quality isn’t there, “you have the right to change your mind,” she said in an interview with the Academy of Achievement shortly after her induction into the organization’s Hall of Fame.

Second, Winfrey says, you should go with your gut. “I am where I am today because I allowed myself to listen to my [instincts,]” she said.

She uses that approach when she interviews people. As she told Cosmopolitan magazine, she researches her topics and interview subjects carefully. To avoid a canned feel, though, she doesn’t often use scripted questions. She prefers the adrenalin of asking “what feels right.”

Certainly Winfrey feels right these days. She’s the host and owner of The Oprah Winfrey Show,  which consistently wins high ratings, and the founder of Harpo Productions, which produces her television shows and movies.

images (3)She set up a foundation to help underprivileged families get back on their feet and began one of the most influential informal book clubs in the world. Her O, The Oprah Magazine, launched by Hearst Publications in 2000, ranked in the top tier of new magazines for circulation and advertising, becoming the first magazine ever to be both Advertising Age Launch of the Year and Magazine of the Year. In 2003, Oprah Winfrey became the first African-American woman to join the ranks of billionaires.

Early on, however, Winfrey seemed more like a candidate for welfare rolls that film roles. Born illegitimate to teen-age parents in 1954, she spent her first six years living with her grandparents in  her native Kosciusko, Miss. Eventually, she moved in with her mother in Milwaukee.

At age 9 she was raped by an older cousin and was then abused by other relatives during the next several years. Acting out, she became a wild child and got pregnant at 13. Her baby, born prematurely, died shortly after its birth.

Rather than give in to despair and fall further into a life of misery, Oprah refused to give up. She looked at what she’d been through in her young life and decided she’d dedicate herself to changing it.

Life is a marathon, she decided; you don’t win or lose at every turn. “I think the ones who survive in life do it by hammering at it one day at a time,” she said in Janet Lowe’s book, Oprah Winfrey Speaks. 

images (8)Her mother sent her to her father, who was a barber and businessman in Nashville, Tenn, There, she focused on self-improvement.

Vernon Winfrey realized his daughter needed some inspiration. He told her how good she could be and encouraged her lifelong love of books.

He also taught her that to succeed, she always had to pursue excellence. When Vernon set a goal, he focused totally on its achievement. To make sure he’d get there, he’d put in longer hours than anyone else and always tried to do his best. He refused to undercut himself by thinking about failure.

His daughter absorbed that attitude. “There is no such thing as failure in my life,” Oprah said, “I just don’t believe in it.”

Vernon also taught her to reject fear. If she was afraid to try something, he told her, she’d never know whether she could do it, and she’d miss an opportunity.

images (4)“The true test of courage,” Oprah said, “is to be afraid and to go ahead and do it anyway – to be scared, to have your knees knocking, but to walk on in there anyway.”

That’s exactly what she did. She told herself that she’d find something she loved to do and then be the best at it. She knew she could present herself well and had a knack for talking with people. She’d been speaking in front of audiences since she was only 4 years old, touring local churches and reciting others’ sermons by memory.

She decided to concentrate on what she did best and landed a job as a news reader at a Nashville  television station in 1974.

Once there, Winfrey followed her father’s example – she put in long hours and prepared carefully before going on camera. She’d bone up on topics she knew she’d be reading about so she’d be ready if something happened to her notes.

images (1)Her hard work paid off: She moved up swiftly to news reader and reporter in Baltimore and was offered her own talk show in 1977.

To get interview subjects to open up to her on the show, Winfrey would look for a common bond. She knew she had a winning formula when Baltimore viewers told researchers that what they liked best about her show was how much they learned from it and could apply to their own lives.

Winfrey looked for a bigger market to conquer and decided to go to Chicago in 1984.

Network executives took note of her show’s soaring success there and offered her a national spot. In 1986, she began broadcasting nationally. She reaches people all over the world through syndication.

Luck had nothing to do with her success, she thinks.

“I don’t believe in luck,” she daid. “I think luck is preparation meeting opportunity.”

When Winfrey doesn’t know something, she doesn’t try to bluff her way through it. She admits right upfront that she’s uninformed and want to learn about the topic.

Oprah-Winfrey-for-ParadeTake one of her first assignments as a reporter. She was told to cover a city council meeting – but had no idea how to go about it. She could try to wing it, but if she missed something important, she’d put her entire career in jeopardy.

She decided to confront the problem head-on and ask others for their help. “I walked into the city council meeting and announced to everybody there, ‘This is my first day on the job, and I don’t know anything. Please help me.’ And they did. … Everybody needs some one to show them the way out or up. Everybody.”

Winfrey constantly  tries to catalog her strengths and weaknesses to find areas she can improve.

“I think the ability to be as good as you can be comes from understanding who you are and what you can and cannot do,” she said. “And what you can’t do is far more important than what you can do, if what you can’t do is going to keep you from flying high.”

When she hires people, Winfrey looks for people who can do what she can’t.

“I surround myself with people who are smarter than I am,”  she said. That way, “I feel I can learn something.” 

Source: “BUSINESS LEADERS & SUCCESS – 55 TOP BUSINESS LEADERS & HOW THEY ACHIEVED GREATNESS” (With an introduction from William J. O’Neil, founder of INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004, pages 11-14. 

Jakarta, 20 June 2014 

Frans Indrapradja

This entry was posted in GREAT BUSINESS LEADERS - IN ENGLISH and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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