Along with millions of others, I watched the final Oprah Winfrey Show this week. Although not an Oprah groupie by any means, I’m a fan; and I have felt a connection. The first year her show aired was the same year I welcomed the younger of my two children into the world—a son who is getting married this year. That’s quite a ride in terms of tracking Ms. Winfrey’s career. And whether you’re an Oprah follower or not, it is a career legacy with inspiration.
Oprah Winfrey: Non-impressive beginnings
So, I sat holding my baby, tuned in while Oprah embarked on a new Chicago-based career journey. In her very personal conversation with her global audience on this week’s show, Oprah reflected on that time:
I didn’t have a vision or a lot of great expectations … I just wanted to do a good job and cause no harm. That first day was a shock to me. There was no audience. After that first show, we put up some folding chairs in the audience. We brought in the staff. Secretaries. Anybody we could find in the building, and filled the first rows with staff people and the rest with people off the street that we bribed with doughnuts and coffee, and we’d say, ‘Come in.’”
Oprah Winfrey: It got much better
Oprah Gail Winfrey is the American dream; the pull-yourself-up from your own bootstraps career inspiration. It’s the stuff worthy of a thesis, a book, certainly this post. Through the years, the lady has become a brand. But right now, I want to look back to that time when I watched without either skepticism or antagonism. I just gave her a chance. And now, 25 years later, I share with you three of my Oprah Winfrey careerisms:
- Keep the faith and go with the flow. Bosses, colleagues–even a voice coach (mandated by her TV-station employer)—told Oprah she would never make it on television. They dug deeper, and it was personal. Her approach wasn’t right. Her look wasn’t right. Her Baltimore employer dictated a hair straightening that made her bald and forced her to wear a wig for many weeks. Upon arriving in Chicago, she was called “A Jheri curl and bad fur coat.” The point is that there was no red carpet laid out. In fact, many people did not believe in her. She no doubt had doubts! She certainly slipped up along the way. Think weight loss and weight gained back while role modeling this concept for millions. She acknowledged, learned and stayed the course.
- Give value to those you serve. Some forget—or weren’t around—to remember that at one time, Oprah’s show was a Jerry Springerish tell-all on cheating spouses and other such sordid tales. And in one of her (she coined the phrase) “ah-hah moments,” she said, “No. This is not what the people want.” Fast track through the next 20+ years. She gave her audience–us (think customers or employers) insightful and moving interviews, freeing messages … well too much to list here. But in a word, she gave us integrity. We lapped it up. We have to know what kind of people we want to work for, and what they need. Then we have to deliver. Isn’t that a good definition of career success?
- Surround yourself with motivating humans. No matter how independent we might be, our ability to move forward in our careers is greatly dependent on others. This is an Oprah lesson. She devours books and teachings. She learns from others. She is inspired by them. She connects with them. She makes them part of her world. She draws from their strengths. She collaborates with them. It’s almost a chicken and egg conundrum. Did she create stars out of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz; or did she have the good sense to choose partners who complemented her value- and customer-driven mission?
In this farewell show, Ms. Winfrey repeated her mandate:
To allow people to understand they have the power to change their own lives.”
For me, that’s it in a nutshell: power. None of us has to aspire to her level of influence. We have to just take our power to be our best. It’s that simple and that difficult.
Do you have thoughts to share on Oprah’s career influence on your life? I’d love to hear from you!
Photo: Rabeea Arif