Winfrey leads with a mighty heart
Unquestionably one of the industry's most powerful and influential leaders, Oprah Winfrey built a global media empire by choosing passion over profits.DIALOGUE: For WInfrey, understanding the human common denominator key
Scott Sanders waited anxiously inside a Manhattan studio as a black SUV coasted across town toward him.
Every few minutes, the producer's cell phone would ring. "We're on 42nd and Ninth. Now we're on 42nd and Seventh. Now we're two minutes away." And then at last the SUV was there, with its star and her entourage, and Sanders was at her side, escorting her into the rehearsal space where the cast members of "The Color Purple" were in the final stages of preparing for their Broadway debut.
The response was overwhelming. "It was like an emotional nuclear explosion," Sanders recalls. "They were jumping up and down and crying and weeping."
If Sanders' description of Oprah Winfrey's visit sounds almost presidential, that is hardly surprising. In the two decades since she launched her syndicated talk show, "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Winfrey's influence has grown to rival that of the White House -- and maybe to be even greater in people's hearts and minds. She has become a touchstone of morality, common sense and decency, a guide to things spiritual, as well as practical, for the 46 million viewers who tune into her program each week in the U.S. (The show is also distributed in 135 countries around the world.)
Speak to Winfrey about her role as a leader and she professes to have no great organizational or management skills, nor any particular interest in having them; rather, she stresses her instinct and a remorseless drive to do the right thing.
"I get a lot of attention for being a businesswoman, and I have received accolades for it," she says, "but it certainly is not a strength of mine. That's not what I do best -- the business of the business, handling the bills and making sure everybody is on point. That is draining for me."
By contrast: "That feeling -- whatever you choose to call it: intuition, inner voice, the spirit of yourself, higher self, whatever -- is how I operate in business. That's what made me decide that I would own my own show, and if it worked, it worked, and I would benefit, and if it didn't, then that would be the fair thing. It was also what made me decide I would venture out of the ABC studios and build my own studio. And every other decision that I've made in my life has been based upon that feeling -- that feeling of what is the right thing to do."
Doing the right thing has been integral to Winfrey's decisionmaking throughout her life. And that fundamental decency is an attribute cherished by those who know her, off-screen as well as on.
Tim Bennett, president of her company, Harpo Productions Inc., who has worked with Winfrey ever since she hosted the half-hour morning show that preceded her current one, "AM Chicago," describes being at a dinner with Warren Buffett, who was asked what he looked for in a manager.
"He said, 'I look for brains, energy and integrity; and if someone has the first two and not the third, you have a problem.' Oprah has brains, she has incredible energy, and her integrity she wears on her sleeve."
"She never disappoints," adds Kate Forte, president of Harpo Films Inc., who has been with Winfrey since 1991.
On a work level, Forte says, "as big as the company is and as involved as she is with the magazine, the show, with me, if I need her to pay attention to this or that, she does; if I need her to read something, she does. I don't know how she manages."
That sense of awe is something one finds over and over when speaking to Winfrey's closest collaborators, the handful of executives who have stood shoulder to shoulder with her for years. Many are women; all are strikingly loyal. Indeed, what's most notable about Winfrey's management style is the loyalty it engenders and the loyalty she gives.
"She has always been first and foremost loyal to her partners," Bennett explains. "Several years ago, she was offered tens of millions more by a competing network to go with their stations. It was a lot more money than we were being offered by ABC. But at the end of the day, Oprah stuck with ABC, because that is where she got her start and she believed in the relationships she had with those people."
Winfrey has also believed in the executives who've stuck by her, especially the handful who form a "kitchen cabinet" in running Harpo, a privately held company that has a staff of approximately 700, including 450 full-time employees, plus several hundred who work intermittently for the Chicago-based venture.
Winfrey routinely turns to this cabinet for advice. Its members testify that she displays a gift for listening to them, just as she does her guests on television. But they also testify to her faith in her own decisions.
Not that Winfrey never makes mistakes. She admits unreservedly that she does, but she has a mantra when it comes to them: "Learn from your mistakes. For every crisis or mistake that comes into my life, the first question I ask is: 'What is it here to teach me?' And I ask that question because I'm looking for what is the truth in it. And that's been invaluable to me. And that's why I can honestly say that I don't move through the world with a lot of doubt."
Her ability to move without doubt became apparent to Sanders when Winfrey's best friend, Gayle King, editor-at-large for O magazine, first approached him and mentioned that a "friend" might be interested in investing in "The Color Purple."
At the time, Sanders says, he wasn't interested; "Purple" had all the investors it needed, and he was unconvinced that a new player would add anything to the mix. But when King told him the "friend" was Winfrey, Sanders flew to Chicago to meet her.
"We had a meeting in her conference room," he recalls. "And her entire team showed up. The senior management team was around the table, and we talked about the show, and I said, 'How do you feel about 'Oprah Winfrey Presents The Color Purple?' She said, 'I'd never step on your toes that way.' And I said, 'We'd be honored.' We played the finale song, and she cried. She started to cry, and she said, 'I'll be right back.' And she walked outside to think about it and came back three minutes later and said, 'So, when are we telling the New York Times that I'm producing the show?'"
That few minutes Winfrey took to be on her own was characteristic of the way she handles decisions. Ultimately, after processing the information and reflecting on the spiritual aspect of her choices, as well as the practical ones, she decides alone.
"She went just to be with her thoughts," Sanders adds. "And then it was, 'When can I come see the cast?'"
Hearst Magazines president Cathie Black had a similar experience when she met with Winfrey to discuss launching what would later become O, the Oprah Magazine.
"January 21, 1999, is when we went out to Chicago to first pitch her on the idea of doing a magazine," Black says. "She hadn't even guaranteed us she would be there, but then she blew into this small conference room, and her face and smile are like a 10,000-watt bulb. She couldn't have been more charming and delightful and paying attention."
She continues, "We brought a video of women on the street -- we had done a video of women at a shopping mall in Virginia, and we asked them, 'Are you Oprah fans?' and of course they went nuts. And we said, 'What do you think of the idea of a magazine?' And they went ballistic."
When Black presented that video to Winfrey -- again in a conference room and again with her closest aides in attendance -- "You could see her literally lean forward in the presentation. She was pensively listening to what these women said. Then we went into the details of the paper sample, mocked-up covers. We knew we were only going to get one meeting, and we wanted to make sure it was as perfect a meeting as we could possibly prepare for. We spent about an hour and a half together, and at the end of it, she said, 'I am not going to guarantee I will do a magazine, but if I do, it will be with Hearst."
She said something else, too: "I need to pray on it."
After those prayers, Winfrey gave the magazine her blessing and total commitment. Since O's launch in 2000, it has become a publishing phenomenon, with a circulation of 2.4 million a month and a spinoff, O at Home, that has been launched as a quarterly publication.
In working on projects like these, Winfrey's management style is neither micro nor macro. She herself claims not to micromanage: "I can't," she says. "Not my strength. Confrontation, not my strength; filling out employee reviews, not my strength."
But her colleague Forte has a more nuanced view of her boss's management style. "She is probably both," the executive ponders. "She seems to intuitively know when to be macro and when to be micro."
A case in point: Harpo Films' upcoming feature "The Great Debaters" (the Weinstein Co./MGM), directed by Denzel Washington.
The movie started out in 1999 as a pitch brought to Forte. "I told her about it, and she was very supportive and told me to go forward," she says. From that point on, characteristically, "she's pretty macro. When the (screenplay) draft is serious -- this is the one we are greenlighting -- she carefully reads that draft."
In this instance, Forte adds, "when Denzel narrowed it down to small group of possible actors, I sent the tapes to Oprah. I always do a summary of various location scouts I go on as I am going into production, and I will keep her up to date with who the cast is and (as it relates to 'Debaters') the budget negotiations with the Weinstein Co."
But what makes Winfrey's leadership distinctive is none of these things, Forte argues.
"What is really important is her approach to business. Oprah never, ever, ever makes a decision based upon money -- never has, never will. She is guided by passion, quality, the possibility for illuminating people. That's really unusual. Some people might say, 'It is easy for her to do that now.' But she has always been this way."
On rare occasions when a business project has not addressed her broader spiritual concerns,
Winfrey has quietly distanced herself from it, regardless of the money at stake, as she did when she left the board of cable network Oxygen Media, which she co-founded with Geraldine Laybourne and Paul Allen.
Asked about the recent sale of Oxygen to NBC for $925 million, Winfrey says: "It was strictly a business deal for me. And the reason is -- I can say this now because it sold -- in the beginning, I'd planned to have great involvement. But they had other ideas about the direction. And when I realized that my ideas about the direction were not where they wanted to go, I took myself off the board."
Still, Oxygen was almost a footnote compared to Winfrey's other businesses, which include radio, television, theater and Internet ventures, as well as the magazine and Harpo Films. All have moved forward in leaps and bounds in recent years, making Winfrey arguably the most powerful brand in the country.
"In the last decade, the shape of the company has changed quite dramatically from being a one-horse (enterprise) with 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' to being a full-fledged company," says Bennett. "We have got Harpo Print, which is the magazine; and Oprah.com, which used to be a promotional arm and is now a stand-alone making tens of millions itself; and Harpo Radio, which we started just in the past 18 months -- we have about six hours of programming a day, and we finished this year with 2,000 hours of original programming."
He adds, "The goal for the company is to have enough legs on the table that if you take away 'The Oprah Winfrey Show,' which is supposed to go till 2011, the table doesn't fall over and we'll have enough other business to keep us active and keep Oprah's platform in the world."
Toward that end, Harpo now has its own physical plant in Chicago, consisting of two studios, one of which is completely devoted to the television show.
"It is our mother lode, our main business," Bennett acknowledges. "It has a staff that just works on the show of close to 150 people."
If that is the centerpiece of Harpo's television activities, the company also has a profit participation in the "Rachael Ray" and "Dr. Phil" shows, both of which it developed and launched.
Speaking of the latter, Bennett notes, "We hired Paramount to produce it and King World to distribute; and eventually Phil (McGraw) ended up taking ownership. That was always the plan."
He disputes reports of a conflict between Winfrey and McGraw: "That was overblown. I believe Oprah has always admired his ability, and although they might not have agreed on every business decision ... they are still friendly. He was here six or eight months ago, and they spent four hours together one night, just going over things."
Harpo Print Llc. is the entity that supervises Harpo's partnership with Hearst on the magazine and other projects. The New York-based division "has a staff of around 75 people," Bennett notes. "Oprah has editorial control and the ability to have the final say; but day in, day out, they (publisher Jill Seelig and editor-in-chief Amy Gross) are running the business." In addition to the magazine, he says, "We just signed off on doing some more books."
Harpo Radio Inc. operates out of a separate building that is kitty-corner to the main Harpo facility in Chicago and has a staff of around 20 people. Through its deal with XM Satellite Radio, the "Oprah & Friends" channel reaches about 1 million XM subscribers each month, Bennett says. The channel also gained distribution on DirecTV this fall, though audience figures aren't available yet.
Harpo Films produces roughly two feature films a year and the "Oprah Winfrey Presents" longform television franchise. Productions include features like 1998's "Beloved" and TV movies like 1999's "Tuesdays With Morrie," which earned four Emmys in 2000, including best made-for-TV movie.
As for Oprah.com: "It reaches more than 5 million unique users each month," Bennett says.
There is also a new division, Harpo Development Inc., whose mandate is to develop more television fare.
"We said, 'If we are serious about developing shows, we have to form a new unit,'" Bennett explains. That unit has been involved with several television productions, including "Oprah's Big Give" (ABC) and a special about the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, the school that Winfrey opened earlier this year in South Africa.
When the school was rocked by an abuse scandal last month, Winfrey immediately flew to Africa to check out the problem personally. And though she calls it "one of the, if not the most, devastating experiences of my life," Winfrey remains hopeful that the school and the pupils affected will move forward. In a recent press conference, Winfrey praised those who had come forward. "This is what leadership is all about. To use your voice, no matter what the personal consequences, so that abuse will end and good will prevail."
The school is one part of larger philanthropic endeavors, through which Winfrey has given millions to a wide range of causes, including education, literacy, women, children and families.
With a school, a charitable institution of her own and all her businesses, Winfrey has been unable to ignore the challenges of management, even if that is not her primary interest.
"I had to learn the hard way," she admits, "because it never was a goal. Even after I said I was going to start my own business, it was like, 'I'll let somebody else handle that.' And then I realized other people aren't going to handle it the way you would want them to, unless you're actively engaged."
Without regret, she recognizes, "I've made a lot of mistakes, because I was going to run a business like a family. That doesn't work. People need management training."
And yet even with managers who have the best possible training, even with an inner circle of the most accomplished cadres, much rests on Winfrey's own shoulders. Perhaps too much.
"To be honest with you," she says, "it got a little out of control a couple of weeks ago. I was supposed to be in Africa, and this is what happened: I got on the plane after (taping) the 11th show (in a row) on a Thursday night, and I arrived in Los Angeles by midnight. I was supposed to get up and do Denzel at 8:30 in the morning (for the magazine), and in the car, I felt my body start to just cave on me. And I said to Gayle, 'I don't know if I can make it to Africa. Because I just feel like my body won't do it.' But I promised, I promised, I promised, I promised that I would be there to choose the next class of girls.' "
As the night wore on, "I got sicker. I started to lose my voice. And I made the decision that morning: 'OK, I'm going to cancel the trip to Africa.'"
She did just that. But it was, she says, an exceptionally rare move for someone who keeps commitments with an almost mind-boggling consistency, even when they push her to the edge of her limits.
What those limits are will be tested within the next few years when Winfrey decides what the next chapter of her life will have in store.
In 2011, her current contract expires. She will be 57, young enough to have many productive years ahead of her. What then?
"When you have been allowed to sit at the top of the mountain 22 years thus far, how do I take what I've been given, what I've worked so hard for, and move that to the next level?" she wonders. "There's coming a time that the show will no longer serve its purpose. I'm very grateful for the purpose that it has served. But I can feel that we're going to be moving into a different era. Television has changed so exponentially, it's shocking. It is a lot of work to continue to reinvent yourself, to remain fresh, to remain relevant and also meaningful. And that's going to come to an end. And I know that. So the big question for me is: 'What's next?'"
She pauses. "That's my constant meditation, thought, prayer."