Thursday, May 26, 2011

Is Oprah a Good Boss?

Admittedly, I haven’t watched the Oprah show too much. But yesterday it ended after 25 years on the air, and I did watch the finale show.
And I wondered what she must be like as a boss. I watched some of the Season 25: Behind the Scenes videos and learned that her schedule, and those of the hundreds of team members who supported her show, was wacko. During the production season, days could be as long as 18 hours with incredible pressure to get things right, and there are a lot of details to get right.

I have no idea whether Oprah is a good boss or not. Her vast influence qualifies her as an exceptional leader. Can someone be an exceptional leader but a poor boss? After reading about Oprah and watching her highly edited interactions with her staff, here’s what I do know:

--She is brutally honest. Oprah, in rejecting ideas at a pitch meeting, said “There is not enough money on the planet, and I mean on the planet Earth, for me to do that” and “I am never airing that show.” Shooting down people’s ideas that they are 100% passionate about (Oprah’s requirement) might have nicked some feelings, but at least they know where they stand. But, do they know what she’s looking for? I don’t know if they do. Did she make her expectations clear? If she did, why were there so many rejections of ideas?

--Oprah knows her craft. She has great instincts, great skill, and great experience when it comes to producing a TV talk show. You have to respect her for that, and her staff does.

--She sets high expectations. And her staff wanted to meet them, even go beyond them. They respected her knowledge and aspirations and were on the same page with wanting to wow Oprah’s audience.

--Oprah surrounds herself with extremely hard-working, talented people. I think she knows how to pick and keep the right people. This is a leadership skill which is not often talked about, but is essential to success.

--She fostered a culture of constant learning. Oprah says at heart she is a teacher. After every show they debriefed and determined what went well and how they could do better next time. When bad mistakes were made, Oprah, although frustrated and upset, seemed to overcome it and go on without a grudge once her dissatisfaction was aired and the person erring admitted they had learned something and they would do better next time. I am not sure how much Oprah herself is open to feedback. When her producers were remarking that Suze Orman was too hard on guest Nadia Suleiman, Oprah said “I don’t think anything is too hard if it’s the truth.”

--She is generous with recognition and rewards. I have no idea if she is consistent or fair, but from what I can tell, she gives kudos when they are due and enjoys rewarding staff with gifts. She honored her production team during this last season and allowed them some air time. She gave IPads, $10,000 checks and more to all the O Magazine staff for a 10th Anniversary and took her production staff and their families on a Mediterranean cruise.

--Oprah is passionate about her work and that is contagious. She truly wants her audiences to learn something for the better and wants to bring value to her fans. That and the fact that she knows how to do it so well attracts a team of people who want to be a part of it too. Her enthusiasm and openness are undeniable, and everyone, her fans and her employees, respond to that.

I don’t know if Oprah is an “incredible boss” as Lisa Ling (a talk show host on the Oprah Winfrey Network) says, but from what I've gleaned, I think she is a decent boss. And, according to 1,000 surveyed employees - the graph with the results is above - Oprah ranks first among celebrities respondents would like to have as a boss.

So, can someone be an exceptional leader but a poor boss? If you can surround yourself with talented folks who complement your weaknesses and if you are open to improving yourself, you wouldn’t be a poor boss for long. 

Check out Oprah at a pitch meeting here.  When was the last time you clapped when your boss walked in the room?

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