As a business leader, it is imperative to have professional models you strive to emulate. What leaders do you model yourself after?

If you didn’t say Oprah Winfrey, then you may want to reconsider your answer. Considered by many to be the most influential woman in America, Oprah has countless lessons we can all learn from.

Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ recently aired a series that looked back on Oprah’s career. The series chronicled the early potential of Oprah and the Oprah Winfrey Show, including the early victories, missteps and desire to tweak the show’s format until a winning formula was discovered.

Here are five lessons entrepreneurial leaders can take away from the early years of the Oprah Winfrey Show:

1. Identify Your “Suzy”

When the Oprah Winfrey Show launched in 1984, Phil Donahue was the undisputed standard bearer of daytime talk shows. Oprah’s approach from the beginning was to not ‘out Donahue-Donahue’ by going directly against his ever-changing lineup of controversial topics. Instead, she wanted to create a show that would allow suburban housewives to “live their best life.”

In the early years, the Oprah Winfrey Show didn’t perfectly reach its primary customer, as there were a few misses with shows on nudists and other off-primary-customer topics.  Oprah and her producers eventually personified their primary customer – they called her “Suzy”. When Oprah and her producers planned shows, they would ask:

  • Would Suzy care about this topic?
  • Why would this matter to Suzy?
  • What questions would Suzy ask the show’s guests?

This first lesson is key for entrepreneurial leaders. You need to identify and understand your audience —your “Suzy” — so your business is structured to effectively reach your primary customer. Does your company know the characteristics of your primary customer? Have you identified what they want, value and need from your company? Do you frequently evaluate how “Suzy” would rate your company?

2. Run Your Own Race

An interesting theme the radio series brought out was the ongoing temptation Oprah and her team constantly faced to mimic what other daytime talk shows were doing. However, Oprah always reminded her producers that they needed to run their own race and not get tripped up by copying the other daytime talk shows.  The lesson for entrepreneurial leaders is to get the balance right between understanding what your competitors are doing and ensuring you and your company are focused on what differentiates you and what will bring you success in the marketplace.  Have you identified the factors you compete on and how you compare to your competitors? Does your company have the discipline to stick to running its own race?

3. Don’t ‘Wing It’ Forever

Entrepreneurial start-ups are scrappy and often led by intuitive leaders who experiment with different approaches until they arrive at a winning business model. In reflecting on her shows’ early years, Oprah said, “There was no strategy, no plan, no formula. We were just making it up as we went along.” This is typical of early-stage entrepreneurial startups. Early on, Oprah and her team continued to experiment to determine which strategy, plan and formula would help sustain the show over the long term.

But once a startup discovers its winning formula, a plan must be developed for long-term sustainability. Failing to formalize even early versions of your strategy, business plan and formula increases the risk of failure. It is the job of the entrepreneurial leader to lead the charge in setting the strategy, plan, and formula and then adjusting the lens on the plan during set times of the year.  Formalizing this process creates greater clarity and alignment. It helps the whole team execute the correct plays from the same playbook.

4. Define Your Purpose

In the radio series, Oprah said she was clear on the purpose of the show from the beginning, but it became clearer as the show went along. The show’s purpose from the beginning was “to be a light in the world.” In 1989, the mission statement was changed to: “We are here to uplift, enlighten and entertain”.

As an entrepreneurial leader, are you clear of your company’s “why”? Does your company have a compelling reason for existing that is compelling for your staff and customers?

5. Live Your Core Values

A crossroads moment for the Oprah Winfrey Show took place in 1989 during one particular show about husbands who cheat on their wives. While Oprah and her producers thought it was a scheduling win to have the wife, husband and his girlfriend all on the show, it went badly. Very badly. The husband said his girlfriend was pregnant, which his wife did not know. When she found out live on the show, her face had a look of horror and humiliation. This was a pivotal moment for Oprah. Right away she knew she never wanted the show to cause that kind of humiliation again.

Oprah and her team capitalized on this low point by identifying their core values. From that point forward, each show would:

  • Fit with their mission
  • Would not ambush or humiliate the guests

Core values are the irrefutable behaviors that positively define how you want your staff to behave. Conversely, they define what is unacceptable behavior for your staff and company. As an entrepreneurial leader, have you identified the core values of your company? Are your core values clearly communicated and operationalized? How well does your company do at living out those values?


So What?

Oprah figured out how to make her business a success. Have you?


Next Steps

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About the Author

Tom is a Professional EOS Implementer™ and the CEO of Navigate the Journey, a firm that specializes in helping the owners of entrepreneurial companies improve at the company, team and individual leader levels.


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