Learning From Oprah

Like so many of my contemporaries, I’ve learned a lot from Oprah over the years. I’ve read books (fiction and otherwise) that she discussed, discovered one of my favorite songs because she showcased it, and internalized the safety tip never to allow a criminal to take you to another location.  But that isn’t all…

Oprah has established a media enterprise unlike any previously known, and so it shouldn’t surprise us that we can learn some serious business lessons from her example. Like so many successful people (including those you may look up to as consummate rainmakers), Oprah makes it look easy.  “All she did” for the last 25 years was to talk with people.  How hard can it be, right?

The truth, of course, is that making it look so easy requires many hours of work. Although practicing law is radically different from being a talk show host or media mogul, Oprah’s model offers five lessons for lawyers — even for those of you who don’t like Oprah.

  1. Surround yourself with a highly-qualified, dedicated team. Oprah can’t do it alone, of course, and neither can you.  (Not even you, sole practitioner!)  Harpo Studios (Oprah’s company) employs several hundred people, all of whom work 12+-hour days during the show’s season and fulfill a variety of roles from idea generators to hair/make-up/wardrobe artists.  Even a few minutes of the Behind The Scenes show reveals how many talented people contribute to the success of each one-hour Oprah show.Fortunately, you don’t need all of that support for your practice.  You must, however, have administrative help of some sort (even if that means using technology rather than having a live assistant) and you must have a sounding board. If you’re doing everything in your practice, you’re wasting valuable time.  If you don’t have trusted colleagues and mentors who can help you handle challenges and opportunities in your practice, you’re missing out on feedback that could keep you from making easily avoidable missteps.
  2. Trust your team, and delegate to them – but recognize that you hold the responsibility for their actions. There’s no point in having a terrific team if you ask them to perform only menial tasks that leave no room for development.  (That’s one of the top delegation mistakes I discussed here nearly three years ago.)No matter how good your team may be, you must always be aware that it’s your practice and that everything that happens in it is your responsibility. That can be a tough pill to swallow, but when you accept it and act accordingly, you’ll find that it also offers power.  Even if things go wrong and you’re required to take responsibility for a big mistake, you’ll know that you can also take responsibility for fixing the mistake and ensuring that it doesn’t happen again.  If you resort to blame instead, the power of correction lies with the person who made the mistake and depends on their willingness and skill, not yours.This lesson came across loud and clear when one of Oprah’s guests went AWOL between an afternoon rehearsal and the show’s taping the next morning. It would have been easy for Oprah to have played the diva and blamed the guest or her producers, but her focus shifted immediately to treating the audience to breakfast during the unexpected delay and managing the schedule for the rest of the day.  Of course she had help (per point #2) but her focus was directed to correcting the problem rather than faulting anyone for allowing it to happen.
  3. Never, ever compromise on your principles. This lesson popped up when Oprah’s producers told her that Mrs. Obama would be a guest on a show dealing with children’s health.  Oprah was careful to ensure that producers had not leaned on her friendship with the Obamas to get Mrs. Obama to attend.  Although few people would criticize her for using a personal relationship to get a guest who would bring an even brighter spotlight to an important issue, Oprah’s personal code of conduct prevented her from doing so.  Watching the show made it clear that any producer who dared to call the White House to invite Mrs. Obama onto the show would have been in big, big trouble.Lawyers are bound by sometimes complex and counterintuitive ethical rules, but many decisions fall outside the scope of those rules. How do you talk about your clients and opposing counsel when they can’t hear you?  Do you talk about them?  You’ll face plenty of “grey area” decisions in business development.  Where the rules are silent, or when there’s a big gulf between what’s allowed and what may be tasteful, check your own compass and guide yourself by it.
  4. Connect with people, and be yourself. The world began to fall in love with Oprah when she shared her story, her joy, her tears.  She quickly moved beyond reporter and host to personality.  We could see ourselves in her and her experience, and many drew courage from her example.Lawyers sometimes feel the need to crawl into a legal straight-jacket, to act as a lawyer “should” act, to speak as a lawyer “should” speak, to think as a lawyer “should” think. In some circumstances, that’s the only proper approach.  When it comes to business development, however, that’s boring and distancing.  Acting, speaking, and thinking just like everybody else makes marketing challenging because there’s nothing to distinguish you from others in your practice area.  Skill is and must be the bedrock of your practice, but being a genuine person will attract people and help you to build relationships of trust.
  5. Love what you do. Doing anything for 25 years is an accomplishment, and even though the Oprah Winfrey Show has brought Oprah fame, fortune, and unparalleled opportunities, it can’t always have been easy.  She had to love it.Do you love what you do? It’s more than an idle question.  If you do, you’ll talk about it, engage in professional development, and be engaged with your practice simply because you enjoy what you do.  If not, you’ll have to push yourself to do what might otherwise flow more easily.If you don’t love practicing law, you have three choices:  find what you do love about it, compromise by compartmentalizing personal satisfaction from professional motivation, or leave the practice.
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