Oprah Winfrey. Credit: Alan Light
If you want to learn the secret to hiring, there is no better lesson than Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey is a bold, African American woman who wanted to talk about gays and feelings before it was kosher to talk about gays and feelings. Her background includes a nightmare childhood where she was sexually abused by several family members, crack cocaine and giving birth to a son at age 14.
And yet, in 1986, King World Productions took a huge chance with her, and so did all the syndicates who had the cojones to run her program, The Oprah Winfrey Show. When the program finished its run in 2011, it did more than just make billions of dollars.
It changed the world.
Winfrey was born into poverty on January 29, 1954 to an unmarried teenage mother in Kosciusko, Mississippi. As a child, she was sexually abused by her cousin, uncle and a family friend. Sick of it, she ran away from home when she was 13 and was pregnant at 14, with her son dying shortly after she gave birth.
Her teenage years and twenties were hardly without incident, as she later admitting to having a four-year affair with a married man and smoking crack cocaine. During that time, she pursued her passion in media, working her way from radio to TV news.
Her big break came in 1983, when she was hired to host AM Chicago, a half-hour show based, obviously, out of Chicago. Within a few months, the show became the highest-rated show in the city.
That’s when everything exploded, and when a lot of people took a chance on this woman from Mississippi. With the urging of her friend and former romantic interest, Roger Ebert, Winfrey signed a deal with King World Production to launch a one-hour show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, into syndication.
On Sept. 8, 1986, The Oprah Winfrey Show went national. It hardly went off without a hitch, as producers tried to get celebrity Don Johnson for the premier (they even tried to entice him with rhinestone sunglasses and fancy wine), and failed.
Not that it mattered. The show, as you know, became the most popular and influential daytime talk show of all time. It also changed American culture as it talked about issues that were previous left undiscussed: gays, child abuse, feelings; to name a few.
On Sept. 8, 1986, a lot of people took chances on Winfrey. King World Production, for one, but all the syndicates who picked up her show. Think about what they were betting on: that this African American woman with a turbulent past would somehow relate to mainstream, white America.
And she did.
The takeaway here for hiring managers is critical. In America, thousands of people with thousands of different personalities have been successful. They’ve had just about nothing in common, except one thing: they were themselves.
Winfrey is one of the best examples of this. Winfrey, more than anything else, has always been herself. She’s been emotional. She’s been quick-to-laugh. She’s been open. She’s simply been Oprah; nothing more, nothing less.
That’s what hiring managers need to look for in candidates. People who know who they are and understand what they are strong at. Forget what school they went to, or the GPA they earned 10 years ago, and focus on this: do they know who they are? Do they know where they are going?
And make sure the answer is yes.
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