The Key To Oprah Winfrey’s Success: Radical Focus

After revamping her once-struggling TV channel, OWN, Oprah Winfrey has figured out how to make time for the projects she cares about most.

The Key To Oprah Winfrey’s Success: Radical Focus
Not on her OWN: Oprah Winfrey juggles an impressive list of endeavors with the help of her deeply trusted team. [Photos: Herring & Herring; Styling: Kelly Hurliman; Set Design: Andrew Trosmans at Walter Schupfer Management]

I’ve come to interview the world’s most famous interviewer, and she has already caught me off guard. “So, what’s your intention here with me?” Oprah Winfrey asks, her legs crossed, a serious look on her face. We’re talking in Winfrey’s office at the Los Angeles headquarters of her television channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network (aka OWN), and the flowing white drapes, gilded light fixtures, and flocculent, cloudlike sofa make the room feel more like heaven than Hollywood. A floor-to-ceiling oak bookshelf behind her immaculately tidy desk is full of intimidating mementos, including one of her 18 Emmy awards and a photograph of her with Nelson Mandela.


Winfrey has invited me to spend some time watching her run her media empire, and so far, my visit has been going well. Despite her massive celebrity (and the fact that she met me just an hour ago), she is warm, huggy, and—true to her spiritual-guru persona—immediately invested in teaching me something I can use to improve my life. We have already bonded over Mississippi, where we were both born (“What a wowzer that is for me!” she says). But then she drops this oddly blunt question about my intent, and I’m unexpectedly stumped. Finally, after a bit of rambling, I come up with an answer. “I’m here,” I tell her, “to learn how Oprah gets stuff done.”

“Okay, great!” she replies. “I can help you with that.”

Winfrey is one of the most powerful and influential people in the world, as well as one of the busiest. With a net worth of $3 billion, she is one of just two black billionaires in North America (the other is Michael Jordan). Her 25-year run as host and producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show—which, in a brilliant business move, she solely owns through her production company, Harpo Studios—changed the TV business and has left a void since its final episode in 2011.

As the chairman and CEO of OWN, she oversees an expanding channel that’s now available in 82 million homes. Jointly owned by Winfrey and Discovery Communications, OWN has nearly doubled its prime-time viewership since it launched four years ago, driven by hits such as the reality show Iyanla: Fix My Life and the Tyler Perry drama The Haves and the Have Nots. OWN has now grown into a cable success story, and the first quarter of 2015 was the network’s most watched yet, with an average of 539,000 prime-time viewers—not too far off from CNN and Comedy Central.

Winfrey is also the founder, publisher, and monthly cover subject of O, The Oprah Magazine (which boasts a circulation of 2.5 million), as well as an Oscar-nominated actress (The Color Purple) and film producer (Selma). From October 18 to 24, OWN will air Belief, a seven-part docuseries that explores faith and spirituality, which she executive produced. She is the creator of a hugely influential book club, has nearly 30 million Twitter followers, and in general holds such sway over public sentiment that her influence has a name: The Oprah Effect.


Oprah Winfrey has a lot going on. And, as I discover, she is on the same arduous and perpetual journey as everyone else: trying to find a way to get everything done while maintaining some kind of balance. “I am aware that there is a finite amount of time and energy in every day,” says Winfrey, who’s wearing a breezy cream cardigan with chocolate trim, dangly pearl earrings, and a pricey, 18-karat rose gold Apple Watch. “So what is really important? What do you really want to do?” She leans toward me, stretching an arm across the back of the couch, then whispers, as if confessing a secret: “Now I’m in a position where I only do what I want to do.”

OWN’s headquarters are located in a five-story contemporary glass office building in West Hollywood. Spread over four floors, it’s full of luxe touches like walls of moss, exposed gray brick, neon signs projecting Oprah-isms (“Look ahead in a new direction”), and huge mounted photos, including one of Winfrey interviewing Beyoncé. The building’s second level is occupied by Will Ferrell’s viral-clip factory Funny or Die, which can make for some odd encounters: At one point I watched an FoD employee cruise into the parking lot with a car full of piñatas.

Though Winfrey famously ran her talk show and Harpo Studios from Chicago, these days she’s moving her whole operation to L.A., making this expansive complex the center of her empire. By the end of the year, she will have shut down her Chicago studios entirely.

The closing of Harpo is both pragmatic and symbolic, marking a shift in Winfrey’s career and in her lifestyle. “The hardest thing to get accustomed to when I left [my talk show] is that I get to order my own time,” she says. “In Chicago, when it was like, windchill-factor 42 below, sometimes I went from one garage to the next garage and never saw daylight. I had this whole little world that was just my little Harpo world.” But today? “I’m at a point where I am like, ‘Whoa, my God!’ The birds are tweeting, the sun is coming up. I mean, I appreciate every thing. I’m like a person who’s been let out.”

This newfound freedom didn’t happen by accident. Winfrey has structured OWN so it can run without her constant oversight, leaving plenty of time to pursue additional projects that she’s passionate about. To make that work, she has installed a pair of trusted longtime employees as copresidents: Erik Logan, who joined Harpo as an executive vice president in 2008, and Sheri Salata, who started as a marketer at Harpo in 1995 and rose to executive producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006, which she oversaw until the end of its run. The trio refer to themselves as a “three-legged stool” that supports OWN’s organization of about 200 employees, with Logan mostly handling business and operations, Salata primarily steering creative, and Winfrey, of course, as the brand. “I try to surround myself with people who really know what they’re doing and give them the freedom to do it,” Winfrey says.


Salata and Logan, who frequently complete each other’s sentences, oversee a leadership team that includes several other longtime Winfrey veterans, some of whom have worked with her for as much as two decades. Together, they’ve developed a keen sense of how she would likely react to any given issue. “I’m right about 89% of the time,” jokes Salata. “There’s a beautiful sifting and sorting process that happens with people who’ve been around the mission for a really long time.”

Words like mission are common when you talk to Winfrey’s most trusted executives; conversations are full of terms like disciples, sacred, moral compass, and spiritual leader. “We work for a person who has a mission on earth,” says Salata. “It’s a great North Star. Not just because she’s the boss, but because she is the heart and soul, and the spiritual leader of this organization.” When you work at OWN, Winfrey’s voice isn’t just your product—it’s your guiding spirit. Consequently, signature Oprah queries become part of every aspect of OWN’s process. “What’s your intention?” is one important example, I eventually learn; it turns out that nerve-racking opening challenge wasn’t cooked up especially for me.

The “church of Oprah” has been parodied plenty, but at OWN, it’s a highly effective management tool. “It’s a mind-set,” says Logan. “When people deeper in the organization have decisions to make, they can keep that present, because they ultimately know, as it flows up the organization, that that’s how we look at it too.” Winfrey is both the boss and the inspirational figure who leads by example. “What would Oprah do when you’re leading a meeting and you have a difficult person?” asks Salata. “[When] you’re in a deal, coming up with creative? It makes the ‘nos’ really easy. I know what Oprah wouldn’t do.” She looks me in the eye. “You do, too,” she says. (I confess: It’s true.) As I summarize all of this in my notes, “W.W.O.D.?”


The system works out well for Winfrey, who lives about two hours away on a 42-acre Montecito estate and usually spends several days a month in the office. She makes a point to “really, really, really try to avoid meetings,” instead getting detailed summaries emailed to her by her staff. To underscore this point, she tells the story of a phone call she once received from the late Coretta Scott King, who wanted to fly to L.A. to meet with Winfrey to ask for help with a project. “And I go, ‘Mrs. King, you should just tell me whatever it is on the phone and save yourself the flight,’ ” Winfrey says. “ ‘Whatever it is, I’m going to be more inclined to do it if you just ask me on the phone. Because if you come all the way here, if I don’t want to do it, I’m still not gonna do it. And then you would have wasted your time, and I’m going to feel bad, and you’re going to feel bad.’ I spent 20 minutes trying to convince her not to come.” She didn’t, “and it’s a good thing,” laughs Winfrey, who ended up granting the favor.

Winfrey might not be a constant presence around OWN, but the input she does provide is crucial. “Her brilliance is in frosting the cake,” says Salata. “Baking it—those are the meetings and all that. We could spend months and months and months [on something], and we come together, lay out our wares, and say, ‘Go to town.’ Then she comes with a big bowl of frosting: ‘Not this, that’s not right, more of this.’ And you sit back and go, That’s why she’s Oprah.”

When OWN launched in 2011, it initially seemed like a rare Winfrey stumble, and her approach today seems in many ways shaped by the tumultuous experience of saving her creation. Originally, Winfrey intended OWN to be a destination for the kind of live-your-best-life self-help content that she assumed her audience wanted. At launch, programming largely consisted of wellness shows—Ask Oprah’s All Stars, In the Bedroom With Dr. Laura Berman—and uninspiring syndicated fare (including reruns of Dr. Phil, no less). What’s more, none of OWN’s new shows featured its biggest asset: Oprah herself. Due to commitments with her talk show, Winfrey initially wasn’t able to host any new programs, appearing only occasionally for special events. The Oprah Winfrey Network launched, essentially, without regular on-air contributions from Oprah Winfrey.

At the time, she was still based in Chicago, which also contributed to a lack of day-to-day engagement in molding the network that bore her name. Early OWN ratings were disappointing, with just an average of 262,000 viewers tuning in during 2011. It turned out even the Winfrey faithful didn’t want quite that much preachy self-help. “My mistake was, I thought I could do that every day, in 24/7 programming,” says Winfrey. “I thought I was going to have people meditating in the morning, yoga classes midday, [spiritual guide] Eckhart Tolle on in the afternoon. I had a vision of what living your best life could look like. The people told me otherwise. I had to redo my vision.”

In 2011, when The Oprah Winfrey Show ended, she was able to focus on OWN. “I need to be there,” she told attendees of a Chicago media conference in June of that year. “I need to be engaged and involved. I need to do the same thing I did on my show every day.” By July she did just that, taking over as CEO and chief creative officer (former CEO Christina Norman had departed in May).


First she had to figure out what audiences wanted—and find a way to give it to them without compromising her values. “If we made choices based on ratings, I know that we could be a top-10 network and make a lot more money,” says Discovery president and CEO David Zaslav, who created OWN with Winfrey. “But the choices Oprah’s making are purpose-driven.” To find her footing, “she spent more time looking at content and talking to the audience, learning what’s different between the cable business and the syndication business. Every week the network got a little bit better.”

One major turning point came in 2012, when Winfrey approached her friend Tyler Perry, a hugely successful entertainment impresario who’s known for his lowbrow sensibility. Initially, Perry had come to her, offering his services. At that point, Winfrey wasn’t interested. “Watching how difficult it was for her, I said, ‘You know, I can help you out,’ ” Perry recalls. “Nothing came of that because, you know, Oprah’s very clear on her vision and direction.” Eventually Winfrey changed her mind, and Perry was happy to get involved. “How do you say no to Oprah?”

According to Perry, Winfrey had faith that he could please his fans without straying too far outside her mission. “There was no ‘change this, do this, choose this,’ ” Perry says. “[It was,] ‘I’m gonna sit back and trust you. You know your audience like none other that I know.’ ” She was right. Today, Perry’s OWN projects include the megahit soap operas If Loving You Is Wrong and The Haves and the Have Nots, which are currently the network’s two top-rated shows. Thanks to Perry, earlier this year OWN became the No. 1 cable network among women on Tuesday nights, when The Haves and the Have Nots airs, and the No. 1 network overall among African-American women.

Perry is quick to point out that OWN’s turnaround was under way before he arrived. Winfrey had stepped back in front of the camera with a weekly celebrity interview show (guests have included Steven Spielberg and Pharrell Williams), and she had introduced more crowd-pleasing programming to replace some of the self-help. Thanks in part to Winfrey’s greater involvement, the network had also been able to negotiate more favorable contracts with cable providers, significantly increasing revenue.

But Perry’s shows established the kind of “destination viewing” that most networks dream of, and have also helped lure advertisers. According to research firm SNL Kagan, OWN netted $125 million in ad revenue last year—nearly double its first year on the air. Now OWN is adding more scripted series, including more serious fare like the miniseries Tulsa, starring Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and set amid the infamous 1921 Oklahoma race riot, and the drama Queen Sugar, which is being written by Selma director Ava DuVernay and is slated to costar Winfrey herself.


With OWN delivering both ratings and earnings—the network became profitable in 2013—it seems Winfrey can afford to be less hands-on than when she took control as CEO. “The first night after The Haves and the Have Nots, [ratings] were at such a high number that I gave a sigh of relief,” she says. “That allowed a lot of the pressure to come off, you know? That gave us some breathing room.” Later, Winfrey lights up when I ask her about her vacation schedule: “This is the first year I’ve actually said, ‘Okay, from these days to these days, I’m not going to be checking into the office.’ ”

OWN’s turnaround might have something to do with a concept that Winfrey considers one of her big productivity secrets: being “fully present.” “I have learned that your full-on attention for any activity you choose to experience comes with a level of intensity and truth,” she says. “It’s about living a present life, moment to moment—not worrying about what’s going to happen at 3 o’clock and what’s going to happen at 7 o’clock.” In other words: focus. “That whole thing about multitasking? That’s a joke for me. When I try to do that, I don’t do anything well.”

Being fully present is something she’s long cultivated, going back to when she would do interviews for The Oprah Winfrey Show. Sometimes the technique can be too effective, especially when she’s conducting emotional interviews. “I am listening as hard as they’re talking and taking on the energy of whatever is going on in that moment,” she says. “I had to learn how to be present but not take it all in. Because at the end of the day I’d just be messed up.”

DuVernay, who directed Winfrey in Selma and has come to think of her as a “big sister,” remembers when, on her very first day on set in character, Winfrey got the news that her close friend and mentor Maya Angelou had died. “She’s getting hair and makeup,” DuVernay recalls, “and Maya’s passing is reported. It was a mournful moment, [but] it was about finishing her business—it was about her work as an artist and an actress.” Director Lee Daniels, who worked with Winfrey when she executive produced his film Precious and costarred in The Butler, had a similar experience. “She stopped everything [to work on the movie],” he says. “She disconnected from the business world and her company that she was running. She didn’t come with a posse. She was committed to the character, and she was committed to the work.”


The lessons Winfrey seems to have internalized from the OWN turnaround—being in the moment and aware, modifying your vision in service of your overall goal, establishing a trusted team you can delegate to—have helped her figure out what’s important. To friends and coworkers, Winfrey can come off as almost superhuman. At the same time, one key source of her appeal is how she still remains so humble and in touch with her vulnerability. “Most people think the way I did: that Oprah is Oprah and she’s perfect and has got all the answers,” says Daniels. “But what makes her spectacular to me is she’s aware that she doesn’t have all the answers. She’s in search of them, in a space of humility.”

Some of OWN’s content is filmed on a large soundstage located right behind its headquarters. The day after our interview in her office, Winfrey is perched on a stool in Studio 7, sipping sparkling water from a can with a straw as dozens of assistants, makeup artists, cameramen, sound engineers, and lighting specialists swarm around her. She’s here today to shoot promos for Belief, the documentary series that she and longtime collaborator Jon Sinclair, along with Brooklyn-based Part2 Pictures, produced for her network. In typically efficient fashion, Winfrey is dressed for the camera from the waist up—with gold bangles and perfectly primped curls—and for comfort down below, wearing yoga pants and leather sneakers.

Eventually a short and very authoritative man yells for quiet on the set, and Winfrey begins recording the spots. Salata prompts her with a series of questions about her spiritual beliefs. “I remember praying on my knees the very first night I had been removed from my grandmother,” says Winfrey, who was sent to live with her mother in Milwaukee at the age of 6. “My belief and understanding that there was a force—a presence, a power, a divine entity, a being, that loved me, and the very idea of being loved into being—is what has kept me grounded, what has kept me centered, what has kept me strong.” There’s near-total silence as Salata, sniffling, moves on to the next question.

Belief traces a range of moving stories about people exploring their spirituality or looking for purpose, from a former pro skateboarder on a pilgrimage to Mecca to an atheist who finds meaning by scaling mountains without ropes or a harness. “I welcome people in all of their beliefs that allow them to aspire to the best of their humanness,” Winfrey says. “What really mattered to me about creating a network was having a platform where I could connect ideas that let people see the best of themselves through the lives of other people.”

At one point, I share with Winfrey that there’s a story in Belief I find particularly gripping, about a Christian couple named Ian and Larissa. Ten months into their relationship, Ian suffers a traumatic brain injury that renders him barely able to move or speak. Through their faith, they’re able to stay together and get married. I talk about how I identified with the couple’s ability to find meaning in tragedy, and of the similar journey that began for me after the recent loss of three close family members within a 10-month span.


As I finish telling Winfrey what their story meant to me, I look up and see tears streaming down her face, threatening to ruin her carefully traced eyeliner. “Would you get me some Kleenex, please, so I don’t go ugly-cry on J.J. here?” she yells to her publicist, then turns back to me. “Weren’t you reeling, though? Weren’t you reeling?” Then she tells me she wants to talk off-the-record, and offers some unprompted insight and advice. What she shares is heartfelt, genuine, and appreciated.

Winfrey financed Belief on her own, and it has been quite a project, involving three years of production, hundreds of hours of footage, and thousands of miles traveled by her crew around the globe. “We cast it, sent people all over the world to tell their stories, and have been in the process of refining in order to create this mosaic that makes sense to the viewer,” she says. When Winfrey talks about focusing on the work she cares most about, this is the sort of thing she has in mind. In fact, she says, this is why she wanted to start OWN in the first place. Though the network’s more conventional offerings continue to rake in the ratings, this is what really drives her. She’s giving people what they want in order to support the kind of programming that she feels they need.

In her office, Winfrey keeps a large charcoal drawing titled Having by the artist Whitfield Lovell, which depicts two African-American women, one standing and the other sitting, wearing what appears to be simple, early-1900s-era garb. Winfrey doesn’t say why she’s drawn to it, though she has displayed it—both here and before that in Chicago—for at least a decade. But it’s easy to imagine that this image of black women in a very different time keeps her somehow grounded.

“Through the grace of a force I call God,” Winfrey says, “I have been privileged to live this exquisitely inspired life. Daily, it continues to astound me that I’ve come from where I come from, and I am where I am. I feel that my role here on earth is to inspire people, and to get them to look at themselves. My genuine wish is to do better and be better to everybody. That’s not just some kind of talk for me. That’s who I am.”


About the author

J.J. McCorvey is a staff writer for Fast Company, where he covers business and technology.