Oprah: A Case Study Comes Alive

Writing a business case on the icon of daytime television and chief executive of a major media empire was challenge enough for HBS professor Nancy Koehn and colleagues. Oprah Winfrey's visit to campus to talk with graduating students made it ample reward.
by Martha Lagace

The best and brightest executives in the world are common visitors to the MBA classrooms at Harvard Business School, giving students a personal opportunity to talk to the likes of Ann Fudge, Lou Gerstner, Meg Whitman, and Jack Welch.

Still, when Professor Nancy Koehn introduced her guest on the last day of class this past spring, "everyone did a double take," Koehn recalls. Oprah Winfrey was in the house.

How the icon of daytime television and chief executive of a major media empire came to HBS after three years of effort is a story in itself. And what she told students brought them a unique perspective about leaders and leadership in the twenty-first century. "I think she's a great bellwether for the future of business," Koehn says. "Maybe she and her organization are on a path that a lot of leaders and organizations are going to be on."

How It Began

The idea for using Winfrey as the basis for one of HBS' hallmark case studies began simply enough. In the spring of 2002 when Koehn was teaching the first-year MBA course, The Entrepreneurial Manager, student Mia Mends approached Koehn privately and noted that thus far many of the cases in her experience focused on IT businesses and involved male protagonists. Mends thought it would be exciting to explore a wider range of model companies and leaders, and Koehn, whose work has often focused on entrepreneurs in unconventional settings, agreed. Mends suggested working on a case about Oprah Winfrey. The idea seemed feasible because Mends had once met Winfrey through a personal connection at college.

"I thought it was a fabulous possibility for several reasons," Koehn explained. "One, based on intuition, was that there's something very powerful about Oprah Winfrey. I did not watch her show regularly, I did not read her magazine, but I knew enough about her story to know that there's something interesting—broadly compelling—about her and what she and her organization are up to.

"The second thing was that no one that I had ever encountered had told her story as an entrepreneurial tale, although she'd been written about every which way as a celebrity, as a star. But no one, to my knowledge, had told the business story of this phenomenally successful entrepreneur. And that meant there was an opening.

"Third—and this was coming from a historian's antennae going up—I thought there was potentially something generalizeable in Oprah's journey. I've always been interested in individuals whose experience summarizes large lessons for our moment. So, here, I was interested in what is it about Oprah that business leaders can learn from in the twenty-first century."

As the research on the Oprah Winfrey case got going, Mends and Koehn were joined by another MBA student, Edrienne Brandon; Koehn's research associate, Erica Helms; and Koehn's assistant, Elizabeth Sampson.

Since Winfrey's company, Harpo Productions, Inc., is privately owned, it is not required to disclose extensive financial information. Thus Koehn and her team had to search high and low to try to piece together Winfrey's business model and understand her company's revenues, costs, and competitive advantage in the crowded, rivalrous market of daytime television. They also devoted considerable energy to reconstructing Winfrey's life and the path she had forged before founding Harpo (Oprah spelled backwards) Productions.

The women saw the project as an entrepreneurial story, according to Koehn, the story of "how one person saw an opportunity, and put this possibility together with people, other resources, and a broader context to create a viable market offering. One of the questions the case raises is 'what is Winfrey in the business of? What is she offering her consumers, viewers, magazine readers, and the people who buy the books she recommends through her book club?'"

Throughout late 2002 and early 2003, Koehn and her team continued working on the project. However, after many months of research and a visit to Chicago to watch Winfrey tape a show, they still had not gained access to company executives. The Harpo staff was polite, but extremely busy. At times, it was frustrating and discouraging to the women at Soldiers Field. "We knew this was a great story. We knew it would be much richer, much more alive, with company input. But we could not get in," said Koehn.

Looking back on the process, Koehn and Sampson said they learned not to take rejections personally because their requests were merely a few among the thousands of pieces of mail that Harpo Productions received every week. The experience also taught them the value of teamwork and the necessity of not allowing each other to become discouraged.

I was interested in what it is about Oprah that business leaders can learn from in the twenty-first century.
—Nancy Koehn

Paraphrasing her HBS colleague, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Koehn said, "In the middle of every initiative, journey, or big project, it will feel like a failure. And we felt that way, it's fair to say, at a number of junctures along the three-year road to completing this case."

Students Intrigued by First-Draft Case

After two years of steady work, Koehn and Helms had enough material to complete a draft case based on the public sources. Koehn taught it at the end of 2004 to second-year MBAs, and then to some executives. She was struck by how excited both groups were. "I could tell teaching the case the first time that the room was on fire."

"Everyone was engaged with it, men and women. I remember a male MBA student who had a finance background raising his hand and saying, 'My mom got divorced several years ago, and I have to tell you that Oprah's been like a guru to her.' He was not your typical "Oprah" watcher. He spoke with great respect about Oprah because he had watched his mother find so much inspiration in Oprah's television show."

"By that time it was clear that part of what Oprah was offering was a set of insights or connections about what former HBS dean Kim Clark used to call leadership with a small 'l'—individual empowerment, self-improvement, and inspirational lessons for our daily lives. These insights were not confined to typical talk-show topics. They were not limited to subjects often identified with women. They did not revolve around the latest fashions, scandals, or celebrity gossip. It was clear that she was talking about something much bigger and much more generalizeable, and much more engaging for a large group of people."

The excitement generated by the public source case made Koehn's team even more committed to filling in the gaps with personal feedback from Harpo management and, ideally, from Winfrey herself. Finally, events began to move very fast. The breakthrough came after Koehn shared the project and its classroom impact with Jeannette Wagner, former vice chair of The Estée Lauder Companies Inc. and member of the HBS Board of Dean's Advisors. Wagner recommended that they send a copy of the case to Leonard Lauder, chairman of Estée Lauder. The chain of personal contacts began to grow: Lauder in turn introduced Koehn to Gayle King, a close friend of Winfrey's and the editor-at-large of O, The Oprah Magazine. King was delighted by the case in progress, and arranged an introduction to Tim Bennett, president of Harpo Productions.

The case was finally taking shape. But before Koehn and her team could start interviewing executives, Harpo's media relations department wanted to make sure that the case was factually correct, and so a thorough fact-checking process, lasting several months, began. When this was completed, Koehn and Helms interviewed several Harpo executives, including the president, the chief financial officer, and the executive producer of "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

The interviews made the case much richer. "In researching the case from public sources, we had missed the passion of the Harpo team, what makes these women and men get up in the morning and go do this. Oprah has an incredibly committed team. There is very, very little turnover. People want to work. Her people love their work. Just like when the case was taught the first time and you could feel the energy in the classroom, you can feel the passion when the executives talk on the phone. And you hear their knowledge and intelligence about the business they run.

"You can see how the left side and the right side of an organization come together to produce something that matters, and that is also, by the way, very successful financially."

The interviews also helped Koehn to see that the story of Winfrey and Harpo was bigger than Koehn's original vision. "I realized two years into the case-writing process that it's about more than serving a particular set of consumer needs of a given moment."

"It is also a story of leadership and collective commitment," she said. "It was clear that Winfrey's staff think, to a one, that they have a very important mission that they are fulfilling as an organization; and that they have very important precepts for how they execute and engage with that mission and execute it day to day.

People expect new things from business and [Harpo Productions] has a sense of that.
—Nancy Koehn

"For example, no one starts a meeting at Harpo without stating, 'Here is my intention.' It operates this way at high levels in the company as well as on day-to-day tactical levels."

"There are all kinds of interesting leadership lessons," Koehn continued. "And a lot of them come from her, but it was clear that there were some other very important pieces to the story. Our case is called "Oprah Winfrey," but like every case that is named after one person, there's a village of people behind her, and we were getting to know those people."

The months were still ticking by, however, and by early 2005 Koehn wanted very much to teach the new, improved case to more students before they graduated in the spring. As the project evolved, her team became conscious of other sources of Winfrey's success—beyond traditional measures of market performance. "Consumers," Koehn said, "are interested in how a product or offering meets a specific need or satisfies a given want. But they are increasingly also looking at companies' business practices—at how a product was made, at how a seller deals with its employees—as they make their buying decisions." Just as consumers have begun to develop a fuller sense of their part in the global community—by protesting certain labor practices in foreign countries or buying fair-trade products, for example—consumers expect a sense of community and justice that Winfrey's example is stoking.

"So it was clear that one of the things that's really a big part of Harpo is the responsibility that that organization and its leaders—all of them—feel, because they have impact and because that's where the world is going. People expect new things from business, and this organization has a sense of that. I spoke with Tim Bennett at some point about mission and social responsibility in the context of Harvard Business School's purpose, and Tim said, 'You know, I think you need to talk to Oprah about this.'" And that's what happened.

At the end of March 2005, Winfrey phoned Koehn precisely as arranged, and the interview, originally scheduled for twenty minutes, lasted an hour and twenty minutes.

Koehn reflected, "Her message to our case was about purpose: one's purpose and one's service. I thought it was a very important, clear, and surprisingly rare message from the public stage at this moment in history. And it was said so accessibly, with great inspiration but also with great humility. That combination of inspiration and humility I found absolutely compelling."

Oprah Attends Class

Last May as Koehn prepared to teach the new case to two sections of The Coming of Managerial Capitalism course, she invited Harpo executives and Winfrey herself to come to class. No one dared to imagine that Winfrey would take the time to attend, but she did.

"The students all did double takes when they saw Oprah sitting at the back of the classroom. I thought they would be a little nervous. But they were fantastic in each class I taught."

After both sessions, Winfrey took the floor for half an hour to speak informally and address specific questions that the students had raised about her company. Winfrey said,

If you only desire to make money, you can do that. Obviously, everybody in here is going to make money. Everybody in here is going to have a level of financial success that most people in the world will not know. But what I will tell you—and I know this for sure too—that the money only lasts for a while in terms of making you feel great about yourself. In the beginning, the money is to get nice things. And once you've gotten those nice things, I think some of the most unhappy people I know are the people who've acquired all the things and now they feel like, 'What else is there?' What else is there? What else is there? And that feeling of 'what else is there' is the calling—is the calling trying to say to you [that] there is more than this. There is more than this.

"It was just a great message. And the students heard it."

In the end, says Koehn, "I think what really impressed the students was Oprah Winfrey's sense of the big picture and how individuals matter to that big picture. That's really the essence of leadership."

Koehn took away some other observations. "Many people attribute some of her success to the apparent contradictions or anomalies about her: She's a woman in what is mostly a man's world. Entertainment at both the corporate and entertainer level is still dominated primarily by men. She's an African American in what is still predominantly a white person's world. And for many years, off and on, she's been a heavy person in a skinny person's world."

"And therein, I think, lies another lesson for the twenty-first century. Success, despite or because of such contradictions, shows us where people's focus is, and where some of the new drivers of inspiration are. We are moving to a world that is more diverse, that is more comfortable with that difference.

"We are moving into a world in which just the self as a primary unit of analysis may no longer be enough; where benefits, satisfaction, and purpose are about connecting not only one's own needs, but also with one's needs in relation to helping others, or trying to help others, however indirectly.

"This was another level that I didn't see before this project, and I think it's very important in this case. It's another reason the students are engaged by the message 'find your purpose, it's about service.' And it's a lesson we at Harvard Business School, I think, understand, as very much in keeping with our mission. In that sense we need to be very conscious of our responsibility as a school, as an educational institution, of where the world is going."

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.