Salt Lake City Utah - not the typical rendezvous joint to find the likes of Obama, Richard Branson, or Oprah, but there they all somehow converged to share their personal journeys to an audience of 11,000 attendees at the X4 Qualtrics Conference. For obvious reasons, I normally don't share anecdotes from Stakeholder Management Conferences. But the theme of this year's conference was Breakthrough Moments.
On Day 1 - Barack Obama and Richard Branson shared their personal stories. Both are charismatic and self-deprecating, while inspiring others to tackle the world's toughest challenges by surrounding themselves with smart people and taking the ego out of everything they really wanted to accomplish. Each are superb storytellers, making me laugh so hard I forgot I was at a tech conference.
My favorite anecdotes from Day 1...
In reference to the largest oil spill in history by BP, Obama's biggest critic at the end of the day wasn't the public or his political opponents.. but his daughter, as he recalls her asking after several days of dealing with the crises.... Did you cover up that hole yet? Obama's response..... not yet.
Recalling how a large crowd had accumulated on the block where he was shopping... and asking himself... I didn't think I was that popular in this part of the world... only to see that the "real celebrity" was just arriving to her roaring fans... it was Oprah Winfrey.
I didn't think things could get more exciting after Day 1, but I was unequivocally wrong!!
As a researcher, I marvel at Oprah's ability to connect with people and her skills as a moderator. As an entrepreneur and a storyteller, her life story is inspiring. But what she took away from those experiences and her articulation of her message is her greatest gift. Breakthrough Moments resonated with her - and so she came to share her story on Day 2 of the conference - and her message still endures.
First - a little background on how she grew up. She was born into poverty, where she had no running water and no electricity. Kids thought she knew Abraham Lincoln, because she described her living conditions as if she lived in the 1800s.
In her early years, she was raised by her grandmother. At 6 years old, she went to live with her mother and endured years of abuse by family members and a close family friend.
In her high school years, she went to live with her dad where she began to excel in school, winning oratory competitions and the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant. She was hired as a part-time news radio host at a black radio station... and the rest is history, so I thought. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oprah_Winfrey).
Years later, when she began hosting talk shows, her epiphany moments came after she hosted two harrowing talk shows. In the first show, she interviewed members of the KKK and in the second show, the producers asked her to speak with three people in an atypical relationship: a husband, his wife, and the husband's girlfriend. They were seemingly different subjects, but had very similar outcomes and impact on Oprah. The KKK insulted her throughout the show and used the media platform to bring legitimacy to their actions and recruit more members. The husband told his wife on national television that his girlfriend was pregnant.
Through both events, Oprah formed her epiphanies. These epiphanies created principles that she's lives by and shares widely in her public appearances.
Intention & Purpose
The first principle is do everything with intention and purpose. She made clear to producers going forward, every show would have intention and purpose, with the ultimate goal of helping others. The talk-show landscape was forever changed by Oprah. Whether it was someone who lost a child or a loved one, Oprah would always ask what is it that you want me to do for you? She wanted her work to have intention, and often, it was connecting and healing generations around the globe through personal stories of tragedy and redemption. In her words....
The second principle is leverage crises as teaching moments. Oprah shares the power of intuition, or what we commonly refer to as quiet voices. We hear them throughout our lives but we ignore them, possibly to our detriment. This intuition can be warnings before impending crisis, or they can be voices that tell us to slow down, be patient, or wait. Throughout our lives, we will have challenges and crisis, but many can be mitigated if we listened earlier and more carefully to our inner voices. She recounted how crisis in her media empire came about when she failed to listen to her intuition. But most importantly, she used these moments as teaching opportunities for herself. Sometimes she uses examples of infidelity in relationships - she asks if there may have been clues that something was not quite right earlier on. When crisis does strike, she asks herself, what are you here to teach me? It could be losing your job or failing at something that you've always wanted. It could be loved ones that leave us or families that fall apart. In these moments, leverage clarity of thought to mitigate the pain and help make the burden better to bear, as well as pondering these moments as opportunities to change course.
The third principle is understanding that being heard is the fundamental connecting element that binds us. In all the years building up to Oprah's media empire and hearing countless personal stories from those she has invited to her show, one element clarified how we are all connected. No matter how it was asked to her, everyone she had interviewed in her career, always end up asking her.... how did they do? Even President Obama asked her if his interview worked for her. Ultimately, she believes it is everyone's need to be heard, or to be acknowledged that they have been heard, that connects us. Whether it's in a work environment or in a home environment - this fundamental need plays out in every human interaction - in some form or another. And knowing this need in each one of us, helps us to understand the deeper motivation behind the many layers of how we express it.
The final principle is do everything in-service to others.
" when you are passionate about something and do it, in-service of others, the universe will reward you in ways you could not imagine. "
As a researcher, I am reminded of human-centered design thinking - where we put people at the core of what we build, it is essentially in-service to the end-consumer. When companies stray from this and put sales goals before ideas that can benefit their consumers, they will eventually fail to innovate when and where it is most needed.
There are so many examples of successful human-centered design thinking when we see new brands disrupt traditional spaces...
+ Richard Branson started the idea of Virgin Atlantic Airways because he and fellow passengers were left stranded in Puerto Rico via a cancelled flight - so he chartered his own plane and charged a nominal fee to passengers to cover the flight costs.
+ Exchange Traded Funds disrupted the investing and mutual fund industry by reducing operating costs, being diversified like a mutual fund, but trading intraday, like a stock.
And then she left us with one a final quote from a civil rights leader...
“Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great because greatness is determined by service”