Martha Stewart Shares Secrets of Her Success

Dori Meinert By Dori Meinert June 24, 2019
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LAS VEGAS—Martha Stewart, the Emmy Award-winning television host and entrepreneur, shared some of the secrets of her success with more than 18,000 HR professionals and other business leaders gathered June 23, the opening day of the Society for Human Resource Management 2019 Annual Conference & Exposition.

"Learn, be curious and ask the right questions," she told the crowd. "I'm an extremely curious person. I'm constantly trying to find out new things. Every day, I drive my driver crazy in the city because I won't let him go down the same street twice. We have to go down a new street because we might see something interesting."

She applies the same curiosity to her business ventures.

Stewart also discussed her recovery from personal and professional challenges and the future of work in a wide-ranging conversation with Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, SHRM president and chief executive officer.

Some of Stewart's comments seemed somewhat out of touch with the modern workforce, according to social media reaction after her interview.

When Taylor asked her how she responds to employee activism and concerns, she said of complaints about working conditions in the high-tech industry that, "I wonder how terrible it really is.... Give those guys a job in the coal mines, see how they like it."  

HR's role is to listen and relay information to business leaders, but she said sometimes HR departments hide the information or sometimes leaders don't want to listen.

Stewart spent five months in a federal correctional facility in 2004 following her conviction for obstruction of justice, making false statements and conspiracy for lying to investigators. She called that experience "a life-changing, total disaster."

"It could have been life-threatening, a disaster like that," she said. However, she wasn't raised to give up, she said. She found ways to contribute. She taught classes in entrepreneurial behavior, advising other incarcerated women on their business proposals.

Stewart said she supports SHRM's Getting Talent Back to Work initiative, helping those with criminal records be considered for jobs.

"Making the best of such a horrible event is hard. It's very hard," she said. "You must have the ability to look forward and not look back."

Martha Stewart at SHRM's 2019 Annual Conference and Exposition.

As a chief executive officer working with numerous HR directors over the years, Stewart said the best ones "listen really well. They digest what they're hearing really well. They take care of problems in the best possible way. They know the business. They have to know the laws and keep track of changes in the laws.

"They have to change with the times, and they have to know what the corporate culture is so they can help fill vacancies and solve problems in that corporate culture. They have to listen to the CEO and other people who set the tone of the company and try to reflect that tone throughout the workplace," she said, noting that her current company outsources HR.   

Asked about her reputation as a demanding boss, she said, "Demanding is good. We all need a work ethic. I work 24/7. I don't expect everyone to do that, but some of them should."

Over the years, she learned to adapt to change. The company she founded, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, was sold in 2015 and again this past April. Her motto is "When you're through changing, you're through."

She noted her unlikely friendship and business relationship with rapper Snoop Dogg.

"It's astonishing what you learn from Snoop and his friends," she said, prompting laughter from the audience. "My demographic changed massively with that association."

Earlier in the session, she chided Taylor for disclosing her age. She's 77. "They don't mention the men's age, ever," she said.

She isn't planning to retire and doesn't advise others to do so, either. "It's such a huge waste of talent," she said.

When she envisions the workplace of the future, she thinks everyone should be interested in artificial intelligence and how it impacts business. "What are the threats? What can AI really do for us? I think it can do a lot for us," she said. "So learn about it, see if there are any applications that can take over certain aspects of that company and try to find other jobs for those people fast."

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