Jay Leno and Messed Up Succession Planning – When Do You Kick the Old Guy (Who’s #1) Out?

Is it "Messed Up Succession Plan" month in the highly visible businesses of professional sports and broadcast TV?

Brett Favre you’re aware of.  Have you heard of the succession plan drama unfolding with Jay Leno at NBC?

Four years ago, someone at the network came up with the bright idea to replace the aging Leno withJay_leno_2 the up-and-coming O’Brien in 2009. Seemed like a no-brainer at the time. After all, Leno supposedly would be running out of steam and would peacefully step aside.  After all, companies often have candid conversations regarding the career plans of executives and time their succession plans accordingly.

There’s just this tiny problem.  Someone may have forgotten to sit down with Leno, when the time came to announce the succession plan, and check to see if he still planned on exiting the business.

More on Leno and NBC’s succession plan from the Contra Costa Times:

"Do you get the feeling that when it comes time for Jay Leno to hand over his late-night baton to Conan O’Brien, he will instead storm into the offices of NBC and tell the Peacock to stick it where the sun don’t shine?

It could happen. Under NBC’s royally screwed-up succession plan, a lot of things could.

But now trouble seems to be brewing. In recent weeks, Leno has pointedly joked on his show about possibly landing at ABC and has said in an interview with USA Today that he was "definitely done" with NBC. This, despite the fact that NBC officials have often stated they want Leno to remain in the family and do something — anything.

So even though Leno played along with NBC execs the other day by appearing at the network’s portion of the TV critics press tour disguised as a bald and bearded reporter, it seems apparent that he’s bitter over the way all this is going down.

Still, NBC is proceeding as planned. The network announced that Leno’s last "Tonight Show" appearance would be May 29, 2009 and that O’Brien would take over three nights later. In addition, the unproven Jimmy Fallon will take over O’Brien’s show.

All of which prompted one genuine journalist to ask NBC co-chairmen Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff : "What happens when Jay Leno goes to ABC and kicks Conan’s (butt)?" Hey, it’s a distinct possibility — and think of how embarrassing would that be for NBC. Even more embarrassing would be a scenario in which both Leno and CBS’s David Letterman kick O’Brien’s butt in the ratings."

Tough spot for NBC.  At the time they put the plan together (4 years), it made perfect sense.  Leno probably was consulted, and indicated he would do his current contract and ride off into the sunset.  So they put the plan together and used the formal succession plan timing as a retention tool, by communicating to O’Brien.  Good work.

The problem is that now, Leno looks like he’s not ready to leave the business.  Leno’s #1, and while O’Brien is the clear choice to serve as the successor, that only works if Leno was going to retire as planned.  If Leno goes to ABC, the probability is that he’ll be #1 in the late night spot within 15 months.  Leno’s the mainstream play, O’Brien’s the frat kid – witty, but an acquired, niche taste when it comes to mainstreet America.  Leno’s everyman, with another 5 good years, if he wants to do it.

Which brings us to the moral of the story.  Never kick the #1 industry guy out of the nest, until you’re sure he’s ready to go, especially if he can compete against you.  And while you’re at it, always ask yourself if you are SURE you want to communicate the succession plan to the kid.  You never know when you might want to change your mind. 

As far as succession plan issues go, this one makes the Brett Favre situation look small in comparison.

Why?  Because you can’t send Leno to the TV equivalent of the Jets.  He’ll go to the equivalent of the Bears, and you’ll see him EVERY night.  Ouch….

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Kris Dunn
 Kris Dunn is Chief Human Resources Officer at Kinetix and a blogger at The HR Capitalist and the Founder and Executive Editor of Fistful of Talent. That makes him a career VP of HR, a blogger, a dad and a hoops junkie, the order of which changes based on his mood. Tweet him @kris_dunn. Oh, and in case you hadn't heard the good word, he's also jumped into the RPO game as part owner of a rising shop out of ATL, Kinetix. Not your mama's recruiting process outsourcing, that's for sure... check 'em out.


  1. John Hollon says:

    NBC seems to have a big problem with late night succession planning. They screwed it up in the early 90s when they passed over up-and-comer NBC employee/late night talk host David Letterman to replace Johnny Carson and went with Leno instead, an episode memorably chronicled in the book and HBO movie “The Late Show.”
    Now, NBC is repeating the same mistake again, it seems, although in a slightly different way. What’s that quote about stuff like this — “those who fail to study the past are doomed to repeat it???”

  2. Mark Underwood says:

    This always points up one simple fact. The network programming heads are so far removed from reality that they continue to make unqualified decisions like this one. The old saying goes, “those who can do, those who can’t, rise to the top and continue to get paid huge salaries while the company loses millions”. Such a shame. This is proof positive as to why cable and satellite services have flourished. Viewers disagree with the programming departments of the big 3 networks. I bet that if Leno had to settle for USA or A&E, he could beat any other late night show in the 10:30 CST time slot.
    It’s ironic that Jay Leno started copying the schticts and stunts that Letterman was using years ago and increased his own ratings by copying Dave’s formats and segments. Today, Dave has sunk down into the pit of depression and antiquity. IF anyone needs to leave late night, it’s Letterman. This said, it will be poetic to see poor old Dave beat the boxers off of Conan. Sad thought. Wake Up NBC !!

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