The Conan/Leno Debacle? A Giant Lesson in What-Not-to-Do with Talent.

Jessica Lee Current Affairs, Jessica Lee, Leadership

I've always been a Letterman fan although these days, I default to Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley for my late night fix. (Yes, I'm that boring.) But, because I'm a news junkie, the fiasco playing out at NBC with Conan and Leno has been unavoidable. 

Personally, I'm always fascinated when it comes to talent plays in the sports and entertainment world. If I could have my hand in recruiting/casting and hiring talent for a movie, or a TV show, or MLB team… that might be a dream job. So, to get a glimpse into the kinds of issues that might come up via the Conan/Leno debacle? Well, as you can imagine, I'm salivating. And there are a ton of lessons to be learned. But I'll make it simple for you. File this ENTIRE situation in your "what not to do" folder. 

From a public letter that Conan's camp released yesterday - a long excerpt but a good read which makes me like Conan even more: 

"…Six years ago, I signed a contract with NBC to take over The Tonight Show in June of 2009. Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me. I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004 I have spent literally hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the future. It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both.

But sadly, we were never given that chance. After only seven months, with my Tonight Show in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.

Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move the Tonight Show to 12:05 to accommodate the Jay Leno Show at 11:35. For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.

So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it. My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of the Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction. Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the Internet a time slot doesn’t matter. But with the Tonight Show, I believe nothing could matter more.

There has been speculation about my going to another network but, to set the record straight, I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next. My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work…"

Sigh. There are simply too many things wrong with this situation. Let's think about this not as Conan, Leno and NBC, but picture a team within your organization that you advise. You have a senior rockstar who is beginning to look at exiting or retiring. You have an up and coming rockstar who has all the makings to be the next great leader in the organization. What lessons do you take away from this mess?

  • Never guarantee a promotion. Never. Even to your very best A-players. Folks have argued whether you should tell your A-players, as a part of succession planning, about plans to groom them into leadership roles for the future. Telling people they are being groomed for roles? That's actually fine by me especially if such a move will help with retention. You can then help them plan for the future and grow the necessary skills to take things to the next level. Promise them a role though? That's a different story. So, please. Don't do it. You create a sense of entitlement, and that ain't right. 
  • Never put someone into a promised role, then rescind, then offer something that's second best.  If your senior rockstar decides to step aside and go on to something else, and you then move your up and coming rockstar to fill their shoes… but the senior rockstar wants back in? Think about the demoralizing impact you'll have when offering a second best option to your up and comer. Rockstars don't want second best. They may be gracious and patient to wait for their turn for their big shot – but give them a taste then take it away? Not so fast, buddy! And it's why you shouldn't have made any promises to begin with. Don't offer someone a role that you know is their dream job only to take it away from them seven months in and offer something else that is second best. No one is going to be happy with that.
  • There will be a trickle down effect in screwing over a rockstar. Rockstars have groupies. And groupies are loyal. Burn a rockstar in a bad way? Deal with the issue of the groupies ganging up against you too. Conan isn't alone in this situation. He has a team of people who all are working towards the same mission – of getting to the Tonight Show and making it as great as it can be while building upon the legacy and history of the franchise. Mess with Conan and, I guarantee, you deal with the backlash of his groupies and staff too. Not to mention… now look at the potential of this situation sending him to a competitor. Already, there are talks of FOX wanting to offer Conan a gig. Don't drive your A-talent elsewhere because you've over promised and then under delivered. Manage expectations and be fair from the get go. 

Of course, we all know though, that nothing is black and white and there are probably a million back stories to this whole situation. Entertainment proceedings and contracts are probably different from the run of the mill regular employment issues you and I deal with… but let's use this Leno/Conan situation as a reminder for what not to do. Don't over promise and under deliver.