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

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.

FOT Background Check

Jessica Lee
Jessica Lee is a VP of TA at Marriott International where she leads a team that enables the company to think big, broad and boldly about all things talent acquisition and in effect, keeps them relevant and ahead of the curve in how they attract and acquire top talent. Don't be fooled by that fancy pants title and description though, she's still an everyday HR gal in the trenches at the core. SPHR certified, a decade and a half into trench HR life... she can whip up a corrective action plan or source for your purple squirrel in a heartbeat. Talk to Jessica via EmailLinkedInTwitter or Facebook... See Jessica's riffs and rants on Fistful of Talent here...


  1. Nick says:

    I think this is completely unfair to Conan and his fans. 12:05 is entirely too late for some people to watch television, and NBC’s ratings may consequently suffer from it.

  2. HRPufnstuf says:

    Jessica, I have 2 thoughts:
    1. You are right about the treatment of rock stars thing. NBC has never fully recovered from their last late night debacle between Jay and Dave.
    2. Conan did mess up somewhat. NBC never promised him a time slot, only the tonight show. He made the assumption that the show would air at 11:35, and never got that put into the contract. The lesson there is “always get it in writing” or you will get screwed.

  3. Lisa McDonald says:

    Honestly – I don’t think they ever gave Conan a fair shot – Jay started out miserably and then caught on. If you don’t set the guy up for succeess (lousy prime time shows, bad leads ins) what did they think was going to happen. The bad thing is that Conan is now viewed as ‘damaged goods’ by any other network so maybe he should go back to writing for the Lampoon or The Simpsons. Homer is probably better qualified to run that network anyway. Chalk this one up to a big D’oh!

  4. fran melmed says:

    never let your talent outclass you. at least keep pace. conan’s letter got him the sympathy vote and upperhand, even with those who don’t watch him and don’t care.

  5. Brian Thomas says:

    definitely makes me appreciate Conan. He is handling this like a class act. He is not bad mouthing his employer but standing behind the integrity of the Tonight Show.

  6. Great analysis! Very profound and bang on. Managing Talent is always touch – especially when dealing with egos and poeple with influence in your organization.
    Unfortunately it is usually the one who complains that gets the special treatment while people who deal in class will be assume to handle the adversity with more professionalism – that isn’t right!

  7. I think the whole late night thing is so over… I didn’t think anything of the new Leno was funny. And I can’t watch Letterman anymore because of the issue with all of the women on his staff that he probably harassed into sexual relationships for years. And Conan has always seemed mean in his humor.
    So I watch Countdown and Rachel Maddow earlier in the evening, and catch them later if I can’t see them earlier. MSNBC is the real winner in all of this, along with the internet sites we all watch.

  8. StephenOwens says:

    The whole thing reminds me of the Tennessee Volunteers coaching situation. The days of loyalty are pretty much over. “What’s in it for me” should be what’s written the new contracts because that’s all that matters in cases like this.
    Did anyone stop to think that maybe people are happy with Jay Leno’s new time-slot? People might just like the mind-numbing entertainment rather than another “stare-at-the-camera-in-an-overly-dramatic-manner” crime drama.

  9. Chris Young says:

    Talent management lessons abound on this one aren’t there, Jessica!
    I’ve shared your thoughts on this issue with my readers in my weekly Rainmaker ‘Fab Five’ blog picks of the week (found here: so that they can learn from this whole mess and avoid making similar mistakes in their own organization.
    Be well!

  10. Joseph Yi says:

    These are some great points Jessica. I love how you broke down the Conan situation not from the point of view of Conan or Jay, as most do, but from an organization as a whole. Great job and keep up the great work!

  11. L says:

    Wow, well put. Conan waited 16 years to get a shot at the Tonight Show and he would’ve waited longer, given how much he wanted his entire career to remain at NBC. But taking a demotion after all the great things he’s done for that network? Devalue a show he’s had on a pedestal since childhood? He couldn’t do it. It’s really respectable.

  12. Puma Outlet says:

    Iran’s actions may very well be a response to a perceived threat from the USA, but do you know how moronic you sound when say things like “comfortably settling” and “no intention of leaving”? Do some homework, bergamo, before trying to comment intelligently on world affairs.

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