Five management lessons from the Tonight Show debacle


conan_o_brienThe Great Tonight Show War of 2010 is over, and Jay Leno has once again come out on top. But while a lot of digital ink has been spilled over the last month debating whether Leno or Conan O’Brien is funnier, the real story is that this was an astounding failure of NBC’s management. Their executives couldn’t keep a bad situation from becoming worse, and ended up losing one of their top talents.

But federal managers can learn a lot from NBC’s failure. Here are five management lessons you can learn from the Leno/Conan dustup:

1. Career progression is crucial to retaining top talent.

Young, hungry employees in any organization — be it NBC or the Pentagon — need to know they’ll have opportunities to advance. If they don’t, they’ll leave for another organization that will let them grow.

NBC seemed to understand this in 2004, when they promised the Tonight Show chair to Conan to keep him from jumping ship. Ironically, Conan is now expected to start his own talk show at Fox competing against Leno — precisely the scenario NBC hoped to avoid in the first place.

2. Succession planning is just as important.

johnny-carson-portraitJohnny Carson was 66 when he retired from the Tonight Show. Leno turns 60 this year. How many more years will Leno sit behind the Tonight Show desk, and who will take over for him when he retires? Jimmy Fallon? Don’t make FedLine laugh. NBC is going to have to start grooming a successor immediately to ensure a solid new host will be able to take over for Leno. And like the first lesson, this appears to be one NBC understood six years ago, but has since forgotten.

Federal managers shouldn’t make the same mistake. A good manager has to think about what his talent needs will be not just next year, but five or even ten years down the road. Anticipate who is likely to retire and have someone in mind to seamlessly move into his place. This will allow the outgoing employee to train his replacement, and for the replacement to get up to speed.

3. If you’re going to fire someone, just do it already.

While Conan’s last two weeks of shows were some of the best he’s ever done — fueled by a potent mixture of bitterness and a freewheeling “who cares anymore?” attitude — it’s exactly what a manager doesn’t want from a disgruntled employee. After all, Conan called his bosses morons each night, racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalty bills by playing Beatles and Rolling Stones songs, and on his last show, jokingly told his audience that they have one hour to steal everything that wasn’t nailed down. And though Conan went out with a poignant and classy speech, there was a good chance he was going to burn the place down on his way out.

While most fired employees won’t cause trouble when they leave, there’s always that potential. Disgruntled employees might steal office supplies, sabotage something, or do the unthinkable. If an employee cannot or will not improve, it’s best for everybody involved to cut him loose as soon as possible.

4. Be the bigger man. Don’t go around trashing your employee to others in the office — or the press.

Some have criticized Conan and Leno for using their monologues to rip NBC executives as idiots and backstabbers, but that’s to be expected. They’re comedians, and maturity isn’t exactly in their job description. But NBC executive Dick Ebersol made a big mistake by calling Conan “chicken-hearted,” “gutless,” and a “failure” in the New York Times.

If you’re having a dispute with one of your subordinates, it’s best to handle it in private and not air your own grievances around the department. It comes across as petty and makes you look like you’ve lost control of your employees. And you better believe senior executives are watching to see how a middle manager handles discord in his workforce. It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of fallout is in store for NBC executive Jeff Zucker, who was in charge of this fiasco.

5. Don’t send mixed messages.

NBC undermined Conan from the start when they moved Leno’s show virtually unchanged to 10 p.m. This likely meant that many viewers of the Leno Tonight Show just followed him instead of watching Conan’s new Tonight Show. Each show’s ratings suffered as they cannibalized one another’s audience.

Federal managers can easily make the same mistake. If a manager brings in a new leader to run an IT project, but keeps the old project leader on staff for longer than a brief transition period, that’s a recipe for disaster. It sends a message that management isn’t fully confident in the new project leader, and employees could become confused as to whether they should listen to the old guy or the new guy.

Sound off below about what kind of management lessons you’ve taken away from this brouhaha. And we’ll leave you with Conan’s heartfelt last speech to his fans:



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  1. I like Conan & will miss him on the Tonight Show. I won’t watch Leno and who’s going to WANT that spot when Leno AGAIN decides to retire as he had 5 yrs. ago??? His 10:00 crazy idea flopped~! Retire already~! Conan was doing fine for 20 yrs. Leno appeals to the 45+ crowd. Conan has a different style and energy. I hope Conan comes out on top in the end~!

  2. Justa Notherguy on

    For those readers who are too young – or just weren’t particularly interested, at the time – to recall, it might help to get some background on the whole Leno v. Letterman story. Read all about how Jay Leno acquired The Tonight Show hosting gig, way back in 1993.
    . (article from NY Times; 1994)

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