Succession – Conan vs. Leno

successionThis is such an interesting succession case study.

So back in 2004 TV executives at NBC looked ahead and thought… golly gee…in 2009, Jay will be 59. He is a workaholic with lots of motorcycles that he likes to ride so of course he is going to want to retire. They then looked at Conan O’Brien, host of the Late Show with Conan O’Brien, and thought; he is 41, has high ratings and taps into a young hip, spending demographic. Hence, lucrative. They then looked over at Dave Letterman and thought, he will be 62 in 2009 and good grief egads CBS might poach Conan when Letterman retires so we have to get Conan locked down. NOW. So let’s convince Leno he should retire in 2009,  lock down a contract with Conan to take over the Tonight Show in 09, announce the plan to the world and onwards we go. Sound not stupid? Almost.

Here’s what happened… Leno decided not to retire (gasp). Turns out, he likes working… So now we have a new crisis – Leno is at risk of going to another network. So after a couple of backflips by NBC, as of September, Leno will host a new show five nights a week at 10PM that due to the timeslot has TV critics anticipating a train wreck.

But let’s just look at this for a second… what do we learn from this? Succession plans made years in advance don’t tend to work. The world moves way too fast for smug smart decisions made years in advance about people. In 2004, PVR’s didn’t exist. The thought of retiring at 59 was not crazy as we were all striving to achieve our freedom 55, well at 55. Not so anymore… One, the economy has changed retirement plans for a heck of a lot of people, but it also turns out that people who are engaged in their work, well, often want to keep working.  You can’t use age as a the sole indicator of one’s willingness to stop working. Think about the amount of organizations who build succession plans, only to hire from the external market when there is a need for a successor. Having a “hit by a bus plan” is a necessary risk management strategy, but the era of “grooming” and doing backflips to retain “stars” seems antiquated.

Had Conan left NBC for CBS to take over the Letterman show, who’s to say he would not have “boomeranged” back to NBC at some point? No one would judge him for it. We are way past that. The average lifespan of an employee in a job is 22 months. The world is fast, changing and loyalty is not to employers…it is to oneself and one’s social networks.


3 responses to “Succession – Conan vs. Leno

  1. I feel like this is succession planning done wrong but don’t think that organizations shouldn’t do succession planning.

    Shouldn’t organizations groom a few successors with the knowledge that 1) it’s just a plan and 2) you should have a few successors to choose from when it’s time and there is no guarantee of the final outcome?

    In this case, NBC made “the plan” concrete by offering up the contract to Conan years in advance. Shouldn’t they have just kept him as a “warm” candidate until the job actually became vacant?

  2. It’s great to plan for the future – in fact – advisable to be sure; however, there are never any guarantees as to how things will work out. I think we should always consider a back up to our plans – so I agree – have someone in mind; but consider others…there should always be more than one option.

  3. Pingback: Succession – Conan vs. Leno Part 2 « Peoplestuff

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