NBC’s late night shuffle: NOT the model succession plan

Late night television has certainly been in the spotlight the last few weeks; however, it has nothing to do with opening monologues or headliner guests.  NBC’s shuffle of the renowned Tonight Show has created a media stir network television hasn’t seen in some time.  It’s interesting to note that the media frenzy of late is the result of business decisions made at least 4 years ago.

How did we get here?
The first news of any shakeup actually began in late 2004 when Jay Leno announced his “planned” retirement in 2009 (Little is really known as to who was really behind Leno’s decision to leave late night television.).  NBC announced shortly afterward that Conan O’Brien would be his successor.  Less than twenty-four months later, Leno declared that he may not be ready for a full retirement and indicated his possible interest in other possible hosting opportunities.

NBC made no changes in its talent strategy and in July, 2008 announced a more definitive timeline for Conan’s move from Late Night to the Tonight Show.  Leno was still speculative on where he would go.

In a surprising announcement in December 2008, Leno announced he would stay with NBC but move to a prime time slot to be a part of a new programming strategy.

The end of May 2009 said goodbye to Leno as the late night host and said hello to Conan as the new face for The Tonight Show.  Leno began his new prime time show in September of last year.  The fourth quarter of 2009 began the best test:  ratings.  Audiences voted with viewership to both programs.  And surprisingly, or not, neither fared very well in ratings.

Rumors began swirling in mid-January of this year that a programming shake-up was looming.  And on January 8th, NBC confirmed Leno was coming back to late night and Conan’s time slot would revert back to the later time slot.

Then the war really began.

Both Leno and O’Brien offered their perspectives on the subject numerous times, as did many others.  Critics praised and scoffed NBC execs on the matter.   And the result was a $30-$40 million severance package for O’Brien.  A complete timeline of these events is available here.

Possible Take-aways
In the midst of this very public succession plan debacle, there are [at least] four valuable lessons to be learned:

#1  A succession plan is never absolute.
Businesses must plan for its continuity in two areas:  customer relationships and key business knowledge.  It is how businesses sustain their future.  However, any succession plan must have a level of fluidity to adapt to the human element as well as the potential for changing market conditions.  What may appear favorable on paper during the planning phase in reality may not play out as designed.

#2  A successful talent strategy must have the buy-in of the talent.
As leaders tap into up-and-coming talent in an organization, the dialogue must include dual-sided perspectives on the future.  What is best for the organization’s future must match the goals and desires of the talent.  Forced staffing changes may work in the short-term, and may even produce the desired business objectives.  But in the long run, a lack of total buy-in will shortchange the process.  And truthfully, in some way both the organization and individual “fail” as well.

#3  A successful talent strategy always has a Plan B.
In the case of NBC’s recent talent struggle, we saw the pieces of the puzzle move, rotate and ultimately exit because “Plan A” did not manifest to its original hopes.  A secondary plan had to be created, perhaps out of desperation.   How interesting it would have been to sit in NBC’s boardroom to hear the “what will we do now?” discussions.  I’m curious to know if a Plan B was ever really on the table until it was obvious Plan A was not working.

#4  A successful talent strategy has both tangible and intangible outcomes.
It is no secret that NBC execs’ decision to shuffle their talent line-up was grounded in market share and financial returns.  Their hopes of a smooth Leno/Conan transition should have resulted in ratings.  Instead, a media debacle occurred resulting in a tremendous financial payout to Conan.  And on another front, the real casualties from this decision are the numerous staffers who will be displaced when Conan leaves NBC.   Organizational changes always create a ripple effect.

So as you sit back and watch NBC’s possible blunders, it’s easy to point fingers.  The reality is this:   your organization [or mine] may not be publicized on national television.   But the decisions we make about our organization’s future is just as public in the eyes of our employees.

So, here’s the big question:  how are you planning for your organization’s future?

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