The Big Lesson for All Managers in the Conan vs. Leno Feud


The unsuccessful hand-off of a business
from one owner to another is so common these days that its mere mention
likely brings an extended yawn to most people.  Many of the failures
have been attributed to too-little or too-late succession planning. 

But the failed hand-off from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien has not only
become fodder for business school case studies but headline news on
Entertainment Tonight and The National Enquirer. 

What’s the big deal about a TV show with a declining audience? Even after 70 years on the air, daytime’s longest-running soap, “Guiding Light,” was canceled. And CBS recently announced that “As the World Turns” will air its final episode soon after 54 years.

Times change and so do entertainment tastes.  So what then makes “The Tonight Show” fiasco so fascinating?

As the Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, ‘Leno-Conan Mess Offers Management Lessons.’  The
article points out two critical missteps made by NBC: “It’s a bad idea
to promise someone a promotion in order to retain him … and so is
naming a successor too far in advance.”

While I agree these are blatant mistakes, the article misses several inherent landmines management keeps tiptoeing around.

Leno, like many other Baby Boomers, wasn’t ready to leave.
Unlike Traditionalists (born before 1946) and older Baby Boomers who
aspire to retire, many Boomers are just launching new careers or
getting a second wind. When they were 45 or 50 years old, retirement at
60 sounded good. But for a variety of reasons, retirement in the
traditional sense of “stop working” is essentially dead. Compare this
to the hand-off from Johnny Carson to Leno. Leno’s first year was no
picnic but Carson remained silent and stayed away. Carson retired —
period.  That was then — this is now.

I saw the same phenomenon 30 years ago in my prior career when
dentists and physicians brought in associates to initiate a succession
plan. They promised ownership and equity but just could never let go,
get out of the way, or make room at the top. Today this trend is
epidemic. Baby Boomers promised Gen X the opportunity to move up and
take over but as the due date neared, they wanted an open-ended
invitation to stay. Since they owned the game ball, Gen X is expected
to play by their rules or leave.

Many Gen X (born 1965-1979) have and will choose the latter. Fed up
with these shenanigans, their Gen X successors and future source of
leadership talent are deciding they had enough with this artificially
imposed “gray ceiling.” The
Leno-Conan feud is a classic inter-generational conflict with grave
consequences for NBC … and a huge lesson for anyone managing a
business. While NBC had the best of both worlds for 5 years, they now
are losing Conan anyway plus paying him along with his staff millions
as part of severance. 

Leno, the ultimate Baby Boomer, is taking the helm again. How many
times has this scenario been repeated in real-life? How many times has
a business owner announced his retirement to allow the next generation
to move up only to renege on the deal or jump back into the business at
the first sign of trouble? With nearly 8,000 Baby Boomers turning 60
every day, this abortion of succession planning is being repeated with
a frightening frequency… and only to get worse since most businesses
have no plan at all.

NBC also ignore the demographics and the way different generations
use media. In effect they ignored the demographics completely. Leno has
a Baby Boomer following. Conan’s largest audience comes from Gen X and
young Baby Boomers. Just like with any transition, you can’t dictate
change. NBC’s plan was to tell Baby Boomers they can still watch Leno…
but be forced to change their viewing habits. When has that strategy
ever worked? 

They then allowed Conan to make his mark without any consideration
to the viewers. Yes, Conan retained the Gen X  audience but lost many
Baby Boomers. Did NBC even bother to consider that there are only half
as many Gen X as Boomers? How did they expect to maintain or grow
market share if Conan didn’t adapt his show?

The underlying lessons in this failed succession plan have much more
to do with demographics and generational values than succession plan
timing as the WSJ article pointed out.  NBC ignored the gray ceiling
and miscalculated miserably the impact that generational difference
will have on business.

The resentment between Gen X and Baby Boomers is heating up.  The
recession kept the conflict on simmer for the past two years. But I
predict that the failed succession of Leno to O’Brien is only the first
sign of a generational melting pot ready to boil over.

Source: Workforce Trends

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