Five Lessons From Conan vs Leno

Have You Been Conaned?

Have You Been Conaned?(Image via Wikipedia)

NBC promised Conan O’Brien in writing that he’d inherit the tonight show from Jay Leno this past fall. Leno would have his new time slot, Conan would have time to mold his show, and everybody would be happy. Until…

I won’t rehash the whole story, except to say that NBC found itself caught between the affiliates, Leno, and contractual obligations to their late night lineup.

So what do they come up with? Taking a cue from Captain Kirk, they changed the nature of the test by rescheduling their entire late night lineup.

Conan Strikes Back

In a masterful letter to NBC (addressed to “People of Earth” – I love it!), Conan called them on their stupid solution. You can’t start the Tonight at 12:05am, that would make it the Tomorrow Show. Besides, that fundamentally makes the “new” Tonight Show a totally different thing – not the one promised Conan in his contract.

(BTW, kudos to Conan on his missive. I’ve found myself in similar situations of management shenanigans with far less money on the line, and responded way less admirably.)

This Could Be You

This scenario bears our attention because this can very easily happen to us, employees and entrepreneurs alike.

  • You could be The Conan, where your managers decide they want to move in a very different direction from the one they promised you. (A good friend of mine is in that very spot, having been “Conaned” by his former partners.)
  • You could be The Leno, finding yourself caught between the loyalty you built up and a bad fit with your position. Lots of folks promoted over their heads have ended up here, and usually find themselves “seeking new employment opportunities” in short order.
  • You could be The Network, stuck in a no-win scenario of having to choose which one of two highly productive people you can keep. Your conduct can lose you points with your employees and customers alike, and if you handle things really badly you could even lose both.
  • You could even be The Other Guys like Jimmy Fallon or the production crews, who are all doing their jobs and could end up out on their butts through no fault of their own.

So What Can We Learn?

Regardless of how this eventually plays out, there are some important lessons we can learn in case we find ourselves in similar straits:

  1. Build your personal brand — Remember, we’re not talking NBC’s Conan and NBC’s Leno. The fact that both hosts have such a large and established personal brand gives them the leverage to force a deal with NBC or drive demand elsewhere. For you, don’t forget to keep networking for yourself (not just for your company). Use all the networking tools at your disposal, from Twitter and social media to networking events and conferences. It will make things easier for you in case you find yourself an unwilling entrepreneur. Don’t wait to build your brand either; if you don’t start until you need it, you’re already too late.
  2. Sometimes there is no bad guy — Conan and Leno did nothing wrong, both put on good shows and fulfilled their contracts. NBC isn’t the bad guy either, they made a business decision to move Leno to an earlier slot and it didn’t work out. NBC is now caught between the contracts they signed and wanting to keep both productive employees. Yes, it’s easy to paint it as a “good vs evil” thing, but sometimes these things are just the result of bad luck or bad decisions. In your case, try to avoid this thinking as it could cloud your assessment of your options.
  3. There are always possibilities — Another “Wrath of Khan” quote, this time from Spock. Whatever things look like, there are always other possibilities that you should search for. Conan had some humorous ones (i.e. quitting TV for an industry with a better class of people, like hard core porn). Look objectively at your situation and search for alternatives like switching industries, starting your own small business, etc.
  4. Never underestimate public opinion — Conan and Leno have always been pretty popular and likable. (NBC… not so much.) In this situation, though, the court of public opinion seems squarely behind Conan. This lets him take the high road while others fight on his behalf. In your situation, the public perception of you as the bad guy could erase years of goodwill in a heartbeat. Be mindful of that back channel, and try to make it work for you. The pressure from Conan supporters could end up making NBC’s decision in his favor, and similar pressure could do the same for you too.
  5. Be prepared to walk away — If the circumstances make the offer you really want untenable, always be prepared to walk away. Remember, David Letterman wanted the Tonight Show when Johnny Carson retired; NBC promised it to him but gave it to Leno instead. (In fact, I bet that Conan got that promise in his contract precisely because NBC broke its Letterman promise.) Rather than “shut up and take it” Dave took a deal with CBS and hasn’t looked back. Similarly, you need to be ready to do the same thing. If you aren’t willing to walk away, then the other side has already won.

It remains to be seen how this will play out (my money’s on Conan pulling a Letterman), but for you the lessons are clear. Be prepared, and you might come out better off than before.

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