Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien Situation Teaches Valuable Lesson On Transition

Leno vs. Letterman was one thing.  But Leno vs. Conan is another thing entirely. In a battle that has gotten downright ugly, dominating opening monologues on both their shows and their competitors’, there is a lesson that stands out beyond merely who sits behind what desk in the days and months to come.

In our roles as communications counselors, we are often asked to develop communications plans for companies faced with adversity (i.e. a bankruptcy or restructuring) or transition (merger or acquisition). Often, the organization’s top person or longtime owner is stepping down and/or handing the baton off to another or a next generation leader.

Like “The Tonight Show’s” 5-year plan enacted half a decade ago by NBC to transition Leno out and O’Brien in, the plans we create on behalf of our clients often are a long-term proposition.  The key to success in this area? Walking the walk: doing what you say you’re going to do.

Leno put forth this plan to his audience (and his successor) very publicly. You can see it here as announced on national television in 2004.  How foolish this all now looks.

To promise succession and then revoke or ‘bastardize’ the concept in some way is worse than never offering the deal in the first place.  In turn, it can severely damage the credibility of those that originally offered it, negatively affect employee morale and, as appears to be the case with O’Brien, drive an organization’s professionals to leave—perhaps to a major competitor.

“Tonight,” it seems, should have given more thought to tomorrow.