Jay vs. Conan: Lessons in Leadership Amid Chaos

By: Guest | December 14, 2010 | 

Guest post by Robert Herzog, chief financial officer at Harrison College.

Chaos. You’ve been there. How did you handle it as a leader? A recent Twitter conversation between Gini Dietrich and me around the “Jay vs. Conan” debate helped illuminate a few points for me on how to lead – and not lead – in times of chaos.

As Conan started his new show on TBS recently, the untold story of the “Tonight Show” debacle (chronicled in this insightful Vanity Fair article) was that the whole situation could have been different if the NBC executives had led differently. Let’s discuss in comments, but I believe they made two key errors.

First, compromise is often not the best option in times of chaos – and to be sure, this was a time of chaos. If you’re the executive in charge of one of your organization’s top three brands, and it is significantly under-performing, you’re in chaos mode.

Jeff Gaspin, the NBC top entertainment executive, was trying to make the best out of an earlier mistake that moved Jay to his own one-hour variety show at 10 p.m. The resulting low ratings had the affiliates mandating a change. What to do?

As chronicled throughout the history of management science, compromise is a tool not best used when the fire burns the highest. Unfortunately, Gaspin did just that. He proposed bringing Jay back to 11:30 for a half-hour show and moving Conan to 12:05 for an hour along with the “Tonight Show” title.

This is where common sense failed the NBC executive suite. One of the leadership tricks I’ve used during trying times is literally to speak my solution out loud to myself. That’s right – say it live. To yourself. Does it make sense now?

“I’m going to propose that Conan move to 12:05 with the “Tonight Show” and bring Jay back right after the late local news at 11:35. That way I’ll keep both happy.”

Yeah, me too. Egos at this level of super-stardom (and sometimes your own organization) are not going to accept this kind of what-will-be-perceived-as-demotion.

All decisions at times like these are fraught with risk. It’s unavoidable. That’s why it’s chaos. But by avoiding tough decisions (“Conan, we’re going to part ways.”) in hopes of coming to a compromise is fools gold.

Second, direct, transparent, and honest communication is a must. Gaspin and Jeff Zucker, the NBC Universal CEO, also failed here. Letting Conan decide, and, most egregiously, letting him be the first to the press with the direction, was catastrophic.

As a leader you must set the agenda. Be more transparent than you believe you can. Be more honest than your attorney says is prudent. (Notice in the VF article how this specific part was won in the Conan camp.) Push yourself on all levels of communication when chaos calls. Your chances of success will be enhanced significantly.

Jay and Conan, Gaspin and Zucker have all moved on in their own ways from this public debacle. Use their story to be decisive about your conclusion and communicate it directly and openly the next time you find yourself in the middle of chaos.

Robert Herzog is chief financial officer at Harrison College, a higher educational institution committed to serving the needs of 21st-century students. Follow his tweets for random musings on leadership, change, the future of higher ed, and baseball.

  • ginidietrich

    One of the things I love about you is you’re a numbers guy with real social skills. I love that you can take the VF article and our debate and work it magically into leadership lessons. This goes along so nicely with what I blogged about yesterday – getting buy-in. If Gaspin had been transparent, honest, and got buy-in, this whole thing likely wouldn’t have happened.

    I also think there is an interesting side leadership note: Conan kept waiting for Jay to call him. And he didn’t. Because Gaspin (or was it Zucker?) advised him not to. Bad, bad idea.

  • HowieSPM

    I know a bit about this Saga. And look forward to reading the article. And it is a Saga. I was calling on NBC as a potential client when the Jay to prime time move was happening. 5 nights did not make sense. I just saw catastrophe. I caught one of Jay’s early episodes and liked the first skit then on came Rush Limbaugh as a guest. Whether you like Rush or not, fact is way more dislike him than like him. So why have him on so early in your run, except maybe you are struggling to book guests? That to me should of been huge red light.

    So once it turns out the decisions were bad, it seemed like one big (censored bad word this is a family website). I am not a PR person but I am a business/org behavior/finance person. Gini can probably agree the biggest problem is when upper management loses control of what is happening (and the public messaging), its really hard to gain control. Unfortunately for NBC, Jay and Conan this is the entertainment industry fish bowl.

    Its a great case study in communications and leadership. NBC knew Jay was not happy. They would of done better to end his contract and not have him on TV if they wished to make the change.

    BTW I have a secret. I freaking LOVE Chaos. Fascinates the hell out of me 8)

  • lesmckeown

    To be honest, I think a lot of this sorry saga is baked in to the industry. Here’s an entire media sector that has been teetering on the edge of relevance for almost two decades, thanks to crappy leadership – what hope is there of real leadership showing up this late in the game?

    Good piece, Robert.

  • HerzogIND

    Les: Agree, though remember Zucker was considered an entertainment and leadership ‘genius’.

    HowieSPM: What a story, fascinating. Chaos – I love it too. It brings clarity to purpose.

    GD: You’re too kind. Re: not calling – that doesn’t surprise me. Egos at that level often fall prey to not wanting to be perceived to be the weakest. Be able to nimbly adapt to the situation and place against type in that moment, can be often very effective.

  • HerzogIND

    Well that was poorly worded. 🙂

    Meant to say, “Being able to nimbly adapt to the situation, and play against type in the moment, can often be very effective.”

  • ginidietrich

    @lesmckeown I really prefer it when you’re not honest.

  • ginidietrich

    @HowieSPM Who loves chaos?! You have issues.

  • You make some great points, Robert. Tough decisions rarely seemed to be handled as well as they should be, because like you said, people would rather compromise than put their foot down and say “this is what’s going to happen!”

    One place where tough decisions seem to be handled relatively well on a consistent basis is in the professional sports world as players are released, low-balled or management is forced to pay higher salaries and the people at the end of the table unwilling to agree are told to walk. It’s not the same issue as Jay/Conan, but similar, and I wonder if loyalties played a larger role in this than money and ratings?

  • HerzogIND

    @JMattHicks Yes I do believe loyalties played into the Jay/Conan situation. But loyalties to blind spots–Instead of thinking clearly through the fog on that particular issue. Egos got in the way of clear-level-headed thinking. Agree?

  • HowieSPM

    @ginidietrich No Chaos is very beneficial. It means opportunity. In a way kind of Taoist.

  • HerzogIND

    @HowieSPM @ginidietrich I’m with you Howie. Chaos just an opportunity to re-build.

  • lesmckeown

    @ginidietrich so…most of the time, then?

  • ginidietrich

    @lesmckeown Nodding my head in agreement.

  • @HerzogIND I think you’re right, and that makes things difficult; trying to manage “friends” in a business that is, well, strictly business.

  • HerzogIND

    @JMattHicks Indeed!