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by SixFigureStart | January 15, 2010


Consider the following scenario: you have two talented employees with very similar skillsets, doing very similar jobs. Both want to move on and further their careers—something that seems like a win-win for the company. The senior employee, "Ray," gets the opportunity to craft a new prime position in the company, while the younger employee, "Ronan"—who has been waiting in the wings for years—inherits the responsibilities Ray leaves behind. Less than a year later, two things become clear: Ronan is doing a decent job, although it'll take some time before he's up to Ray's level, while Ray is struggling badly in his new position, and hurting your brand as a result. As an executive, what decision do you make about Ray's future?

  1. Let him go. Ronan has proved to be an adequate replacement, and, with more talent in the pipeline, you have the opportunity to get rid of a heavy-hitter's salary.
  2. Let him continue in his current role because there's nowhere else to go.
  3. Let Ronan keep his title but attempt to bump him to a less prestigious position so you can reinstall Ray in something approximating his former role.
  4. Something else.

NBC logoIf the scenario seems familiar, it's likely because it's a none-too-subtly coded version of the Conan O'Brien/Jay Leno saga currently playing out at NBC Universal. Of the four options presented, the folks at NBC chose what—to my mind—is the worst of all possible solutions: option 3, and it's got nothing to do with my preference for one comedian over the other.

Bottom line: when an employee moves on—regardless of whether or not it's voluntary or forced—and is replaced by someone else, bringing them back to their old position is not an option. In Leno's case, there are two possible scenarios as to why he was moved from the Tonight Show in the first place: either he asked to go to prime time, or he was pushed. Either way, he'd taken his previous role as far as he could, and his network wanted to try someone else in it to see if it could be taken in a new direction.

Similarly, then, there are two likely scenarios in play for Leno's reinstatement: either the company is reinstating someone they'd lost faith in, or someone who'd lost interest in his role. Either way, it hardly seems like a step forward, especially as the company seems set to lose a star performer as a result, and may have done irreparable damage to both the Leno and Tonight Show brands in the process.

I'm with ConanConan O'Brien clearly agrees. In an entertaining media statement, he explicitly stated that he would not be part of any attempt to move the Tonight Show to a later time slot. At that point, NBC's options officially expired, and they were forced to choose one of the two stars.

The resulting hash the company has made of the decision is entirely down to its unwillingness to see Conan go to a rival network, and likely have him competing directly with Leno. While understandable, the network's attempt to make Leno a success in a prime time slot can be seen as a mere wild stab at keeping both men happy. And therein lies the lesson: you can't keep everyone happy all the time. Sometimes you just need to make the tough decision. In this case, it would have saved the company a ton of damage to its brand and reputation, and might have allowed them a more orderly transition than that which is likely to follow in the coming weeks.

By the way, my favorite quote on this saga comes from Punk Rock HR's letter to NBC Universal: "When you’re doing it worse than HR, you’re doing it wrong."

--Posted by Phil Stott,


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