I'v gotta admit its been fun to watch the huge cluster f&*k that is the new NBC "Late Night" wars. At the minimum its given some great fodder for each host to joke on each other. The video of Jimmy Kimmel doing Leno last night is an instant classic.
I don't know much about the situation beyond what I've read but I don't think anyone would argue that its not exactly going how NBC hoped it would. It's tough to make judgments without all the facts, but based on Conan's statement and now Leno's rumored response, at the end of the day, the "NBC Executives" making the decisions will bear most of the burden for the destruction of The Tonight Show brand and the costly repercussions.
From a broader management perspective I think there are a few valuable lessons for employees and executives of any kind of organization ... both what to do, and what not to do.
1. Trust in your hires and give them time to be successful.
Creating a following and an incredible show takes time (certainly longer then the 8 months Conan and his team were given). It's true for any position. In order for people to be effective in their jobs they need the time to learn about the new environment, new customers and the job itself. This often means time and the opportunity to grow and succeed. This sometimes means weathering some bad times before getting to the good. Sure, you mentor new hires, provide constructive feedback and help along the way, but if you are diligent in your process of finding the right people, they need to be given the time and space to do their job well before you pull the rug out from under them.
2. If you're going to empower people, give them the tools to succeed.
When Conan took over The Tonight Show, people who owned the affiliate networks and leadership on Conan's team clamored that they needed a good lead into the local news that would then build a strong audience leading into their new Tonight Show. NBC didn't listen and instead chose to put the former host on his own show before Conan as a 5-day a week low cost alternative. Leno's last minute deal showed a lack of confidence in Conan carrying The Tonight Show, and did not provide a good lead in for the new host.
If you are not really ready to make a move in your business, then go back to the table and make sure its the right decision. Give people that have committed to your company the respect they deserve by having open conversations about what it will take for them to be successful and then do your best to support those needs.
3. Don't air your dirty laundry in public.
When Jeff Gaspin went to the press and stated that the plan was to move the shows he acted as if this was gonna be no big deal while he made unfinished negotiations behind the scene public. He played his cards too soon in some sort of foolish attempt to force the hands of his employees. The plan for what was to be done should have never been aired to the public until they figured out the plan and got agreement from the various parties.
Its tough to keep secrets these days, especially in television, and that's why early, open and honest discussion with your people in private is always the best way to move forward. Once you've arrived at a joint decision you can announce what is happening to the world. By airing their disputes and concerns in the press, NBC gave their hosts no choice but to issue their own statements in opposition to this strategy that made the NBC executives look disconnected from two of their biggest talents and opened the door for public opinion to effect the negotiations.
4. Keep your head high, stay true to who you are and be humble under pressure.
In his press statement Conan honored the legacy of the show and the hard work of his staff while taking into consideration the effect the move would have the on the shows around his time slot. He spoke honestly, passionately and plainly while keeping the door open for reconciliation and dialogue. His poise and class in this situation will be remembered by the public and in the end his reputation, audience and overall brand will continue to be strong no matter what his next steps may be.