Important Career Lessons From Jay and Conan

War Late Night

This weekend I read Bill Carter’s 2010 book The War For Late Night. It tells the story of NBC’s colossal mishandling of two of its most important talents, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien.

Jay and Conan’s jobs at NBC were extraordinary but their stories contain important lessons for all employees.

  1. Promises made may not be kept. If you are told that a promotion or perk awaits you a few years down the road—even if you have it in writing—circumstances can change. New bosses, new ownership, new competitive situations.
  2. If your employer asks you to sign a personal services/non-compete agreement, consult an attorney. Read the agreement carefully before you sign. An important element that was in Jay’s contract and another one that was not in Conan’s help set up the 2009-2010 NBC programming debacle.
  3. Have realistic, reasonable goals. Conan was so focused on getting the Tonight Show gig that he chose not to accept lucrative offers from competitors and, instead, to sit tight at NBC for five years waiting for Jay to exit.
  4. Friendships are good but money triumphs. Several formerly warm relationships became nasty during the course of this whole episode.
  5. A position achieved is not an entitlement. It is a job. Once you attain a level of success you have to perform to maintain the position.
  6. Input from management may OR MAY NOT be useful. Jay constructed his primetime show elements as directed from above, which was a mistake. Conan ignored guidance to make his version of Tonight Show less quirky, more mainstream—also a mistake.
  7. Be open to change if you wish to remain employed. Jay was. Conan was not.




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