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5 Things New Leaders Can Learn from Conan O'Brien

June 9, 2009

Take, for instance, the media speculation over how and to what degree “The Tonight Show” would change with a new host. Don’t we all wonder how the workplace will be affected when there’s a change in management?   

Then there’s the manager who’s challenged with honoring the expectations his or her predecessor set in place while simultaneously trying to establish his or her own.  Likewise, Conan is charged with maintaining the long-running show’s large fan base while introducing them to a comedic style unlike the one they’ve grown accustomed to with Jay Leno as host.  

So, taking into consideration these factors - and Conan’s preparation for his new job - here are 5 things new managers can learn from the new host:

1.     Expect to Have Critics. Quite a few of the reviews today weren’t exactly glowing for Conan’s “Tonight Show” debut, but even Conan anticipated “uneasiness” from audiences and viewers over seeing someone else take over as host.  “People inherently don’t love change,” he said himself earlier this year - something that anyone making a career transition should remember as they move into their new roles.  Especially as a manager, you’re not going to be able to please everyone, and you shouldn’t try to; otherwise, you might drive yourself - and your new employees - crazy.  The best you can do is…

2.     Find a Happy Medium. The toughest challenge Conan faces as the new host of “Late Night” may be striking a balance between honoring the “Late Night” name with everything that made it an American institution (including its huge viewership), without letting go of the unique, off-beat humor (”Pale Force,” anyone?) that differentiated him from every other late night host. New managers face a similar challenge as they attempt to set forth their own leadership style, but without alienating the employees who are used to a different management technique. To try to placate both sides, new managers need to figure out what their own leadership style is and try to fall somewhere in between. To do that, they first need to…

3.     Test the Waters. The many Leno-style jokes and noticeably tamer sketches peppering Conan’s show last night indicate that he’s feeling out the longtime “Tonight Show” fans while he gradually incorporates the trademark “silliness” that dominated “Late Night” episodes. New managers would be wise to take a cue from Conan. As this Wall Street Journal online article, new managers shouldn’t try to change too much too quickly. Instead, they should apply a “listen and learn” approach in the first few weeks of their new position, in order to get used to their new employees - and let their employees get used to them. At the same time…

4.     Stick to What Makes You You. “Johnny Carson, when I met him years ago, told me, ‘Just be yourself,’” Conan said in a recent interview. “That is basically all anyone who knows anything about these shows can tell you: You’ve got to do it your way.” Just as Conan got to where he is by being his endearingly awkward and self-deprecating self, new managers should have the confidence to adopt a management style that may be a departure from their predecessors - after all, your work earned you the promotion, so you must be doing something right. Just be sure you…

5.     Make Your Expectations Clear at the Beginning. Pre-”Tonight Show” magazine interviews, TV appearances, and online promos provided for Conan what staff meetings and one-on-one’s provide for new supervisors: The opportunity to establish goals, expectations, and policies as clearly as possible.  As explained in this Associated Content article, new leaders who state their expectations “early in the game” will avoid misunderstandings (or, in Conan’s case, baffled viewers) later.