Truthiness And The Late Show Leadership Dilemma

Apr 21 2014, 10:10am CDT | by

By Allison Todd

The “Late Show,” like other late night talk shows, is a brand centered around and shaped by its host. With the new appointment of Stephen Colbert, how can the “Late Show” successfully transition to a new leader when many current viewers only know this brand as “Late Show with David Letterman”?

There are lessons from the business world. Apple and Microsoft, two companies with brands closely tied to its leaders, have seen both failed and successful leadership transitions.

When you think of Apple, immediately Steve Jobs pops in your mind. Do you remember how much Apple floundered the first time Jobs left the company?  The company hadn’t been fortified with a clear vision and buy-in around a new leader before Jobs left. Upon his departure the company quickly spiraled into near bankruptcy, only to be saved when Jobs swooped back in years later. The organization failed to thrive without the charismatic leader who was inextricably connected to its brand. Jobs had failed to embed his vision and leadership into the culture so it that could survive after he left.

In comparison, when Bill Gates stepped down as CEO of Microsoft he made it very clear that he believed in and supported his successor, Steve Ballmer. Gates clearly communicated a new vision for the company and stated that the new vision could only be possible with someone else at the helm of the organization. This dramatically boosted Ballmer’s initial support. The baton had been passed, and the transition went smoothly. (Though, during Ballmer’s reign, Microsoft’s performance is starkly contrasted with Apple’s success in innovation.)

To capitalize on this window of opportunity to bring in a much younger (“The Colbert Report” boasts an average audience age of 42.3, “Late Show with David Letterman” is sitting at 58.2) and very different audience, while not alienating the current audience, the show can learn from both Apple and Microsoft. Here are some tips for the “Late Show” team:

  • Together, create a clear vision and opportunity of what the successful transition will be. Since Letterman will not be leaving the show until later this year, there is time for CBS, Letterman, and Colbert to work together on this transition. They must all agree on what success will look like for the company, the show, each leader, employees, and viewers, then work together to make that vision a reality.
  • Gain buy-in from employees of CBS and viewers. Letterman has already been very public in stating that he gives Colbert his stamp of approval and is excited for the new host. This can go a long way in helping followers of Letterman accept the change. Internally, producers and other staff need to follow Letterman’s lead and look for creative ways to create true urgency that shows the rest of the staff that the transition is critical to the show’s future.
  • Empower broad-based action by all effected by the change. Colbert has always been great at empowering his viewers to volunteer and help him in any way necessary – from encouraging viewers to change a Wikipedia page about African elephants to getting viewers to donate over $1.02 million dollars to the Colbert Super PAC. If Colbert can help viewers of “Late Show” feel as empowered as his viewers of “The Colbert Report” have over the last decade, they’ll almost certainly become loyal viewers of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
  • Don’t let up in order to make the change stick. Even if ratings look high for a while and praise is flowing during the beginning of Colbert’s term as host, the show must continue looking for creative ways to build urgency, gain buy-in, and empower viewers. Ensuring that the new host is embedded in the culture and becomes a staple of late night television will take time and continued effort.

As a fan of “The Colbert Report,” but not a regular viewer of “Late Show with David Letterman,” I hope CBS allows Colbert free reign behind the desk. I’m sad to see “The Colbert Report” go, yet look forward to what the future may hold for “Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” CBS has an opportunity to gain one new viewer in me if they are successful with this crucial transition.

Allison Todd works at Kotter International (www.kotterinternational.com), helping leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations. Follow Kotter International on Twitter @KotterIntl, on Facebook, or on LinkedIn. Sign up for the Kotter International Newsletter.

 
 

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