How to Resign With Class

If you’ve been following the entertainment news over the last few days, you’ll know that NBC plans to deal with the failure of Jay Leno’s new show by giving him his old time slot back and pushing Conan O’ Brien’s Tonight Show back to after midnight.

Not surprisingly, Conan isn’t happy with this. He’s been waiting to take over the Tonight Show for years – indeed, he had a contractual agreement with NBC to do that. And he apparently turned down offers over the years in order to inherit the famed Tonight Show. So now to have his show pushed back just to accommodate Jay Leno must really irk.

And yet the statement he issued today is a textbook example of grace and class.

He does not actually say he’s resigning – presumably there are legal issues to work out with NBC – but he does refuse to host the Tonight Show at a later time slot, which amounts to the same thing.

I think this is my favorite part:

Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move the Tonight Show to 12:05 to accommodate the Jay Leno Show at 11:35. For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t the Tonight Show. Also, if I accept this move I will be knocking the Late Night show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot. That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.

So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it. My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.

You really should read the whole thing here because this letter is a perfect example of how to behave when your bosses screw you over. And let’s face it, we’ve all been there. Probably not as publicly as Conan, but we’ve been there.

According to one of his friends, Conan spent hours writing this statement. Can you imagine the first drafts of that letter? And how blue the air must have been? And yet the final product is dignified, humorous and not at all self-centered.

Here are a few things I can think we can all learn from the way Conan handled his resignation:

1) Keep any bitterness to Yourself. It’s natural to want to shout your anger from the rooftops when someone has wronged you, but angry people never win. Being angry automatically puts you at a disadvantage. First, it’s easy to dismiss what you as ‘over emotional’ and second, anger does tend to make us exaggerate, further giving an advantage to the people who actually wronged you.

2) Express your concerns in terms of the damage to the business, not yourself. Conan is careful to say that he won’t do this because a) he thinks it damages the brand and b) he thinks it’s unfair to someone else who would also be hurt by the move. At no point does he say ‘and I ALSO WON’T DO IT BECAUSE IT\’S UNFAIR TO ME!!!’

3) Make your points subtly and without emotion. Nevertheless, Conan does make that point. He says the following:

Six years ago, I signed a contract with NBC to take over The Tonight Show in June of 2009. Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me. I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004 I have spent literally hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the future.

In this paragraph, he clearly makes the point that he has been treated harshly without actually making the accusation. Instead he ties this point back into the broader theme of his letter, which is that the show is too valuable a franchise to be treated this way.

4) Diffuse tension with humor

Conan ends his letter thus:

Have a great day and, for the record, I am truly sorry about my hair; it’s always been that way.

5) Never burn a bridge

Nowhere in this letter does Conan issue a judgment about anyone else’s behavior. Nowhere does he criticize anyone. He simply lays out the facts calmly and professionally. It would feel so great to write a nasty letter to the guy who wronged you and storm out of the office guns blazing, but that feeling wears off pretty quickly and then all you’re left with is fewer references than you would otherwise have had and no paycheck.

In the end, almost everyone comes out of this looking badly in my view. The NBC executives look hapless, disorganized and mercenary. And Jay Leno has gone from one of America’s favorite comedians to the guy who let someone else get stiffed so he could get his old job back after he failed in his new one. Only Conan looks better than he did yesterday. And that is the beauty of his brilliant resignation.

What Conan Has That You Don’t

Of course, Conan no doubt had the help of lawyers and PR experts when writing his letter and you won’t have that, but I think that’s exactly why this is such a valuable example to read and internalize. He paid for the lawyers and PR people, but there’s no reason why you can’t learn from their work!

What do you think? Did I miss anything great about this letter? Or do you disagree with my whole premise? (You can tell me – I’m practicing being gracious a la Conan!)

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