Colbert to Take Over Late Show: A Lesson in Good Succession Planning

April 25, 2014
On April 3rd, Letterman broadcast his plans to retire from the show he created. CBS announced just one week later that Colbert, host of the Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report,” would be Letterman’s replacement. While Letterman won’t actually be leaving until next year, the speed and decisiveness of the transition to the public eye was no funny business. With Colbert quickly given the nod, the network has avoided a prolonged period of speculation for fans, endless scrutiny from Hollywood news outlets, and possible in-fighting among internal candidates and stakeholders.
Was it a surprise to executives that Letterman would retire one day? It shouldn’t have been. Yet networks and other businesses are often ill-prepared for similar contingency plans-whether an exit arises from retirement, illness, burnout, or simply the desire to move on to other projects.
Microsoft would have benefited from CBS’s approach when its former CEO Steve Ballmer stepped down. Instead, the corporate giant took months to announce Satya Nadella as successor, jeopardizing shareholder confidence, employee productivity and company profits.
Particularly for entrepreneurs, it’s all too easy to buy into the myth of being irreplaceable. While no one would suggest Letterman’s comedic style could be duplicated, the show is still preparing to go on, albeit in different form. If you don’t believe it can work, consider that “The Tonight Show”is enjoying a 60-year legacy despite former one-of-a-kind hosts Johnny Carson and Jay Leno.
Best known for playing a satirical political character, Colbert acknowledged his takeover of “The Late Show” by jesting, “I do not envy who they try to put in that chair,” because “Those are some really big shoes to fill-and some really big pants.”
We bet your shoes are just as big. Still, it’s important to consider how in your absence they might be filled, used or bought. The same goes for active partners and key employees. Starting the planning process years ahead will ensure you get the most from all you’ve invested into your company and that it continues to have a profitable future.
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