When Conan O’Brien left The Tonight Show last January, things looked pretty bleak. After just seven months on the job, he’d effectively been forced out — and there weren’t exactly a lot of other network talk-show host openings out there.
And yet look at what Conan did with his career this year: He became a Twitter phenomenon, launched a sold-out U.S. stage tour, and signed a deal with TBS to do a new late-night talk show called, oddly enough, Conan. How did he go from a jobless folk hero to … well, a folk hero with what could end up being an even better job than he had before?
Being Conan O’Brien certainly helped. But there are still several career lessons you can take from Conan’s experience and apply to yourself. Sadly, however, we can’t help you get 2 million Twitter followers.
1. Don’t Air Your Grievances
Conan launched nightly insults at NBC during his monologues toward the end of his Tonight Show reign. While the jokes were hilarious, they didn’t exactly help resolve the situation at the network.
“Airing grievances while you’re emotionally hot can be dangerous because most of us will have to discuss what happened at our old job in an interview with a potential employer,” says Duncan Mathison, coauthor of Unlock the Hidden Job Market: 6 Steps to a Successful Job Search When Times Are Tough.”Conan was playing to his fan base and strengthening his constituency, so it worked for him. For us mortals, the key is to discuss a departure with honesty and professionalism. When you get an interview with a new potential employer, try to get the point across that the reason you left is the same reason a new company should hire you and that you won’t be a pain to work with.”
2. Stay Relevant
If you wait for a new job to come to you, you’re going to be waiting a hell of a long time for a new job. A proactive approach to job hunting ups your chances of finding a job by delivering your name to more hiring managers. Conan may have tweeted a lot (which we’ll get to later), but it was part of his plan to stay relevant. That was a tricky thing to do since part of his $45 million settlement with NBC last January banned him from appearing on a different network until September. Rather than wait it out, he took his act on the road, and even joined the comedy lineup at the Bonnaroo music festival.
“Engage in your profession — volunteer, learn a new skill — and don’t let the grass grow under your feet,” says Mathison. “Many people might have forgotten about Conan if he didn’t find those other outlets. He was smart.”
4. Use Your Network
A month after Conan left, he joined Twitter. His account instantly blew up, and when he tweeted about a 30-city comedy tour, it sold out in hours without any other promotion needed.
Getting the word out can help your cause. Of course, if you have a job, letting people know publicly that you’re looking for a different job isn’t the best idea. But since 70 percent of jobs never make it onto a job board (think of it as the ‘hidden’ job market), you need to let people know you’re looking so they can contact you when they hear things.
“People can get buried in a job and disconnect with people they’ve known in the past,” Mathison says. “But when the economy is really soft, that hidden job market expands, so those connections become very important.”
5. Know That Change Is Hard
The Tonight Show premiered in 1954 — the same year RCA manufactured the first color TV set. And even though it was No. 1 when Conan took over, the show (and format) had already seen its glory days and was bound to start faltering. Which is the worst time a guy like Conan could have shown up.
“An old business or business model that’s starting to fail can be a risky place for newcomers,” Mathison says. “Young people often join an established brand or company and want to be the next generation of an old legacy. Then, when it starts to fail, the company’s executives start to experiment and revise it. As it continues to fail, the executives want to put back all things that used to work in hopes of recapturing the old glory days — and that means they reject new ideas.”
5. People Don’t Always Play Nice
In 2004, Jay Leno announced his plan to give it up The Tonight Show to Conan in five years “without incident.” Apparently, he was lying.
As everyone knows, Leno (and NBC) changed their tune when the time came, which started the clock ticking on the Tonight Show debacle.
“In competitive situations, don’t assume that just because someone is nice, popular, or has a great smile that they don’t worry first and foremost about their own livelihood,” Mathison explains. “If someone is worried about job security or eager for job success, they won’t be altruistic. They’ll do whatever it takes to make sure they’re protected.”