Today's Vieira-Curry handoff reminds newsroom leaders: Bench strength matters

Here's a safe prediction: the departure of Meredith Vieira from the Today Show won't put a dent in the program's robust ratings. Ann Curry will slide into the co-anchor chair in a seamless transition and viewers will stay loyal to the team.

"Team" is the operative word. NBC management has positioned the program as an ensemble company, not dependent on the drawing power of only one or two individuals. In another key move, the network, which bypassed Curry when hiring Vieira five years ago, worked with Curry to give her high-profile assignments that mattered to her and to viewers.

As David Bauder of the AP reported:

How Curry responded when Vieira was brought in over Curry in 2006 to replace Katie Couric likely played a large part in her getting the job this time.

She didn't leave. She didn't sulk or back-stab. Curry, 54, instead created a niche for herself with international reporting, often on tough, unpleasant stories that aren't mainstays at American television networks. She's been to the troubled region of Darfur in Sudan to report on the humanitarian crisis five times since 2006.

Carving a niche instead of burning bridges paid off for Curry. It built both her credibility and her visibility on the program. As any broadcast news executive will tell you, when disappointment and ego collide, things don't always work out that smoothly.

Ann Curry, left, and Meredith Vieira appear during a segment of the NBC "Today" television program, in New York's Rockefeller Center, Friday, May 27, 2011. (Richard Drew/AP)

So what's the management lesson here? I think it's the importance of bench strength. Not only did NBC reward Curry for "taking one for the team" in 2006 by investing in her growth, it also groomed others. Natalie Morales was given abundant opportunities to fill in for Curry on the program's news desk. Making it her permanent assignment simply installs a familiar face into a familiar place, a comfort viewers really value.

Let the record also show that the program's diversity -- in gender and ethnicity -- has also been enhanced by the transitions. Call it succession planning, call it business continuity, or call it building a bench. When it rolls out this smoothly it might look like serendipity. Smart managers know that it's strategy.

Do you have a strategy for your future promotions? That's the focus of my podcast, "What Great Bosses Know about Building a Strong Bench":

You can download the complete series of "What Great Bosses Know" podcasts free on iTunes U.

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    Jill Geisler

    Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist "spin." It takes exceptional leaders to build trust, along with the systems and culture that grow great journalism.


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