Weekender: Rob Burnett on Declarative Suggestions


Welcome to another addition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a letter of thought to start your weekend off on the right track. Why just a letter, man? Because it’s the weekend!

For newer leaders, there is a moment where your new responsibilities become painfully apparent. Going into the job, you thought you understood the burden of being the “big man/woman” only to learn that reading the job description cannot prepare you for the overwhelming feeling of ownership and exasperation. When Rob Burnett took over as the executive producer of Late Show with David Letterman, he had just such a realization.

On the Fitzdog Radio podcast, Rob Burnett discussed a particularly bad episode that occurred early in his tenure. There was a moment in rehearsal when everything was going wrong. They couldn’t settle on an idea and Burnett was being overly tentative.

At 4:00, rehearsal is over and [David Letterman] gets up and he leaves. And now everyone is looking at me ‘cause no one knows what the show is, and we’re taping at 5:30. I go up to his office and I say, ‘So what are we suppose to be doing?’ And he looked at me very sternly and said, ‘This is suppose to work the other way around.’ And he turned and left. That was a real turning point for me because I realized he’s right, it’s my job… Dave is the kind of guy where you can’t say, ‘Should that guy be wearing shoes or sneakers.’ You have to say, ‘That guy is wearing red sneakers.’ And he’ll say, ‘No, he should be wearing shoes.’ It’s too slack the other way.

Treading lightly may have served as a beneficial crutch before you were in a leadership position, but once you are in the power seat, it is up to you to express certitude. So stop asking for permission and start acting like you have the authority to make decisions. As Burnett learned, even your top talent want a degree of guidance and direction. Provide options. Have a plan. Prepare for the worst-case scenarios. And speak with conviction.

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