The Return of American Idol

Bringing back the show’s original host is not unlike some corporate efforts to rehire successful CEOs. Does it work?

Jerry Yang. Howard Schultz. And now…Ryan Seacrest?

With much fanfare, ABC has announced plans to bring back the once popular American TV show American Idol, which was canceled more than a year ago. But what has drawn the most attention has been how the network’s recent move to bring back its familiar host: Ryan Seacrest.

The smiley, spiky-haired Seacrest was the face of Idol from its launch in 2002 and few are surprised that ABC wants to take advantage of the fame the show brought him. But his return echoes a familiar storyline in corporate America -- and the ratings are mixed.

Whether it’s Jack Dorsey at Twitter, Yang at Yahoo, or Schultz at Starbucks, history is filled with examples of “boomerang CEOs” who left their organizations only to be brought back later. From a company perspective, the hope is that this person’s direct experience and personal attachment will summon a return to better days.

It can work. A classic example is Steve Jobs, who was ousted by Apple’s board in 1985 and rehired in 1997 as the computer maker struggled to stay relevant. By introducing products such as the iMac, iPod, and iPhone, Jobs staged a historic turnaround. Today, Apple has a market cap of more than $790 billion, making it one of the largest companies in the world.

Of course, those results are hardly guaranteed. One study of boomerang CEOs found that there was no real difference in performance between companies that rehired a former CEO and companies that hired someone new.

For boomerang leaders, the key is to practice agile leadership and realize that new challenges warrant new strategy. “The most important thing is to not presume that the company is where it was two years ago or 10 years ago when you left,” says Bill Simon, global sector leader of Korn Ferry’s media and entertainment practice. “Technology has changed. Consumer behavior has changed.”

It’s also important to recognize that the people you worked with in your first stint have likely grown and taken on new roles within the company. A CEO’s attitude toward them needs to reflect that, says Simon.

In the case of American Idol, Seacrest became a bonafide media mogul, reportedly earning more than $50 million producing shows, emceeing live events and managing endorsement deals. As the average tenure for CEOs continues to shrink, coming back after being voted off is a rare opportunity.