Willy Wonka & Succession Planning

Which Oompa Loompa are you planning to take over your business?

Ahh Saturday night movies. There I was, on the couch humming along to ‘Cheer Up Charlie’ while watching Willy Wonka when suddenly I had a Ruby Slipper epiphany.

It wasn’t that I needed a chocolate river, or an everlasting gobstopper. For any of you who have seen the wonderfully neurotic Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, you might remember one of the last scenes in the movie where (after emotionally torturing both Charlie and Grandpa Jo) Willy Wonka decides that Charlie has passed enough tests to be honoured with being the new owner of his Chocolate Factory.

So… my question to all you small and not-so-small businesses is – which oompa loompa are you gonna choose to run your business when you step out of it? Albeit a macabre fairytale, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is almost a step-by-step guide of what NOT to do in succession planning. Particularly in a small business. Regardless of oompa loompa presence and chocolate rivers.

1. Willy chooses his potential successors by fate – a golden ticket.

You could also call this the Seek advert, and the ensuing hiring of staff. It’s a given – until you see an employee in the job, you won’t really know how they will perform in your business. But often in an industry like australian real estate (for example), businesses will take whatever staff there might be offered to them out of necessity – not because the candidate is necessarily the best one available.

2. Willy Wonka has unorthodox work safety practices.

Remember Augustus? ‘Leave some room for later’ Augustus, the one who gets stuck in a pipe after drinking from the chocolate river. Willy Wonka sets in place an array of traps for potential successors to overcome. He tests them for greed, opportunism, bare-faced lying. This probably isn’t such a bad thing, as a staff member you want to be able to represent you in the longer term will demonstrate quality of spirit and capability of mind to you in their work.

3. Willy Wonka is a bit of a sadist.

Willy Wonka tortures poor Charlie emotionally, even after Charlie has managed to avoid nearly all of the traps set for his less wily (or honest) succession competitors. Willy yells at Charlie until Charlie decides that he had acted inappropriately and returns an everlasting gobstepper to Willy. This exchange is an act of submission to right and wrong by Charlie, who recognises he didn’t do exactly as he was told.

4. Willy Wonka gets high in a glass elevator.

Once he has decided that Charlie is the ultimate successor, he hands over his whole business to him – believing that because he is pure of heart he has all the skills necessary to run the shooting match of chockie factory and oompa loompas. His final quote is ‘Remember the story about the boy whose dreams came true? Well, he lived happily ever after’.

The lesson in this from Willy Wonka?

Don’t choose someone out of a hat to bring into your business out of sheer need. Hire a temp instead.  Why didn’t Willy choose an Oompa Loompa to run the business? They were already involved in the factory. Maybe in your own business, you have a staff member whose skills could be developed and enhanced.

Don’t torture staff emotionally and castigate them if they don’t have the exact same world view as yourself. Maybe there aren’t as many faults as you think in your staff! In some industries staff turnover can be very high because of difficult or stressful work. In-house anxiety associated with managing-down can lead to a higher staff turnover for your business. This isn’t good – not only because you’ll be in a constant hiring and firing cycle, but because you won’t have time to see the gold amongst your staff who could be part of your long term future.

Let your staff show their personality in their work. Maybe take a little of Willy Wonka’s glass elevator and look for the gold in their spirits! Don’t let fate, seek.com.au, or a golden ticket take care of the important process of choosing who to bear your corporate banner in the future.

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