Fun coaching case study: Willie Wonka and Succession Planning

By: Andrew Neitlich

Center for Executive Coaching

 

Sometimes it is fun to imagine what it would be like to coach characters from literature, history, the Bible, television/movies, and even comic books (for instance, imagine coaching Clark Kent to have more leadership presence).

Recently, Willie Wonka and his chocolate factory came to mind. Let’s say you are coaching Willie Wonka about his succession plan. I’ll lay out the scenario, and then a challenge for you as a coach, and hopefully you’ll see that this crazy case relates to some very real coaching issues….

Coach: So you want to come up with a succession plan?

Wonka: Yes. Can you help?

Coach: Well, perhaps I can ask some questions to help you come up with insights. For instance, it seems like you have thousands of very capable and loyal employees that could rise to leadership positions. You’ve told me that you have employees who are brilliant at everything from operations to developing great new candy products. Who have you identified as potential successors to you?

Wonka: Oh, no. That’s not my plan at all.

Coach: You mean that developing internal leaders to take over more and more of the candy factory and ultimately succeed you is not what you mean by succession planning?

Wonka: Goodness, no! My plan is much simpler. What I intend to do is have a contest. I’ll send out seven golden tickets in the millions of Wonka bars that we sell every week. The seven lucky recipients of a golden ticket will get a tour of my factory. One of them will end up being my successor. You see, I’ll design the tour to uncover all sorts of terrible, spoiled brat behaviors that will quickly disqualify them from being eligible to run my company. I’ll also give them a sample product – my Everlasting Gobstopper — and make them promise to return it to me at the end of the tour. Whomever makes it to the end of the tour without getting turned into a giant blueberry, shrunk down to miniature size, caught in a chocolate tube, molested by squirrels, or some other terrible fate – and also returns the Gobstopper to me….that’s my successor. Brilliant, isn’t it?

Coach: Wait. You mean to say that – just for instance – some impoverished, uneducated child could find one of those golden tickets, successfully complete your factory tour, give you back a piece of candy, and suddenly he is your successor? And that you will give him the factory even if he has no experience, education, or skills whatsoever?

Wonka: Exactly.

Coach: And just to confirm: Not one of the thousands of incredibly gifted, capable, creative employees that know the intricate details of your operations and have given their lives to you – working and living in your factory 24/7—is  in any way on your mind as taking on increased leadership and ultimately your role? Not one?

Wonka: You’re a little slow, but I think you are getting it.

Coach:[Stunned silence]

The above case is extreme, but it is not uncommon for our clients to surprise us with creative ideas that are different than what many would consider to be best practices.

What do you do when this happens, especially if all of your experience and knowledge tells you that the client making an unwise choice?

Here are your choices in the above case:

  1. Debate with Willie Wonka until he sees that he is making a crazy choice.
  2. Encourage Willie Wonka to explore a number of options before leaping to the conclusion that his current way of thinking is correct.
  3. Let Willie Wonka move forward with his plan. After all, he is the client and the coach’s job is never to be directive. Plus, his plan does build in  a way to find a fit with his core values—even if with a small, random sample.
  4. Something else not considered above.

Personally, if I am brought in as an expert and a coach, I would go for Option B, but also take a moment to ask permission to share my own experience about best practices in succession planning. I would want to know a bit more about why he doesn’t hire from within. If he remains 100 percent sure about his decision after we delve deeper into other options, and wants coaching on how to make his idea succeed, I might then ask about ways to minimize risks and cover a variety of scenarios.

What about you?

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