Willy Wonka Saw the Future

I didn’t find a golden ticket, but I did find a few golden nuggets while watching the original Willy Wonka movie. That’s something I can only do as an adult, because I must have watched it a least a hundred times as a child and I don’t remember ever reflecting on creativity in the workplace or lessons learned. A kid wouldn’t think to himself “Man, that factory looked fun but what a human resources and safety nightmare!”

Over the years I’d catch bits & pieces, as I flipped through channels, could still quote certain parts an on occasion, and would even sing a verse of one of the Oompa Loompa songs during conversations to flash a hip cultural reference. This time I sat down to watch it start to finish. My purpose for this mission was simple, find a relevant leadership or HR lesson using one of the most memorable movies of all time.

There are the obvious morality plays, embodied in each character. If we’re talking CEO’s, Mr. Wonka was a bit unhinged and somewhat temperamental, but, hey, we all have room for improvement. And there are the thoughts on creativity in the workplace or breaches in safety protocol. The thing that initially struck me and stayed with me, is how intentional he was in choosing Charlie to take over the factory.

Yup, I watched Willy Wonka and thought about succession planning. Here are a few things that crossed my mind:

    • Willy Wonka had a good idea of the type of person he wanted, but needed to watch the candidates interact first-hand. None of them knew it was a “job interview,” which allowed him to see them unfiltered. Until you see someone actively participate in an environment, you won’t know how well they will do.


  • Willy Wonka stayed close to home. Granted, I don’t know that you would consider Charlie an internal hire (I’m going to assume there wasn’t a well-qualified Oompa-Loompa to promote), but he did live in the same town and passed by the factory every day, which developed a certain degree of care about and loyalty to the company.


  • Willy Wonka kept the big picture in mind. Charlie made a poor choice and broke the rules, and he was punished accordingly. He could have walked out the door with the Everlasting Gobstopper, shown it to the world, and felt justified for doing it. Instead, Charlie accepted his fate and, given the opportunity, made the choice to return the top-secret product entrusted to him, expecting nothing in return. That’s a lesson Charlie will be able to fall back on for his entire tenure as CEO.

These thoughts aren’t just for CEOs – being intentional about filling leadership positions at any level is good practice. What questions or thoughts or qualities do you consider when you begin succession planning?

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