The WKRP Turkey Drop and Misguided Family Business Decision-Making


HAPPY THANKSGIVING

First, a happy Thanksgiving to everyone.  It is my favorite holiday- a time to reflect on one’s blessings and begin the process of building toward new achievements.  Be safe and enjoy your family and friends.  Thank you to everyone who helped me achieve some major life goals (publishing my book, shifting the arc of my career, moving closer to the publication of a graphic novel among others).  I am energized as I begin to look into 2019 and the list of further accomplishments that I want to check off the list.

Second, it wouldn’t be a “Wealth, Actually” blog, if I didn’t try to combine some lessons in Pop Culture with a problem I see in the world in wealth.  In this case, we find a few lessons in a Thanksgiving Comedy Classic.


THE “TURKEY DROP” EPISODE OF WKRP.

“As God as my witness . . . I thought turkeys could fly . . .”  -WKRP owner, Arthur Carlson

It’s the most famous line in the proud sit-com’s history.  It also teaches an important lesson in the chaos that can surround wealth decision-making.

Some quick context:  in the “Turkey Drop” episode, the owner of WKRP, Mr. Carlson, wants to be more a part of the decision-making of the station and launches his own Thanksgiving promotion. With the aid of ad salesman Herb Tarlek and reporter Les Nessman, the Big Guy turns a routine turkey give-away into a comic catastrophe. (h/t to imdb.com)


Here’s a 30 second breakdown:

And the Full Episode, is here:


What does this have to do with family wealth?   What are the lessons to be learned here?

First, the radio station is one of the businesses owned by the wealthy Carlson family.  The matriarch, Mrs. Carlson,  designated one of the sons, Arthur, to run it.  Arthur, while he has some good traits, is generally more interested in fishing than the radio station.  His skills and interest tops out at middle management.  I’m guessing there are some family business consultants that can see this fact pattern and agree with a knowing nod and a wry grin.

The family wealth issues of keeping the next generation educated, productive and engaged in the culture of family enterprises never gets old.  Jay Hughes has written eloquently on the topic.  Experts like Brian Portnoy and Richard Orlando help many families navigate this and other difficult family value transmission issues (I write about it in WEALTH, ACTUALLY”.  A cottage industry has grown up around solving intergenerational foibles.  The WKRP problem takes a huge turn in the “Turkey Drop” when Arthur, in a fit of pique, wants to become more involved in the station and in its marketing.  He means well and his idea is . . . different.  (Does this sound familiar)  Instead of a typical WKRP turkey giveaway for Thanksgiving, he want to drop live turkeys from a helicopter.

It underscores a series of issues that organizations (and family businesses in particular) have to address.

  • Are the right people making the decisions?
  • Is there a structure to make sure that the culture is protected, but that new ideas supported and developed?
  • Are all of the constituencies heard and represented, but not to the point of bureaucratic obstructiveness?

The culture of an organization needs to strike a balance between two conceptual poles.  The conservative pole is the “We do it because we’ve always done it this way” decision-making that holds onto tradition and past success but can frustrate participants and stakeholders looking for efficiency, growth, and adaptation.   The aggressive pole consists of the innovators and change agents who see immediate alterations in strategy and tactics.  Organizations desperately need these people too, but many times they have little on-the-ground experience or transferable skills (this is the case with Mr. Carlson).  Both cultural poles have their advantages and disadvantages

Overly conservative organizations can become rigid and get left in the dust by more nimble competitors.  Well-meaning, aggressive, but ill-equipped, owners/decision-makers can make galactic mistakes by taking major, uninformed risks.  Finally, in either camp, the conservative or aggressive voices that “feel” ignored will smolder and create unrest or leave.  They will go to a place with a more comfortable culture or create one to their liking.

This family wealth conundrum is particularly acute.  The owner/operator (in this case Mrs. Carlson’s proxy- her son Arthur) has definitive ideas on a company initiative.  The staff has traditional “way of doing it”.  Given the power dynamics of WKRP, the staff placates the owner and doesn’t step in to question his “big idea”.   Even when Mr. Carlson, Herb and Less come back having dropped live turkeys from a helicopter, the staff dances around the issue either to save Carlson’s feelings or out of fear for their jobs.  This lack of trust and disconnect in communication would be an existential threat at most companies.  Ultimately, Mrs. Carlson- unless her vested interest is in television comedy- needs to make a change if she wants her radio station to be a better-run business.  That may be a painful discussion with her son.

Some quick takeaways:

  • You have experts around you for a reason.  Use them.
  • Just because an idea comes from the top doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be questioned.
  • Tradition and experience are useful and powerful.  But don’t become enslaved by them.
  • Innovation and energy are vital fuel to establish, protect and grow businesses.  However, uninformed, emotional lunges can cause major damage.

Some other quick observations:

  • Have a PR disaster plan in place.  In the last scene when the Mayor and PETA call demanding answers, the ingenuity of the staff is put to the ultimate test.  You can’t prepare for every exigency, but it’s better to have a couple of dry runs in case something bad happens.
  • Effective communication between the employees and the owner/operators is vital.  The comedic thread of the show comes from frequent communication breakdowns.  When it’s real money, these breakdowns aren’t funny.
  • When it comes to dealing with one’s personal biases, beware of UNINFORMED CERTAINTY.  Just because turkeys are birds and have wings doesn’t mean they can fly.  Making huge decisions on a lightly informed thesis is not a viable long-term strategy.  Ideas are meant to be tested.

TWO QUICK LINKS

Josh Brown fires the torpedoes at the conflicted business models in the wealth management industry.  His opinion is always worth reading especially since he co-founded a firm based on his beliefs.  YARDS AFTER CONTACT

An older article (2013) by Rick Ferri has me rethinking the next wave of wealth management, the value proposition, the standard of care and the future of the business model.  The evolution of asset management cost and the transparency, evaluation, and scalability of advice are powerful factors in the wealth management business:   BEYOND THE FIDUCIARY STANDARD


HAPPY THANKSGIVING

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“Oh, the Humanity!”


“WEALTH, ACTUALLY” makes a great stocking stuffer or client gift!   Buy paperback (or Kindle) copies and leave review on the Amazon link below.

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