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HBO’s ‘Succession’: A Family Business Cautionary Tale

May 28, 2024

- By Sophie Pinkoski

Every once in a while, a television show comes along that holds a mirror up to the real world. Television seeks to entertain through a melodramatic take on certain professional settings. But when they get it right, they get it right. Take HBO’s 'Succession', which recently concluded its four-season run. Logan Roy, the formidable founder of Waystar Royco and patriarch of the Roy family, rules his media empire with an iron fist. His strict “my way or the highway” approach to leadership creates a toxic hierarchical system that festers into a tense power dynamic among his own family members. Matters are further complicated when a medical emergency forces him to step down without a successor in place, leaving the business to spiral into chaos and turmoil while his children vie for control. This scenario underscores the dangers of failing to prepare for the eventuality of a leadership transition within a family business. 

Founders like Logan Roy won’t always be there to drive their company’s success.

It’s crucial to prepare for any event that could potentially take a leader off the chess board.

The next generation of the Roy family are given few tools to succeed throughout the show. When this happens in real life, the next generation is unable to confidently take on the responsibilities of running the business, and without these leadership tools, the founder’s hard-won legacy could die with them. 

Here are ways to protect the family legacy and avoid the pitfalls 'Succession' highlights: 

Start succession planning as early as possible–– Logan Roy’s reluctance to step down and name a successor leads to internal competition between his children, Kendall, Shiv, and Roman. He prides himself on knowing the company would be nothing without him. But this mentality means his media business won’t survive with him gone. This sense of invincibility is far from practical in the real world, and we see the disaster that awaits the family when Logan’s sudden stroke leaves them with no one to captain the ship.

It’s crucial, therefore, for a family CEO or founder to set aside their ego to ensure their family business is able to live on well into the next generation and beyond.

Assess who amongst your key players would be most capable of taking over if anything should happen. The candidate selected should be someone interested in taking on that level of responsibility and made aware they’re being considered for the role. Logan's eldest son, Connor, for instance, has no interest in being involved with the family business, and leaves the power struggle to his siblings, whose ambitions are more closely tied to the company. Once a potential CEO successor is chosen, a plan can be made to address what needs to be done to build their competencies to prepare them for the role. 

Protect your family legacy by aligning everyone involved– Logan Roy’s dominant leadership style leaves very little room for anyone else’s perspectives, feedback, or innovative ideas. This creates a toxic working environment based on fear and humiliation. As a result, he keeps his plans close to his chest, refusing to entertain insights from anyone else.  His insistence upon leading alone from the top means he won’t give his children the chance to preserve his carefully built legacy. Because Kendall, Shiv, and Roman are given no opportunities to develop within this multi-million-dollar company, they fall back on their entitlement, and into petty infighting.

A psychologically safe environment would instead foster a sense of purpose and accountability in the next generation, empowering them to feel like a valued asset to the business.

Each of the Roy siblings has their own personal ambitions driving their involvement in the family business. Such fractured self-interests can erode a business’ bottom line. Identify a set of values with your family that will align everyone to a shared goal and instill a strong sense of purpose within the company. 

Build on everyone’s competencies–– The biggest step in getting the next generation engaged in the family business is to nurture their existing skills and interests. Empowering the current leader's children will help them understand how their talents and passions can benefit the family company and vice versa. Each of the Roy siblings has a unique skillset between them that aren’t utilized to their full potential. Kendall has a penchant for innovative risk taking and Shiv has the strength of her own publicity firm behind her. While Roman’s eccentric talents are all over the map, he just wants to be acknowledged as a valued contributing member of the company. Unfortunately, none of the siblings receive the appropriate mentorship or training to inherit the role of CEO from their father.

By giving the next generation relevant hands-on experience both in and outside the family business, their competence and confidence can be built to give them the context needed to fully comprehend the intricacies of leading a company. 

'Succession' is a compelling cautionary tale that warns of the importance of meticulous transition planning to prevent unnecessary chaos and disaster. By learning from the Roy family's missteps, real-life family businesses can better take their own proactive steps to ensure their company survives and thrives well into the future. 


Further Reading 

Finance in Pop Culture: What ‘Succession’ Teaches Us About Family Business & Wealth Management, LinkedIn 

Lessons From HBO's Succession for Family Businesses, Empower Planning Inc. 

HBO’s Succession & Leadership. What We Can Learn – & What We Can Forget. Forbes 

HBO’s ‘Succession’ Provides Succession Planning Insights and Lessons for Business Leaders, Forbes 

HBO's Succession & Insights into Small Business Succession Planning, NASE 

Leadership Lessons We Can Learn From HBO’s Show ‘Succession’, Strategy, People, Culture Consulting 

The Show ‘Succession’ Teaches Us About Succession, Johnson Financial Group 

What TV’s ‘Succession’ Taught Us About Succession Planning, Morson Talent 

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