Lessons from HBO’s Succession for family business
HBO’s Succession follows a declining dysfunctional family business. The aging patriarch, Logan Roy, is in poor health but has no clear plans to step aside. His children fight for control of the company when their father lands in the hospital with an uncertain future. Speculation is that the series is inspired from a true story - some have guessed the Hearsts, the Trumps or more likely the Murdoch family.
While Mark Twain coined the phrase “truth is stranger than fiction…” this TV series may be the exception with tons of twists and turns that you wouldn’t expect to see in real life. However, if you strip away the TV drama, you’ll find critical lessons about a generational transfer of a family business.
Here’s five areas that stood out for me:
1. Misaligned vision creates wrong turns
The characters of Succession are focused on what is best for themselves individually and not serving the greater good of the family business. The cost is the absence of family harmony and a business in decline from many bad choices.
Family members have different experiences, talents and perspectives so the vision can easily become misaligned creating confusion about the future direction of the business.
The family needs to be rooted in a shared vision that they co-created to align everyone behind a greater purpose. This creates a strategic framework to guide difficult decisions so the family is “all in it together.”
2. Fear based leadership creates ill-equipped successors
Logan Roy raised his children to please him and follow his lead instead of challenging him. Who wants to raise a new idea or offer a different point of view and invoke Dad’s rage or jeopardize a chance at leading the business? There is a complete breakdown of communication and trust.
It can be difficult for parents to let go of control. Allowing children to spread their wings means being okay with them scraping their knees a little. Personal growth comes from experimentation and learning from their own mistakes in a safe environment. Fear based leadership provides little safety for children to learn and evolve.
3. Successors need to earn the right
It isn’t uncommon to have some concern about the suitability of a family member to take over the business. Do they have the talents, experience or even the interest in becoming a leader?
There are many examples within the series Succession where expectations have not been set and critical gaps in the children’s ability to grow the business have emerged. This created a serious issue where leading the business is a birthright versus earned. Logan Roy realizes he has created the environment of entitlement when he tells his children “What have you had in your entire life that I didn’t give you?”
How do you avoid the trap of inadequately prepared leaders? Successors, family or otherwise, need to have defined roles, clear expectations and a development plan to advance in the business. They enter leadership once they have demonstrated the ability to excel at the role.
4. Know when to step aside
The main premise of Succession is the drama of a patriarch lingering on too long without a named successor. The children all make assumptions over who will take over the top job but there is no defined plan. This creates an environment of unhealthy competition and passive aggressive behaviours to push Dad aside. Publicly one child says, “the dinosaur is having one last roar at the meteor before it wipes him out.” Not a great message for customers and key partners to hear.
Thinking you can hold onto full control indefinitely is an ill-advised plan. It’s important the next generation has the chance to rise at critical moments and establish themselves as capable leaders.
Ideally, a documented succession plan is created to transfer leadership control in stages. This allows mentorship time for future leaders and the space to ease into the psychological difficulties in letting go.
5. Be prepared for an emergency transfer
During the first episode of Succession, the patriarch suffers a serious health issue which puts him in a coma with an unclear diagnosis. And the business quickly enters into a state of chaos. Instead of rallying to steady the business, the children down spiral into a nasty power struggle wasting precious time and creating greater risk to the business.
Logan Roy eventually recovers and attempts to come back to work prematurely – with questionable mental capacity for the top job.
Every business needs a documented emergency transfer plan if owners die or become seriously ill/injured. With high emotions, this is a very difficult time for any family business. By providing clear direction, the family can quickly focus on implementation to secure confidence, protect the company’s reputation and revenue base.
Mental incapacity issues are particularly challenging for families. As owners work later into life, the risks are higher and it’s much easier to handle when we have confirmed a procedure in advance.
HBO’s Succession may be made for TV drama, but it has valuable lessons for family businesses.
· With structures in place, the family can align behind one vision to pull the rope in the same direction.
· To avoid entitlement issues, ensure expectations are clear so family members earn the right to leadership.
· Create a forum to effectively deal with conflict when it rises.
· Let go over time to rise the next generation of leaders. Give them room to learn from their mistakes in a safe environment.
· Document an emergency transfer plan if sometime happens to key leaders.