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Does the hit series Succession offer real lessons on how to run a dynasty?

May 25, 2022

reading time: 4 minutes

by Peter Firth (guest author)

Realität oder Fiktion: HBO-Serie Succession und die Realität in Familienunternehmen

Viewers can look forward to Succession’s “delightful vipers’ nest of Shakespearean betrayal”, but can entrepreneurial families learn from it?

Why Succession is so enthralling

“You bust in here, guns in hand. And now you find they’ve turned to f*cking sausages,” thunders media mogul Logan Roy. His avaricious offspring have just attempted a hostile takeover of Waystar Royco, the fictional conglomerate he owns in the HBO show Succession. As usual he has trumped their efforts in the final episode of the season. This time by conspiring with their mother. “We’ve just walked in on Mom and Dad f*cking us,” sighs Logan’s daughter Shiv.

Watching the credits roll on another series of Succession is a dismaying thing. It will be months until we learn the outcome of this concluding tableau. Fortunately for Roy-watchers, reassuring news arrived last week from the show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong. Talking to reporters at the Bafta awards, he teased that the scripts for season four are almost finished.

Why Succession is so highly regarded

Jesse Armstrong poses with an EMMY for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for
Jesse Armstrong poses with an EMMY for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for "Succession" in 2019. Photo © Li Ying Xinhua/eyevine/laif.

There are plenty of reasons this show has won such critical acclaim. Each episode shifts smartly up through the narrative gears, propelled by a script comprising of tack-tongued slights and absurd execuspeak. The plot is a delightful vipers’ nest of Shakespearean betrayal. The soundtrack is a visceral composition that teleports viewers to a world of stark hotel rooms and besuited boardroom savagery. It’s all excellent.

A clear lesson in boardroom etiquette for corporate princes on the make?

The premise that drives the plot is simple. A patriarch nearing retirement, and scheming heirs trying to finagle their way to the top job. The parallels with real-world business dynasties are clear. None more so than with News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch’s inner circle. Watching the action unfold against the backdrop of private jet cabins, Davos-style jamborees and palatial New York apartments you start to wonder: has James Murdoch ever accidentally sent a compromising photo to his father across a packed boardroom table?

Hauptdarsteller der HBO-Serie
Simple setting: “A patriarch nearing retirement, and scheming heirs trying to finagle their way to the top job.” Photo: © www.hbo.com.

But while this moment contains a clear lesson in boardroom etiquette for corporate princes on the make, I think that the show’s twenty-nine episodes hold further pointers for families considering a transfer of power.

Start them early

Consultants who help companies ease in the next generation are unanimous in this view: initiating your offspring into the ways of the company is best done early. This means that those next in line will be better equipped if they’ve had a career long experience in absorbing the minutiae of what the company does. By the same token, aging founders clinging to the tiller should look at Logan’s approach and do the opposite. So cruel and inconsistent was his tutelage, that – so far – none of his grasping children are fit to take the reins at Waystar Royco.

Draw on the influence of senior figures

Rupert Murdoch as an example? “The parallels with real-world business dynasties are clear.”
Rupert Murdoch as an example? “The parallels with real-world business dynasties are clear.” Photo: © Keystone/Christopher Smith/Invision/AP.

Succession planning requires a network of senior mentors to support incoming bosses. Consider the role of characters like Frank Vernon, long-time confidant of Logan and vice-chairman of the company. Or Gerri Kellman, who assumes role of interim CEO in season three. These snivelling lackeys are treated contemptuously by the Roy family – Frank is fired by Logan in the first episode – but in real life, figures like them would be pivotal to coherent governance.

Crucially, they would provide some checks and balances in the face of an ambitious new broom arriving in the corner office. In the show, the Waystar Royco top brass appear as the least empowered, but the most temperate of the characters. This might not be so far from the truth in real family businesses.

Flexibility helps

Succession plans rarely materialise as first intended. Some take decades of upskilling and personal development before a young gun is ready to replace a senior member of a family firm. During this journey, candidates’ priorities, responsibilities and interests change.

An heir to a big pharma company might have their eye on the top job months after graduating from Harvard Business School, but will their ambition have changed in a decade or so’s time? It’s likely. The long timeframes associated with succession planning mean adaptability and flexibility are crucial to getting it to work.

"Succession": triumphant at the 28th Annual Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards in Santa Monica, California, on 27.02.2022. Photo: © Keystone/AFP/Frederic J. Brown

In the series the Roys are certainly flexible. Logan seems to pivot from one favourite to another teasing that each might have earned enough regard to make them worthy of the company. There are fast role-reshuffles where members of the inner circle are catapulted into jobs they didn’t expect. But this is largely due to Logan Roy’s unreadable strategizing. When it comes to managing his sons and daughter, he adopts an approach from the Putin playbook – he chides, then praises. He is erratic, but cunning. He leaves his adversaries (largely speaking, his children) bewildered trying to anticipate his next move.

By the close of season three, we are shown that Logan’s love for his sons and daughter pales in comparison with his desire to control the company – which seems more of a child to him than they do. This urge to beat all competition into pulp might be the thing most accountable for the main characters’ dysfunction. It is also an important element for maintaining the tension even after the end of the third season. This makes Succession the best modern story about the corrupting effect of power and greed. But long before these two factors gain the upper hand at family businesses in the real world, family members would do well to think about what connects them beyond financial matters and what they want to leave behind for future generations.  

Header Visual © VINCENT TULLO/NYT/Redux/laif.

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