Despite its extravagant storylines and larger-than-life characters, the popular TV drama, Succession, sheds a light on the real-life implications of poor business succession planning. Here’s what you can learn.

In the hit HBO series Succession, the blunt and often profane Logan Roy takes centre stage as the protagonist. The show delves into the power struggles within the wealthy Roy family as they vie for control of the family business, both before and after Logan’s eventual demise. Despite Logan’s straightforward demeanour, he fails to engage in effective communication or succession planning with his children and company.

This lack of preparation is not unique to the Roy family. A survey conducted by PwC in 2021 reveals that only around one-third of family-owned businesses have a succession plan in place. This leaves a significant portion of such businesses vulnerable to the kind of dramatic conflicts seen on the show.

You’re a business owner and one day, I’m sure you want to either sell your business or pass it on to future generations. Here are my 3 lessons you can learn from succession in your own business.

Lesson 1: Don’t lead alone – be a Ronald

Imagine this: After years of entertaining children, the real Ronald McDonald has stepped back from the front line and trained others to take on the role. Now, he sits atop the McDonald’s tower, donning a smart designer suit, focusing on strategy, marketing, recruitment, and systems. His franchise can be replicated worldwide.

On the other hand, we have Elton John, one of the UK’s most financially successful individuals. Unlike Ronald, Elton has not trained others to perform like him. He remains the star performer, the one everyone wants to see.

In succession, Logan Roy is the key to Waystar Royco’s success. His tenacity, business savvy, and strategic vision have propelled the company forward. He understands the business and his audience like no one else. As he puts it:

“I make my nut off what people really want. Don’t tell me about people—I’d go flat broke in a week if I didn’t.”

Logan’s belief that he can do everything better than anyone else, including conducting the orchestra, has made him indispensable to the business. When he suffers a stroke in season 1, Waystar Royco’s stock price plummets, triggering a chain of events that nearly ruins the company. Logan is Waystar. Like Elton John is Elton John. While he has appointed key people and advisors, he cannot relinquish control of the firm which has real negative consequences.

As a business owner, you must remember that while you are intrinsically linked to the success of the business, you are not solely responsible for it. Surrounding yourself with capable and dedicated individuals who share the same vision and are willing to make sacrifices is crucial for sustainable long-term success.

Lesson 2: Start succession planning early

“If it is to be said, so it be, so it is” – Some wisdom from Greg. 

Recent research indicates that only 35% of businesses have a formal succession planning process for critical roles, and 58% of family businesses in the UK have no succession plan at all.

In Succession, we have Kendall, vulnerable and insecure, yearning for his father’s validation. Shiv, despite her sharp intellect, often feels side-lined for being a woman in a patriarchal world. And then there’s Roman, whose life is plagued by a multitude of personal issues.

The problem is each of them feels entitled to the role due to promises made by their father, whose leadership style involves testing rather than nurturing his successors. This lack of consistency and preparation leads to chaos and conflict within the family.

The fact that a business as significant as Waystar Royco, valued at approximately $80 billion, has no formal succession plan in place is evidence of short-sightedness. With an aging CEO and no clear successor, the company is susceptible to instability and internal strife. When the CEO unexpectedly passes away in season 4, the emotionally stunted siblings engage in a game of manipulation and deceit to claim the coveted position.

It is crucial for businesses, regardless of size, to anticipate and plan for the departure of key personnel. Whether it is due to retirement, career changes, illness, or unfortunate events, having a solid succession plan is essential. Here are some proactive steps to take:

  • Assess the impact of the absence of key personnel in critical areas of the business
  • Regularly identify potential candidates for internal hiring and succession
  • Look beyond seniority and consider young prospects who possess the necessary skills and potential
  • Communicate to potential successors that their career progression could lead to key roles in the future, encouraging them to take on additional responsibilities and prepare for the role
  • Determine any necessary training and development programs for prospective successors

In cases of planned departures, allowing the prospective successor to shadow the departing individual during a prolonged handover process can provide valuable experience and knowledge transfer.

By starting succession planning early and committing to it, businesses can ensure continuity, stability, and a smooth transition when key personnel depart. Succession planning is not just a strategic decision; it is a crucial aspect of long-term business sustainability.

Lesson 3: Be a family 

Humiliating employees through demeaning tactics like “Boar on the floor” may provide temporary entertainment, but it does not bring out the best in them. Instead, fostering a culture that encourages employees to thrive is essential. Rather than instilling fear, it is important to empower and motivate them. However, employees should also respect authority, discipline, and be open to constructive criticism, as it can lead to personal growth and the generation of new ideas.

Investing in the learning and development of employees is crucial at all levels of the company, not just for a potential senior position. Providing mentorship opportunities allows employees to gain knowledge and develop soft skills such as communication and empathy. This investment in training and development enables HR and recruitment teams to identify and fill talent gaps internally, leading to increased productivity, higher employee retention, and the overall success of the business.

Furthermore, it is crucial to ensure that potential successors actually desire the role. Not all children wish to inherit their family’s businesses, and vice versa. Making a well-considered decision, whether it involves a family member or not, is better than avoiding the decision altogether. Patience, guidance, and teaching are key elements in grooming the next generation of leaders.

Family businesses can be incredibly successful and culturally significant. However, it is vital to select a successor based on merit and suitability rather than solely on family ties.

At A4G, we care about family businesses. If you’re a business owner without a plan for succession in place, book a free 1:1 consultation with us to go through your options and the process. 

Email or call 01474 853 856.