Succession. Photo courtesy of HBO/WBD.

‘Succession’ Dramatizes How Not to Run a Family Business

Even the most die-hard fans of Logan Roy, the fictional family patriarch at the heart of HBO’s hit show “Succession,” have sat back at times and thought, “Well, that’s no way to run a family.”

But here’s the thing: For all the gold that Logan Roy has spun with his fictional media and entertainment conglomerate, you could say the same thing about Waystar Royco: “Well, that’s no way to run a family business.”

Yes, “Succession” is a television show. Yes, Logan Roy is a character played by actor Brian Cox. Yes, Waystar Royco is not a real business.

But it can all feel real to the legions of fans who have cultivated a love/hate relationship with the besieged firm and with the spectacularly dysfunctional Roy family that runs it.

Putting aside for the moment all the show’s fictional devices and dramatic twists and turns, there are real-world family business lessons embedded in “Succession.”

Some are obvious: Don’t lie, cheat or cover up crimes.

At least one is captured in the very title of the show. (You will find it below in the No. 3 spot on our list.)

But other lessons emerge more as subtext.

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Family businesses have some real advantages, which is why so many companies in the United States are either family owned or family controlled. Family businesses usually enjoy high levels of dedication. Employees can offer one another deeper and more intimate support in tough times. They draw together and stand together.

Family businesses tend to be more resilient than businesses that are not family-owned or controlled, research indicates. 


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A study reported in Harvard Business Review, for example, put it this way:

“Our results show that during good economic times, family-run companies don’t earn as much money as companies with a more dispersed ownership structure. But when the economy slumps, family firms far outshine their peers. And when we looked across business cycles from 1997 to 2009, we found that the average long-term financial performance was higher for family businesses than for nonfamily businesses in every country we examined.”

But a family business also comes with unique challenges. So if you are starting a business with a spouse, parents, siblings or children, it’s important to adopt some key concepts to strike the right balance.

7 essential concepts for starting a family business

  1. Clear communication: Family members must be able to communicate effectively with one another, professionally and personally. Just think about how many times one of the Roy family members in “Succession” says to another, “Did you know this? Why didn’t you tell me?” Insist on open lines of communication and regular meetings to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  2. Define roles and responsibilities: Logan Roy seems to enjoy shuffling roles, titles and duties as a way to foster uncertainty, competition and resentment among his children and senior staff. In real life, clearly defining roles and responsibilities for each family member is essential. Everyone should know where to find direction or guidance. This will help prevent confusion and help ensure that everyone is accountable for their own work.
  3. Plan for succession: HBO did not call it “Succession” for nothing. Planning for the future of the business beyond the current generation is crucial. This means grooming potential future leaders for new roles in the business. Involve everyone to foster fairness and transparency.
  4. Separate family and business: Set clear boundaries between work and personal life. (We are talking to you, Siobhan and Tom.) Establish a culture of professionalism.
  5. Develop a strong company culture: OK, “Succession” fans, where do we start on this one? A strong company culture is critical for any business, but it’s especially important in a family business. Values. Goals. A vision for the business. These are the principles of a culture that will encourage alignment. A strong and clear culture promotes a sense of unity and purpose within the family and the business.
  6. Seek outside expertise: Bringing in an outside perspective can help keep a family business from becoming too insular and stuck in its ways. Consider hiring consultants or attending industry events to get insights that can help the business stay competitive and innovative. If you are Roman Roy, be wary of outsiders offering financing over Turkish coffee.
  7. Have a plan for conflict resolution: The difference between “Succession” and real life is that in real life the goal is to resolve conflicts, not foster them. Conflicts are inevitable in any business, and in any family. In a family business? Count on them. Have a plan and a practice in place to handle those flare-ups professionally and effectively. Maybe that’s seeking guidance from a third party. Maybe that’s finding a mediator in the family who is not part of the business. But don’t let the conflicts fester.

Conclusion

In closing, going into business with your family can be exciting and rewarding. But start with clarity and process. Agree on roles, compensation, exit plans and other details before they become a problem. And have a plan to address and resolve issues as they arise.

Photograph by Courtesy of HBO


Courses, grants and more: Check out Verizon Small Business Digital Ready.

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