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Beyond the Drama: What HBO’s Succession Can Teach Us About Family Governance

By Jill Shipley Published May 25, 2023

The HBO television show Succession has run for four successful seasons and now reaches its gripping conclusion. It follows the Roys, a wealthy and powerful American family headed up by Logan Roy, ruthless founder and CEO of multinational media conglomerate Waystar RoyCo.

With no real succession plan in place, Logan consistently plays his children against each other, as they vie for their father’s love and approval, and a place at the top table. As Jill Shipley, Head of Family Governance and Education at AlTi reflects, Succession is a sensationalized example of the challenges stemming from the overlapping roles of a family in business together.  

If I was introduced to the Roy family, I would have advised them to sell Waystar RoyCo a long time ago.

Families, on their own, are complex systems. They are lifelong connections typically striving for equality and unconditional love. The nature of a business is quite the opposite. Involvement is not guaranteed, and advancement is typically conditional. To have success mixing these two systems requires a foundation of trust, transparent communication, and thoughtful, proactive planning. The Roy family seems void of all of these characteristics.

Being in business together puts the family’s well-being, their relationships, and their wealth at risk. But while we do not see the best of what family business has to offer, Succession offers us a lot to learn. I think what is perhaps missing from the show are the unique opportunities and benefits that can unfold when things are done right. Though I suppose the magical aspects of mixing business with family are not quite as entertaining.  

The business of succession planning

The Roy family is sensationalized, but the difficulty of talking about money, of letting go, and planning for death, is real. Logan is unable and unwilling to designate a successor even though he’s aging. He is staunchly unwilling to relent, and frequently his business goals are shown to differ from those of his children.

None of this is uncommon. Business founders start out making all of the decisions. The success or failure of the business rests on their shoulders and on their sole authority, often with great sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears. In Logan’s case, those decisions led to an enterprise worth billions.  To his mind, how could someone else do it better?

Also, a business is like another child to its founder. They’ve often devoted as much time to building the enterprise as they have to parenthood (sometimes even more). The thought of retiring or handing over the reins is unfathomable. 

But not having a plan, and clearly communicating the plan to all stakeholders, is worse.  

Watching Logan’s children relentlessly vie for his attention and affirmation is painful. Without clear expectations and qualifications for a future leader, they fight for their voice to be heard. It destroys their ability to thrive, their relationship with each other and their relationship with their father.  

To avoid this outcome, it is important a family business puts a governance framework in place, before it is needed. Governance is about ensuring the right people are in the right place at the right time to make the right decisions. And that there is a structure to how those decisions are made. 

Due to the emotional nature of a family system, having a board in place that acts as an oversight body is recommended and helpful. The board should be made up of family owners, business leaders and independent advisors.

It is important to put this governance model in place early so there is time to practice, while the founder is living and able to educate, mentor and advise the rising generations of leaders and owners.

When ‘passing the baton’, so to speak, it helps to designate a period where both founder and successor can hold the baton together. This engages the founder in a process of knowledge transfer conducted on their terms; it allows the successor to develop a deeper respect of their mentor’s founding principles; and it enables both to develop a mutual understanding of how the business can evolve under younger ownership with a fresh vision.

Just in case planning

Yes, succession planning is difficult. No one wants to think about or plan for the proverbial “being hit by a bus” scenario, but we all know we are mortal. Not only should every business have a succession plan, they should also have a just in case plan. 

As we age, it is inevitable that we will see changes in our mental and physical health. From incontinence to brain hemorrhages, Logan Roy’s declining health is emblematic of our life journey. It’s not just a journey of personal pain and loss of dignity, but also that which affects the family and the business.

A just in case plan is similar to having insurance. We hope our house does not burn down and we proactively plan just in case. We hope business leaders do not become incapacitated or suffer from rapid health decline, but it is critical to have a plan in place just in case – before any signs manifest and before it’s too late to deal with the consequences.

A thoughtful agreement, written in good health, should outline how to protect the enterprise from a crisis. Perhaps leadership and the board agree that anyone can raise a concern, that leaders over a certain age are subject to annual health assessments by a trained physician, and a policy is created where, if capacity is in question, a second opinion is required. If confirmed, the leader agrees in writing to step down and move forward with the predetermined succession plan.

While it’s uncomfortable to speak about such things, it’s best for the business to engage in a ‘fire drill’, in other words, scenario planning for if the worst should happen. What are the risks? The financial implications? The personal and relationship implications? What can be done today to mitigate future catastrophes?  

Conflict management

Conflict is normal in families and in business. It can even be healthy. But the Roys’ public displays of vitriol are not.

A foundation of trust is required for a family business to be positive both for the family and the enterprise. And trust requires empathy, active listening, positive intent and, in some cases, a commitment to put the good of the group above the individual. We have to work at our relationships – especially with family members. 

I often encourage families to explore their core and aspirational values. Shared values should be at the heart of how decisions that impact the family and the business are made. An agreed upon shared purpose can also be very helpful in guiding decision making. The Roy family members appear to have different, often opposite goals and objectives, which leads to massive conflict.    

Another governance tool that can be helpful is a conflict management policy. This allows the family to come to a shared agreement on communication – how they will talk about each other publicly, and what is kept confidential. Agreements on protecting reputations can avoid damaging conflict or lawsuits. And the family should agree to having non-family board members as mediators, to delicately and independently deal with power struggles that can arise.

Almost laughable in the show is when Logan puts his daughter in the role of crisis manager. Without having agreement on the family values, their shared purpose, a code of conduct for communication and a conflict management policy, she is set up to fail.  

Avoiding entitlement

The Roy children grabbing for power demonstrates another running issue with the Roys – nepotism. Giving high power positions in the company to family members puts professional competence and reputation at stake.

To this end, an employment policy is a key governance document, ideally introduced before anyone in the family begins working for the business. It has many facets, but the basic principle is this: the standard for family employees must be higher than that of a non-family employee – not the opposite. Too much is at stake. This goes to the core of where the family system and business system overlap. A family system is inclusive, unconditional, and equal, while business is based on performance, conditional rewards, and hierarchy. 

The employment policy defines the eligibility requirements for family members to work in the business. I recommend it includes a preference for employing someone only if they work outside the business for a few years, to gain external experience, and that they are ultimately hired for a position because they are the best candidate for the role. However, I’d add that this isn’t necessarily the case for the board. Family members bring a valuable and unique family perspective to the table.

The Roy legacy

A family with this level of animosity is unlikely to consider governance. But I’m an optimist. If, in his good health, Logan Roy walked through my door, I would explain that even in extreme circumstances, trust can be rebuilt, and legacy can be salvaged. It takes hard work, a long look in the mirror, and the assistance of someone trained in family systems. I would ask the Roys what the legacy is they truly want to leave behind. What do they want their children and grandchildren to say about them after they are gone? What do they want the community to say?

Rather than the power grab presented across the series, a planned and thoughtful exit – a complete exit – offers an alternative reality. Perhaps it was that one chance Logan Roy never took but should have taken – to use his wealth to preserve his legacy, and to change the story that future generations would tell. Nonetheless, this hit show is an excellent case study in family governance and of the sad implications of what not to do, and what could have been.

About the author
  • Jill Shipley

    Jill Shipley is AlTi’s Head of Governance and Education Practice. She helps families and family enterprises navigate the impact of multigenerational wealth. She brings over 20 years’ experience in family systems, preparing rising generations, communicating about wealth, transition planning, governance, and philanthropy.

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