5 lessons for family offices from HBO's Succession
HBO’s mega-series Succession follows the decaying empire of a dysfunctional media family - a template on precisely how not to run your family office. Here are five lessons that we can learn from Succession, before putting them into practice in the process of running family offices.

By Francois Botha
Published on Simple October 5, 2020

In an era in which television is redefining its place in the artistic pecking order, HBO’s Succession is another example of a TV blockbuster that has struck a chord with audiences around the world. The acclaimed series examines the decaying empire of a dysfunctional media family and exemplifies how family ties can count for little once big money rules the roost. Succession follows the Roy family, owners of media conglomerate Waystar Royco, in their pursuit to select the next heir to the family throne. Whilst attended to by a series of advisors and aides, Roy Logan – the self-made founder of the media giant – alone holds the decision. But that doesn’t stop him from toying with his children’s desire to take control along the way.

Perhaps the reason that Succession has struck such a chord is that while there may only be a select few media moguls, most of us have experienced fissions within our usual domestic bliss. And such issues can absolutely come to the fore in the process of running family offices, where there is always the possibility of discourse and discord over how the project operates.

Dealing with engagement, succession, and communication appropriately, while also ensuring that your family office has a greater purpose that is clearly defined can be hugely testing. And even if everyone involved has the best intent, delivering this guiding principle when faced with the reality of daily business and family affairs can be far from easy. Succession is a pivotal moment in a family office’s history and can represent both a huge challenge and opportunity.

In an era in which television is redefining its place in the artistic pecking order, HBO’s Succession is another example of a TV blockbuster that has struck a chord with audiences around the world. The acclaimed series examines the decaying empire of a dysfunctional media family and exemplifies how family ties can count for little once big money rules the roost. Succession follows the Roy family, owners of media conglomerate Waystar Royco, in their pursuit to select the next heir to the family throne. Whilst attended to by a series of advisors and aides, Roy Logan – the self-made founder of the media giant – alone holds the decision. But that doesn’t stop him from toying with his children’s desire to take control along the way.

Perhaps the reason that Succession has struck such a chord is that while there may only be a select few media moguls, most of us have experienced fissions within our usual domestic bliss. And such issues can absolutely come to the fore in the process of running family offices, where there is always the possibility of discourse and discord over how the project operates.

Dealing with engagement, succession, and communication appropriately, while also ensuring that your family office has a greater purpose that is clearly defined can be hugely testing. And even if everyone involved has the best intent, delivering this guiding principle when faced with the reality of daily business and family affairs can be far from easy. Succession is a pivotal moment in a family office’s history and can represent both a huge challenge and opportunity.

So here are five lessons that we can learn from the HBO mega-series, before putting them into practice in the process of running family offices.

1. Keep Your Friends Close and your Enemies Closer

One of the most well-known lines in movie history, this Godfather philosophising has proven to be a highly perceptive remark. In Succession, all of the characters, with their thrusting ambition and suspicions of those that can dethrone them, understand the value of keeping their enemies within touching distance. But close ties with allies are also important.

When thinking about the more everyday family office, perhaps things are not quite so grave. However, there is wisdom here that we can learn. Enemies are far less common than adversaries. And adversaries can indeed be good for business. By bringing in the external perspective of ‘the challenger’ can push the boundaries of your value proposition and uncover alternatives perspectives previously unconsidered. Diversification is of course a tried and tested investment strategy, and in general, it is wise to grow your portfolio as much as possible. But you should also be careful who you choose to associate and fraternise with. Are they aligned with your overall vision? Are their actions value-aligned? Your image and reputation will be critical to your business, so make sure that you protect them.

“Money is a virtual construct whereas integrity, virtue — these things actually exist”– Nan Pierce

2. Know When to Hand Over the Reins

One of the central premises of Succession is that the patriarch of the media empire is in poor health and on the verge of expiration, which then provokes a massive power struggle between the younger members of his family. Meanwhile, the father isn’t quite ready to release the reins just yet.

“The dinosaur is having one last roar at the meteor before it wipes him out”– Kendall Roy

This reluctance to hand over the reins and desire to have one last roar exacerbates an already strained family situation – and is certainly something to be avoided in family offices as well. Failing to hand over responsibility at critical moments can stifle innovation, while also indicating a lack of trust in workers who need to feel valued. Trust is a fundamental component within the succession process and if this is in place it could just prove to be a breakthrough moment for a family office.

The best approach would be to have a succession plan ready from as early on as possible. Succession should be on the mind from the moment a new leader steps into their role. This is the difference between focussing on the short-term impact of leadership and the long-term legacy of a company. How can a leader avoid a meteoric wipeout and make decisions which safeguard the future business? The key might just be to engage with the next-generation early and often. It takes a village to run a successful family office. By planning for succession from the start, there will be plenty of time to implement a carefully considered strategic plan.

3. Secrets Come to Light

Succession is a typical TV pot-boiler, with more twists, turns, and tumultuous revelations than one could reasonably expect to occur in real life. Most characters are harboring some kind of ulterior motive or plan, leading to a complex web of desire and motive. Ultimately it sheds light on how despite living in an age of advanced business theories, frameworks, and tools, human behavior is the ultimate driver of business decisions.

This takes an almost comical effect in the HBO show. However, there is something to be learned even from this most dramatic of melodramas. Secrets that are kept beneath lock and key backfire spectacularly, underlining just how important it is to be transparent at all times.

“Just to be clear, this isn’t a meeting. It is a precursor to see if I might be willing to meet” – Greg Hirsch

We live in an age where consumers demand a heightened level of transparency, and indeed most businesses are aware of this and rising to the challenge. Though increasingly important, this should not overshadow the importance of transparency between leadership and employees, and between employees themselves. Again, this is a simple matter of trust; all great leaders believe in giving their people information, to ensure that they are kept in the loop. Don’t instead make the mistake of treating them like mushrooms; keeping them in the dark and feeding them.

4. It’s All a Game

In Succession, all of the characters become antagonists, who are in competition with one another all of the time. The business that they’ve built together becomes a grand playing field for their personal ambitions and petty rivalries, underlining one of the immutable aspects of human nature – sheer greed. This was once summed up aptly by the Australian cricketer Shane Warne. Whatever it is in life, it’s never enough.

“You can’t make a Tomlette without breaking some Greggs”– Tom Wambsgan

Succession perhaps shows some of the most grotesque sides of competition and rivalry within a business and a family. But what’s the takeaway here for the average family office proprietor and employee? Expect this world to be competitive — Anything worth doing is. Respect the fact that you will have to compete on a daily basis and that nothing will be handed to you on a silver platter. Life is rarely like that. As long as the action is mostly limited to market competitors and not family members, a bit of rivalry can most certainly be healthy.

5. Know Why You Are Doing This

Whilst a busy and buzzing marketplace is good for business at large, within your organisation a more zen and purpose-aligned approach is preferable. Understanding and remembering your guiding motive at all times is essential. Maintaining a greater purpose and consistent values through actions is mission-critical. Else why did you get into this industry and situation in the first place? Succession’s carousel of characters fails to pay heed to this and fails to serve the greater good of their family and empire. Don’t make the same mistake yourself.

Market opportunity and competitiveness can certainly be a place to start. But the point of a purpose is to move beyond being ‘last man standing’. What do you stand for beyond being ‘the best’? How can you cut through the noise and deliver long-term value?

Succession may be an entertaining parody of the modern-day family office, but there are nonetheless valuable lessons to be learnt. By witnessing the shortcomings of characters and the downfall of the Roy family at large, family offices might recognise exactly the kind of behaviours to avoid, and gain insight into how to create an supportive and successful business environment.

About the Authors

Francois Botha

Simple Founder. Strategy Advisor

Francois believes that the next generation of family leaders need new, simple tools and trusted experts with a fresh outlook.

Connect with Francois Botha View Francois Botha Profile

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