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Succession Image courtesy of HBO

Who Will Be the Next 'Succession' Family?

Some tips to help prevent your clients from ending up like HBO's Roys.

Now that HBO has aired the final episode of its hit show Succession, Andrew Sorkin, in a New York Times DealBook Newsletter, suggests the search may be on for the next family succession drama. Although fictional, the show’s writers reportedly drew inspiration from real-life media moguls like the Redstones (who control ViacomCBS Inc.) and the Murdochs (who control The Wall Street Journal).

A Fight for Control

Succession is built around the life of fictional billionaire Logan Roy who, although in his 80s, refuses to yield control of his global media empire Waystar Royco to anyone, even his four adult children. Each week, millions tuned in “to watch the entire Roy family scheme, plot, and backstab their way to replacing the company’s patriarchal founder,” evoking parallels to Shakespeare’s King Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus and Hamlet, other fictional examples of “the brutal realities of succession.”

Season 1 begins with the Roy children in disagreement over who should take control of the company following patriarch Logan’s stroke. Son Kendall is perhaps the heir apparent, being the oldest of Logan’s three children from his second marriage. And, he has godfather Peter, an executive with the company, as his mentor. Logan’s oldest child from his first marriage, Connor, is mostly removed from the business, living elsewhere.

Though Kendall may be the heir apparent, don’t count the other children out. Youngest child, daughter Shiv, is power hungry and confident. Middle child Roman may be the most likely to be able to keep the peace among the siblings. Or, perhaps he’s just the weakest.

Kendall orchestrates a takeover bid to gain control from his father, but the plan goes very badly. Being a recovering addict, Kendall relapses sensationally with a cocaine and methamphetamine binge.

As we see through the seasons of the show, Logan never laid out a succession plan, much less began taking the steps to put it in place. It’s hard for a founder to pass down control. But, for the health of the business, there comes a time when the patriarch needs to switch from being quarterback to being the coach (in the words of renowned family consultant Matthew Wesley). For a successful transition, the whole family must know, understand and accept the succession plan. Of course, preparation doesn’t guarantee any outcome, but planning can create an environment that makes success more likely. As we see in Succession, failing to plan can have catastrophic consequences for both the business and the kids.

Spoiler alert: The final season ends with Logan’s funeral and, in the final episode, a climactic board vote on whether the company stays in the kids’ control or is sold off to a competitor. With the vote at 6-6, daughter Shiv is the deciding vote. In a final backstabbing move, Shiv votes in favor of the sale and against her brothers. The relationship among the kids is forever broken.

Business and Family Continuity

Perhaps the family should have seen the writing on the wall that a succession in a family as dysfunctional as the Roys would never work—the kids will never be in complete agreement on ownership and roles—and sold out to archrival Sandy Furness back in Season 1. It doesn’t work to address business continuity without also addressing family continuity. The two are inextricably linked.

Who’s Next?

With the Succession story concluded, who will be the inspiration for the next succession drama? The Mara family, owners of the New York Giants, might just be perfect. The family and team history provide plenty of sensational headline-worthy happenings, including losing the 1958 NFL championship game, the so-called “Greatest Game Ever Played.”

Until 1965, brothers Wellington Mara and John V. (Jack) Mara ran the football franchise. When Jack died in 1965, Jack’s share went to his widow, Helen; son, Tim; and daughter, Maura; and Tim stepped into the role of co-owner.

It’s an understatement to say that Tim and his uncle Wellington didn’t get along. “The partnership between Wellington Mara and his nephew wasn’t an easy one though. Giants fans who lived through it refer to the period as ‘the dark years,’” as the team’s record was as lousy as Tim and Wellington’s relationship. “From the mid-1960s through the 1970s, the Giants were reliably awful.

“In 1978 the team hit a new low. It had seemed headed for its first winning season in 14 years when a last-second fumble, as the Giants were running out the clock against archrival Philadelphia Eagles, cost them the game and sent the season into a tailspin. Two games after ‘The Fumble,’ angry ticket-holders burned their tickets outside Giants Stadium. A week later, fans hired a small plane to fly over the field on game day, trailing a banner that read, ‘15 years of lousy football ... we’ve had enough.’”

Later that year, Wellington and Tim brought their feud into the open over their inability to agree on a replacement for Andy Robustelli, “who resigned as director of operations Dec. 18 after the team’s sixth straight losing season.” Pete Rozelle, then NFL commissioner, had to step in. In 1979, Commissioner Rozelle named George Young as the new team general manager. Rozelle also designated Young to act as an intermediary between the feuding pair.

In 1987, the feud got so bad that Wellington installed Venetian blinds between the two owners’ luxury suites. Nephew Tim then “one-upped him by erecting wood paneling. Even winning didn’t ease any tensions: The two owners hosted separate parties after the Giants won the Super Bowl in 1986, and they did so again when the Giants prevailed in 1990.” (For clarity, it was the 1986 season with the Super Bowl game being in 1987. And, the 1990 season with the Super Bowl being in 1991.)

The feuding ended when hotel magnate Bob Tisch bought Jack’s half of the business from Tim, Maura and Helen in 1991. Wellington and Bob Tisch worked well together. According to then NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, “They had great respect for each other, and for each other’s specializations…Mr. Tisch always respected Mr. Mara’s acumen in football and his knowledge of how to run a football team, and Mr. Mara always respected Mr. Tisch’s acumen as a businessman.”

Wellington and his wife, Ann, have now passed away. Their 11 children now own that 50% of the business. One of the children, John K. Mara, serves as the team’s president and CEO. Bob Tisch has also passed away. His son Steve currently runs the franchise, alongside John Mara, with the titles of chairman and executive vice president.

There’s really no shortage of famous families to serve as the model for the next family business succession show. After all, transferring an enterprise’s leadership to a successor is a challenge—whether that enterprise is a business, a family or even a royal family.

Tips for a Smooth Succession

To do succession right—certainly better than Logan Roy—Miles Nadal in an article for Quartz, offers these tips to help the business leader pave the way:

  • Accept that a transition is inevitable.
  • There are no shortcuts; expect it to take at least three to five years.
  • Identify talent with a different skill set from the founder, as it’s different to maintain an empire than to create it.
  • Begin detaching and delegating.
  • Resist the temptation to intervene.
  • Let them fail; the learning process from solving problems is more valuable than being rescued and right.
  • Put more energy into strengthening the company culture than into teaching the nuts and bolts of running the business.

That last one about company culture reminds me of a quote attributed to Peter Drucker I’d often heard but never fully understood: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I think I now understand. As my best friend, Talmage Boston, says, “In our personal lives, relationships are everything. In the workplace, culture is everything.”

Culture “eating” strategy signifies that culture is paramount, and it gobbles up processes, rules and strategic plans. Structures are important, but they take a back seat to culture. Putting primary emphasis on strategy and prioritizing it over people (such as pushing out good people after adopting a new strategic plan) destroys culture, which in turn destroys a business.

Strong core values, caring about each other, celebrating each person’s strengths, honest feedback, encouraging and empowering one another, modeling good behavior—those are the building blocks for a rock-solid culture, essential to sustaining both a business and a family.

Though the Succession story may be painful, many business-owning families can relate. If nothing else, it’s instructive on how toxic behavior can destroy a business and a family. Strive to do succession planning better than the Roy family and don’t fumble the ball like the Mara family. Estate planning advisors and family business consultants can serve as objective umpires to help a family address dysfunction and engage in thoughtful business succession planning.

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