Succession: The Series vs. Real Life

By Dennis T. Jaffe

Separating the drama from real life

We are fascinated by succession, especially when the would-be successors appear spoiled, entitled, clueless, scheming and inept. There is no hero to root for in the show Succession, or in the older Arrested Development. Why are these so riveting? One reason is that they depict young would-be inheritors, despite their schemes and affluent lives, not getting what they want: respect or control of the family business. We spectators root for poetic justice — for the characters to get what they deserve to right the moral universe. But what happens in TV does not happen in real life.

Entertainment is not harmless. It has real impacts on how we view inheritors of family business _ or, if we are in a family business ourselves, on our own feelings about ourselves and mindsets. We wonder, are we really different from Succession’s Roy family, or are we similar and just unaware? What do we deserve?

It’s time to separate the fantasy from the reality. A family business is challenging because it is both a family and a business. We are born into a family, with expectations of our future built in. We feel we are entitled to the family’s wealth because of our birth. We feel that as family members we should be part of the business. But businesses operate by different rules than families do. A business is not a prize or a reward but a complex entity that is growing and becoming more challenging to maintain. It is a responsibility, and those who work there are responsible for results, not entitled to rewards.

The drama, comedy and conflict of succession in media stems from the way that family dramas are channeled into a business, and the contradiction of family and business roles. This is a real issue. A successful business family sets rules and policies for being engaged in the business and sharing the wealth, and about being part of the family. Roles, policies and practices are defined in relation to family members.

The great challenge of succession for everybody involved is that it is not just about business. It’s about family, and how you perform in the business can seem to be a reflection on your worth as a family member. One young heir, about to take an executive role in the huge family business, said, “I fear every day becoming the first member of the family to screw up. If I succeed, it’s what was expected, if I fail, I’m the first one.” Why even try?

Succession is not a plan or a competition in which the family leader, often your parent, determines the winner (perhaps using rules that are not very clear or consistent). It is a shared activity over time in which the different members of the ownership (and often future owners) design the business they want to see in the future, not continuing the business that is already there. If the current business leader tries to duplicate his (or sometimes her) skills and practices, the business will not grow and change as it needs to. The same goes for the family. Before making assumptions, family members in different generations must gather and talk about expectations, rules, fairness, accountability and values differences. This is a precondition of effective succession. And, except for a brief failed discussion, it is something that never happens in the Roy family.

The current business leader does not even have the best view of what is needed in the future. They know only what they have done. Often, the rising generation has a clearer view. But even with their greater understanding of new ways, they are not necessarily wise, experienced or mature enough. Succession can be thought of as a working partnership across generations, in which the wisdom and experience of the elders join with the passion and new ideas of the younger generation. The partnership is focused on the external challenges, not on fighting or internal rivalries.

Succession is not about choosing one individual. Rather, it begins when the two or three adult generations of the family come together to design a future. It’s not about finding the right individual but about the generation stepping up to learn, take on and share the responsibility for the family’s financial and non-financial wealth. Until they know where they are going and agree on that, they cannot really decide who should lead. Usually, the outcome of this is shared leadership, or several leadership roles that include family members as well as  non-family executives and advisers.

Where does succession start? Not with a decision by the elder, but with a meeting of the family to consider what they want to be for the next generation. Succession is the process of family members working to renew their purpose and create a new direction. It may involve the sale of the business, or separating, or creating new ventures together, or letting go of the old one. It is taking a new path with trepidation and excitement, not repaving the old roads.  

Dennis Jaffe is Senior Research Fellow at BanyonGlobal Family AdvisorsDennis Jaffe is Senior Research Fellow at BanyonGlobal Family Advisors

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