Life Lessons from Logan Roy & HBO's Succession

Tough though the pandemic's social isolation has been, it has provided an opportunity to catch up on some of the TV that has eluded me over the last couple of years of entrepreneurialism and fast-paced strategy and communications. 

In particular, I've been enjoying HBO's Succession, a dark comedy-drama about the fictional Roy family and the battle to replace the fearsome patriarch Logan Roy as the head of media and entertainment giant Waystar Royco. 

I've worked throughout my career in large family-owned businesses, global media companies, and organizations undergoing significant leadership changes. While the Roy family may be larger than life (rather like the Murdoch family that the series is alleged to be loosely based on), the show is far closer to the truth than you might imagine.

So, with some apologies for the occasional spoiler, what can real-life leaders learn from Logan Roy and his family?

 

Letting go isn't easy

When you've created a corporate giant from scratch, or you've led an organization or a department for years, saying goodbye is tough. Logan Roy built Waystar Royco by sheer force of personality, so making any decision to hand over the reins - even to a close family member - isn't how he necessarily thought life as a mogul would end. 

In real life, even the most level-headed CEO has much of his or her self worth caught up in their leadership position, and giving it can feel like taking one step closer to being six feet under. It's not surprising that plenty of them hang on for a few years longer than makes sense, even at the cost of the company's long-term success. Every executive, no matter what size the company they work at, has a shelf life. Leaders must know when it's time to let go and create plans for their own futures that enable them to maintain their relevance in whatever way makes the most sense for them.

 

Have a plan, and keep everyone informed

We're introduced to the Roy family at a moment when speculation is rife around the imminent installation of Logan's son Kendall as his father's replacement. The only problem for Kendall is that his father has secretly decided to hang around a little longer. After he suffers an unexpected stroke, however, the identity of the next chief executive of Waystar Royco is once again a constant source of debate, with all of his children jockeying for position while other leaders wonder who to hitch their wagon to.

There is nothing more destabilizing to a business than a corporate leadership transition, especially when the company and its leader are well known public figures. Building a clear understanding of your future leadership bench's strengths and weaknesses is critical, as is a clear and unambiguous long-term succession plan with clear gating points and intense preparation.

 

Nothing stays a secret forever

In a series of behind-closed-doors meetings in the Hamptons, Logan asks daughter Shiv to step into the hot seat, with the pair agreeing to keep it between themselves until they were ready to announce. Cue months of innuendo and intrigue as Shiv familiarizes herself with the business, only for the news to come out in a regrettable outburst.

The reality is that business would be easy if it weren't for the involvement of humans and their pesky emotions. People can't help but 'confide' in those close to them, however much they promise otherwise. As a result, organizations must be prepared for private negotiations and confidential information to become public knowledge at the most inopportune moments. Be ready to disseminate your message quickly, regardless of your own ideal timing.

 

Chaos thrives in a vacuum

With Waystar Royco being a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate, it's hardly surprising that most of the family spend more time on leadership machinations than they do on ensuring the business is a success. With attention focused elsewhere, expensive acquisitions fall apart at high reputational cost, while crises are free to rear their ugly heads with alarming regularity.

It's easy for businesses to become distracted by internal politics, organizational disarray, and paralysis around change. When there is a lack of clarity in leadership or strategy, it's natural that opportunists both inside and outside the organization will find a way to take advantage. Only by driving greater alignment and diffusing turmoil can business leaders ensure they remain firmly at the wheel.