[This post contains spoilers for the fourth and final season of HBO’s “Succession.” Proceed at your own risk.]
It’s in the very title of the show, so it should come as no surprise that HBO’s hit series “Succession” is about, well, a succession. Like other pop-culture depictions of transfers of power, the show is imminently watchable, but does it stand up to real corporate scrutiny? To find out, CCI’s Jennifer L. Gaskin asked a pair of experts for their thoughts.
From the outset of “Succession,” Logan Roy knows he can’t go on forever. The pilot episode’s first frames see a confused Logan micturating on his own bedroom carpet, mistaking it for a toilet in the middle of the night. And as the episode ends, the fictional media magnate lies prone in a hospital bed, unconscious and tethered to machines.
Just in case viewers hadn’t gotten the hint from the title of the show itself, HBO’s hit series, which ends its four-season run later this month, is a show about, well, a succession.
Logan seems to want one of his three youngest children to become the CEO of the company he founded, Waystar Royco, an expansive conglomerate, which includes cable news networks, newspapers, a movie studio, cruise ships and theme parks — think half-Disney, half-News Corp. He spends the next few seasons kicking the tires on all three kids (adult kids, just to be clear) to see if they have what it takes to step into his job until he [seriously, spoiler alert] dies unexpectedly early on in Season 4. And there’s lots of corporate intrigue, professional and personal betrayal and even some likely felonies in between.
Of course, this isn’t the only piece of entertainment about an eventful transition of leadership. Indeed, Logan’s first bit of dialog as he’s whizzing on his bedroom carpet are the words, “Where am I?” spoken hundreds of years earlier by King Lear, another infirm monarch circling the drain. Even HBO itself has already tread deep into dramatizing power struggles with “Game of Thrones” and its spinoff, “House of the Dragon,” as well as shows like “The Sopranos” and even “The Wire” decades earlier.
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So if “Succession” is of a piece with both aged and modern pop culture, what does that say about how connected to reality the show is from a business perspective? Aside from the fact that there seems to be no compliance function at Waystar, do other aspects of corporate life ring true?
Governance expert Amy Rojik, managing partner for corporate governance at BDO, and behavioral scientist Aaron Sorensen, a partner at corporate advisory firm Lotis Blue Consulting, each give the show — and the Roy family — a mix of high and low marks for business acumen.
A huge mistake, Sorensen says, is Logan Roy’s insistence on pitting his children against each other.
“The fatal flaw in CEO succession planning is creating a public horse race for the role,” he said. “That’s the worst thing you can do. And essentially that’s what happens at Waystar. And it’s family dirty laundry, the family’s out in public, it’s a horse race between the brothers and Shiv.”
But the dramatized version of the show does have some shades of reality in family-owned or family-involved businesses, Sorensen says: “From a continuity standpoint, you get the sense that Logan has in his head a succession plan for him that he’s sort of letting organically play out depending upon who’s more loyal. That’s not a good way to do things, unfortunately, I think that happens a lot, particularly in family businesses.”
And, as Rojik says, dysfunctional businesses like Waystar aren’t exactly unheard of.
“The storyline highlights critical business topics such as the value of culture and an independent board of directors, the importance of C-suite qualifications and evaluations, regulations and compliance of publicly traded entities and corporate transparency to stakeholders,” Rojik said. “The individuals jockeying for the coveted seat of the aging CEO, Logan Roy — a shrewd yet charismatic leader who commands respect and has demonstrated his worth — mirror dramatized versions of real-world traits common in business.”
(Q&A edited for length and clarity)
CCI: Does what happens on the show ring true regarding CEO transitions, particularly given the nature of Waystar and the centrality of Logan as a unique, somewhat mercurial CEO figure so deeply tied to the brand?
Amy Rojik: Mega corporations need to stay relevant, but most importantly, they need to know they have a strong leader at the helm who can navigate the company through good and troubled times, can think on their feet and do right by shareholders and other stakeholders. At the same time, leaders are just a heartbeat away from needing a successor. When a corporate brand is so tied to an individual, like Waystar Royco’s Logan, that raises the bar significantly for would-be followers. Any good organizational leadership and governance team worth its salt will establish a strategy for continuity and success of the company before any one individual.
Aaron Sorensen: I think it gets more things right than not. Anytime you’re dealing with an iconic CEO and a highly visible brand, it turns into very much a sociopolitical drama, both inside the organization — on the board — and then externally with shareholders.
CCI: Often, characters on “Succession” seem to behave in ways that indicate there is no planning of any sort. How would you rate the quality of business continuity planning generally on the show?
AR: I can’t bring myself to rate their business continuity planning higher than an “F.” There is no plan in place for the top seat. Every dilemma faced over the past several seasons has seen even the CEO torn, despite continually testing all those around him and bringing in multiple outsiders for consideration. The Waystar Royco board runs around with their hair on fire every time they are forced to make a decision. Those decisions seem to be made, first, to please Logan and, secondly, for personal gain.
AS: One thing you don’t get as much glimpse into in “Succession” are board dynamics. Waystar is a public company. What the show gets wrong is that the board would be all over this. You get little glimpses into, like, “Oh, so-and-so is a 4% owner.” But you don’t get a sense of board governance and board dynamics. The board has a fiduciary responsibility to not let that happen, and you wouldn’t see it play out like that.
CCI: The show follows the Roy children more than the business folks because that’s what’s interesting to viewers. How does succession/business continuity planning get mucked up when there are family members embedded within the organization. What can family-owned or family-involved companies do to navigate that?
AR: As with any concentrated ownership structure centered around familial relationships — either in a public or a private company – there are often significant issues to navigate in terms of experience, leadership, industry expertise, relationships, charisma, ability to bring everyone to the table and demand actionable ideas. Well-run companies create opportunities for internal leaders to develop and demonstrate these essential skills. Inviting independent people into the organization to aid or advise in these tactical strategies while simultaneously creating career paths within deeper levels of the organization allows a company to have options when changes need to be made, and quickly.
AS: CEO succession planning is a very political process. Spin in some family dynamics, and it’s even more dramatic. There are more examples I can think of where the intersection of CEO succession planning and family business have gone poorly than not. What happens is these family-owned enterprises get so large, so complex, and legacy bumps up against business continuity and doing what’s right for shareholders and the business. And all of these things play out very publicly, because I think many people can relate to this issue of family dynamics and who ultimately gets the most love, as Logan does or does not show his kids.
CCI: Given its purported size and complexity, Waystar Royco would certainly have a chief compliance officer, but few of the characters act — and nobody in the family — act as if there is a corporate integrity function in this company. In the first episode, Logan has a stroke, but there’s a great deal of obfuscation about his health status in subsequent episodes. How would a functioning board handle that?
AS: If you’re listed on the New York Stock exchange chain, if you’re listed on the NASDAQ, you have an obligation on behalf of your shareholders to have a succession plan in place. Part of succession planning processes now includes thorough medical examinations, and that gets submitted into the decision on behalf of the board on what candidate they want to put in place. Ultimately, the board takes that over, and that’s the board’s responsibility to make sure there’s a plan in place and that they’re looking at the right candidates.