Lessons From Succession for Non-billionaire Families

For one business professor, the show is a cautionary tale.

Logan Roy sits at his desk, facing away from the camera, talking to Roman and Shiv standing before him
Macall B. Polay / HBO

In Succession, HBO’s dark comedy about the heirs to a family media empire, characters exchange artisanal insults and wear bespoke suits like armor. The ultra-wealthy Roys are constantly at war with their corporate competitors, and with one another. They squabble over money, clout, and who gets to inherit leadership of the conglomerate Waystar Royco from the patriarch, Logan Roy (played by Brian Cox). Yet their deepest wounds—an overlooked son craving his father’s approval, a sibling in need of a hug—tend to originate from their family history.

This contrast makes Succession a compelling case study for Kimberly Eddleston, a Northeastern University entrepreneurship professor who uses the show, along with works such as The Godfather, Bob’s Burgers, and Empire, in her teaching on family businesses. She’s also a consultant to family-run companies and a board member of several of her own family’s businesses, so she is part researcher, part de facto therapist. Succession, Eddleston told me, is a cautionary tale.

The Roys grapple with recognizable family dynamics: the conflicting desires to strengthen the tribe and to dominate it; the old scripts about a sibling’s personality that remain frozen into adulthood; a parent’s urge to raise a deferential child instead of an independent one. Succession just ups the stakes, playing these conflicts out in skyscrapers and Tuscan estates. Lessons in navigating these pitfalls can apply to many family firms—and to many families. My conversation with Eddleston has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Chris Ip: There are plenty of shows and films about family businesses. What makes Succession special?

Kimberly Eddleston: Logan feels entitled to keep the role of CEO forever. None of his children can fill his shoes.

It’s very typical of founders to have a hard time letting go, or seeing a child successor as being as capable as they are. Of course, the child comes in wanting to give his or her input. The founder sees that as a challenge to their authority. To think that a child can contribute as much as Logan is just unfathomable to him. He doesn’t trust their perspective very much. And, like a lot of wealthy people, he uses his wealth to manipulate them.

Ip: Is the root of this similar to the Oedipal story of the parent fearing that their kid is going to be stronger than them?

Eddleston: Yes, it’s like that on steroids. The parent’s identity is so wrapped up in the business that they don’t want to plan for retirement. Many don’t step aside until they’re six feet under. But they know they’re building a legacy for their family, and they want that at the same time.

Ip: So what are the lessons that we can learn from Succession about navigating faulty family dynamics?

Eddleston: There’s something we call frozen images, where you can’t escape your past, because your family won’t let you. When you don’t work for your family’s business, you get to think, Who am I going to be? What am I going to wear? How am I going to talk? In a family business, you don’t have that luxury. People will remember the one bad thing you did when you were 12, and that will define you. There’s also pressure for someone who was a star athlete, or the brains of the family. They come into the business and have to deal with crazy expectations. You know, Susie will get us out of this mess; she was on the honor roll; she graduated from Harvard.

Usually a very good piece of advice in a family business is to have more managers, executives, people who are not family. Because it keeps us on our toes and it puts us on our best behavior. I use the analogy: You’ve gotten in trouble in school, so you bring a friend home for dinner knowing that’ll keep things calm. Your mom and dad are not going to scream at you, because you’ve got a friend there. But it’s funny because in Succession, Logan doesn’t care. The way he treats the nonfamily executives Gerri and Frank is awful.

Ip: Succession also speaks to the awkwardness of preparing for a founder’s death. If you don’t have a plan for that, it’s a setup for infighting and instability.

Eddleston: We know from research that succession planning is the hardest for the first generation of company leadership. Once succession has gone through, it’s much easier for future generations. There are procedures they can follow.

Ip: What would be a good succession plan for the Roys?

Eddleston: It’s a public company. Ideally, the board would handle it. They would already be identifying several potential successors. They would start to mentor them and shape them for the job. When the replacement is named, Logan might remain, let’s say, chairman. In a perfect scenario, in two to three years, the person is the leader of the firm in both title and responsibility.

Only in a family business is the leadership role seen as a lifelong commitment, and that’s something we need to start changing. It’s not a bad idea to revisit who is the CEO every five to seven years in a larger company, maybe switching between a family member and a nonfamily member.

Ip: How do you help people talk about their mortality when they might be incredibly reluctant to do so?

Eddleston: It’s a really good thing when family-business leaders hear others talking about it. Once the family has planned for succession, they wear that plan like a badge of honor. They know it’s an accomplishment. They feel at peace.

It usually takes more than one person bugging them. You tell them, “You won’t live forever, but your business might. What do you want your legacy to be?” And horror stories absolutely help.

Ip: In your experience, what is the reason they don’t want to plan?

Eddleston: Obviously, no one wants to plan for their death. But also, it really goes against family norms to assess your children. You’re asking a parent to choose one over the other. A lot of people think, What kind of conflict will that breed? They don’t want to have tough conversations, so they just avoid them.

Ip: You’ve written about the Fredo factor, and it strikes me that in Succession there are a lot of Fredos. Could you explain what this means?

Eddleston: It’s inspired by Fredo in The Godfather. And it’s a very taboo topic to talk about: a family member who’s an absolute impediment to the business, who’s there simply because of their last name. Sometimes they’re incompetent; sometimes they’re actually deviant, even stealing. There are all different kinds of Fredos. My research showed that about one-third of family businesses we surveyed admitted to having one. Everyone knows they do harm, but they keep them on because they’re family.

Ip: Succession sometimes demonstrates the opposite of that situation too. Even though their relatives are vipers, these characters want the group benefits too much to ever leave. Is there a good way to break away from a toxic family?

Eddleston: Group therapy first. And then the biggest thing is creating your own identity. Who you are shouldn’t be defined by your family business.