I’m often asked whether I’ve watched HBO’s “Succession,” and what I think of it, based on my perspective as a family business lawyer.  So, during the lockdown, I took the opportunity to binge watch the first two seasons…and it was a brutal experience.  That’s my reaction as a family business lawyer, not a media critic.

“Succession” is hard for me to watch because it insists on exploring the darkest possibilities of a family business.  The superb quality of the acting, writing, and production values make it all the worse for me.  (Warning, this post may involve some spoilers.)

In case you haven’t seen it, “Succession” is an HBO series that features a foul-mouthed, autocratic patriarch, Logan Roy, who controls his family’s large media and entertainment company. The show’s plot is nominally about which of Logan’s four adult children will succeed him as CEO.  The real story, however, is about the children’s efforts to prove to their father that they’re worthy of the love that he mercilessly withholds from them.

“Succession” is not a template for family business succession planning. The show is vague about the corporate law and estate planning mechanics of Logan’s succession plan. (Several times, Logan mentions that, for now, the company’s general counsel is named as successor CEO “on the piece of paper,” but that’s as far as the discussion goes.) Note, however, the show is much more explicit about sexier corporate law processes, such as mergers & acquisitions, hostile takeovers, poison pills, and internal investigations.

After watching the first two seasons, I believe that “Succession” is not about business succession.  It’s about the heartbreaking personal journey of Logan’s son Kendall.  The plot about which child will succeed Logan as CEO is the context for Kendall’s story, and his siblings are there to provide rivalry, contrast, and often some comic relief.

Kendall has a history of substance abuse, but, as the series begins, Kendall is maintaining sobriety.  When Logan suffers a temporarily incapacitating health event, Kendall assumes the role of acting CEO.  Kendall’s decisions in that capacity create circumstances that put Kendall at odds, and then at war, with his father.  Under this pressure, Kendall slides back into addiction, which causes him to make a horrific mistake.  In one of the most compelling moments of the series, Logan reveals that he has covered up Kendall’s mistake, as Kendall sobs in his father’s embrace.

“Succession” has many moments of humor—thank heaven—mostly involving Logan’s delusional oldest son, Logan’s silly youngest son, or Logan’s son-in-law and his unwilling sidekick “Cousin Greg.”  The show’s strength, however, is in dramatizing the tragedy of the commonplace ways that Logan harms his children.  None of the boardroom battles, media storms, or other public fireworks are as intense as the personal moments of cruelty and humiliation that occur between father and child.

In season two, Kendall is able to demonstrate his intelligence for business economics, and it becomes more obvious that the “flaws” that may render him to be unfit to succeed as CEO are his sensitivity and naiveté.  By the end of season two, the business and the family are facing a moral crisis involving a cover up of criminal conduct in their cruise line division.  Kendall has begun to advocate for corporate accountability, possibly influenced by guilt he feels over the cover up of his own wrongdoing.

It seems as though the series title, “Succession,” does not just refer to whether Kendall will succeed his father as CEO, but also whether Kendall will succeed to his father’s legacy of heartlessness in his business and personal relationships.  It may be too much to hope that Kendall can save the business from its legal and moral morass, and at the same time atone for his own sins and heal himself.  I’ll continue watching to find out which he chooses, and, I’m sure, it will continue to be a brutal experience.

“Succession” is a negative portrayal of a family business and families in general. After watching the series, one could easily conclude that it is bad to have a family business and, in fact, bad to have a family.  It’s not presented, however, as a portrayal of family businesses in general or an indictment of family-owned businesses.  Rather, it is a dramatic tragedy that can help family business owners reflect on their own decisions about raising their children in the business.

For example, “Succession” illustrates how a “winner-takes-all” contest among children for the chief executive position can be harmful to the business and to the family.  Family business succession should be approached as a puzzle, not a contest.  Different family members may have different objectives and different talents to contribute to the family business. Succession planning should help find the best way for each family member to contribute to the family enterprise, and those different contributions should be respected and valued.  A family member’s appointment to the role of chief executive should not imply greater worth as an individual or a family member.

Similarly, “Succession” illustrates the dangers of unilateral and opaque succession planning.  It shows how a lack of transparency in succession planning can degrade family relationships and impair the family’s ability to collaborate in their collective best interests.  That ill will can continue after the successor CEO is appointed. If the CEO does not have the support of the other family members, the business will suffer.

Mostly, however, “Succession” is a moving reminder that children never grow out of their need for the love and approval of a parent, and that is especially important to remember when they work together every day in a family-owned business.

Gregory Monday

Photo Credit: HBO