Beyond the hit show, succession looms large for many real family businesses

‘Succession is the No. 1 issue that haunts family businesses,’ says Kimberly A. Eddleston, Schulze distinguished professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern. HBO

If Succession, HBO’s hit show about the dysfunctional family behind a fictional media conglomerate, has shown viewers anything, it’s that running a family business is a matter of life and death. Of course, not every mom and pop shop contains within it suspicions of familial poisoning, but in every family business, the process of succession looms large. 

Members of the Roy family—a fictional clan based loosely on billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s family—spar and parry and peacock around in a constant, cutthroat attempt for control of their wildly successful business amid uncertainty about the health and longevity of Logan Roy, who is head of the family and the company. The show follows Logan’s four adult children as they angle for the top job and scheme about who will, as the title suggests, succeed their father in the business.

Kimberly A. Eddleston, Schulze Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, teaches a course called ‘Examining Family Business Through Film.’ Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Wealthy beyond compare and seeming to lack any compassion or empathy, the Roy family is easy to root against and unrelatable in the extreme. For example, in the first episode of the show, the family takes a spontaneous trip to play a game of softball, an undertaking that involves a fleet of private helicopters and personal luxury cars. Realizing they’re one player  short, Roman Roy asks a young onlooker to join, offering him a million dollars if he hits a home run. When he doesn’t, Roman rips up the check in his face.

But their predicament—determining who is next in line for the company—is one that casts a shadow over most family businesses, says Kimberly A. Eddleston, Schulze Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Northeastern.

“Succession is the No. 1 issue that haunts family businesses,” says Eddleston, who teaches a course called “Examining Family Business Through Film” at the university’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. “Children in family businesses grow up in fishbowls; from the day they’re born they’re being assessed to see whether they can someday lead the business.”

And in a business such as the Roys’, where there’s considerable wealth at stake (in a recent episode, one son asks Logan to buy out his shares for upwards of a billion dollars), Eddleston says the family dynamics can become even more intense.

“You’ll have people staying in the business not because they love it, but just to preserve their children’s ability to join the inheritance,” she says. “When there’s conflict over succession, it’s almost always a family issue, not a business issue.”

Sabrina Jim Muñoz, a fourth-year student who took Eddleston’s course, can relate. Her father owns an electrical engineering firm, and she finds herself jockeying for a role in the company with her younger brother.

She empathizes—to an extent—with Siobhan “Shiv” Roy, Logan’s only daughter in Succession.

“I relate to Shiv in the way that she’s always trying to prove herself to her dad,” says Jim Muñoz, who studies criminal justice at Northeastern. “He doesn’t trust her, and always turns back to Roman or Kendall [Shiv’s brothers and two of Logan’s three sons], no matter how destructive they are. Of course, it’s very different because we’re in a small family business and we’re not the worst to each other, but I can relate to that feeling of trying to prove to my dad that I’m not just there to sit and look from the outside.”

The topic of succession is never far from a family conversation, Jim Muñoz says, and more often than not, her younger brother is treated as heir-apparent. It’s a dynamic that’s familiar to Eddleston.

“Women are much more likely to work for free in family businesses, or be underpaid and under-appreciated,” she says.

If the cliff-hanging season finale is any indication, Shiv Roy—and all the Roy siblings—may have been cut out of the family business altogether.

Throughout three seasons of the show, the characters in Succession show rare glimpses of solidarity among the infighting, usually during times of crisis. Trying to find their way back through the labyrinthine landscaping of a shareholder’s private island, Logan collapses from dehydration and sun exposure. His son Kendall, embittered and estranged by an ongoing legal battle, shows genuine concern in that moment, even if it is short-lived.

In this small way, the Roys offer a glimpse into some of the best dynamics within a family business.

“Family will get you through a crisis,” Eddleston says, speaking from experience. As part of a family business, she’s seen first-hand how families can put aside their differences when push comes to shove.

“You can ask things of family that you couldn’t ask of a regular employee,” she says. “Families rally in a crisis. During COVID, we saw some of the best of this—families coming together to make sure the businesses survived. Family businesses are challenging, but when they click, it’s magic.”

And when they don’t, well, that’s the fun of Succession.

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