Succession Reveals its Origin Story (and a Lesson for Business Owners) in the Season Finale

While the internet erupts with recaps, theories, and memes from the season three finale of HBO’s Succession, what hasn’t been noted thus far is the revelation of the series’ origin story – the point from which so much of its discord erupted. When we pay attention to that, we learn what the main character’s original sin was, and get a clue to avoiding it.

Amid all the drama of a finale that saw a wedding, a tearful confession, a truce in a long-standing sibling rivalry, and an eruption of inter-generational and intra-marital feuds, it was easy to lose track of this moment that sends us way back, well before the series began.

Some plotline: as the season was drawing to a close, the possibility of a merger between the main company in the series, the NewsCorp stand-in WayStar Royco, and a technology firm, GoJoe, becomes ever-more-probable. The finale offers us a twist: the CEO of GoJoe, Lukas Matsson, informs the CEO of Waystar, Logan Roy, that GoJoe will be the firm buying, and that Roy’s time as a business titan will draw to a close. Logan gets to cash out with an honorary title and a little bit of influence, but for the man who chose a president earlier in the season by ordering leading contenders to deliver him a Coke, it’s quite a drop in status.

If Logan takes that bait, it sets up an immediate conflict between the interests of his children – who would want to take over the family firm, and who could be squeezed out if it sold to GoJoe – and Logan, who can cash out at what may be the peak value of a company whose stock price is declining. His three most important children, Kendall, Siobhan, and Roman – Connor’s contention that “I am the eldest son” to the contrary – would no longer have a chance at leading a society-altering company. As Siobhan puts it to Roman, “We let Matsson take control, that is dad slamming the door. It means that he doesn’t think that we ever will, can, or should take over.”

And this is where the series lets slip the clue to so much of the family’s, and Waystar’s, disorder: as the three siblings drive over to their father to confront him about the sale, Kendall reveals that if they unify, the three of them have veto power over any change of control Logan would pursue. Of course, it’s Kendall, the operator who tried hardest to win the company’s leadership through all manner of bureaucratic wrangling, who offers up the details: “A change of control needs a super-majority in the holding company,” Kendall reveals, and then tells us when it all began: “Mom got us that in the divorce.”

Think for a moment about what that means: some many years before the beginning of the series (15 years ago? 25?), there was a divorce settlement between Logan and the children’s mother, Caroline Collingwood. Caroline extracted from Logan terms that gave other family members – presumably her, the three children, and Connor – the ability to act in unison to block any change in leadership Logan would pursue.

That means that Logan created a situation many years prior in which he’d have complete control over the company’s future – unless his children were unified. Logan negotiated for a condition in which he was incentivized to divide his children. Pitting them against each other, playing favorites, creating outcasts and sowing doubts – every time we’ve seen Logan do that throughout the series, and every time his children became a little more ruined as a result, Logan had a financial incentive to do so.

The revelation has the ring of so many stories of great plotters, who engineered a situation to their own benefit, and with the pawns not even realizing what game they were actually playing, until all was revealed. It’s a tragedy that just as events align to finally bring the siblings together, in which they realize that their greatest potential allies are each other – that their whole lives were engineered to keep them apart, so their father could, as Kendall put it, eke out a few more billion dollars on top of his many other billions of dollars.

When the kids defy Logan’s expectations and efforts, he pulls out a Trump card: he can always just get their mother to renegotiate the divorce deal. It will cost Logan, but he’ll get more than he would if the kids took control.

Many have commented over the years on the show’s title, and how a succession never seems to occur. What we know now is that a lack of succession was always part of Logan’s design. He was always gunning for a situation in which the kids would fight with each other and he’d retain full control on the cheap.

As Roman asks near the end of the confrontation with their father, “Dad, why?” Logan answers with the only option he ever pursued: “Because it works. I f****in’ win.”

The lessons here for the rest of us are fairly obvious. If we pay attention to the incentives we create in succession plans, estate plans, and corporate structures, we’ll see in what ways we’re incentivized to treat – and mis-treat – those around us.

It’s easy for us to forget how the systems and plans we’ve created are shaping the decisions and feelings of those around us. Any time there’s a rule or an organizational design, most people’s response, most of the time, is to simply shrug at it, and say “That’s the way it’s always been.”

In the case of the Roy children, it simply always was the case that they were pushed toward division by their father; it was only at the prospect of Logan stepping away and leaving a vacuum that they realized they would be happiest working in unison. As they plot their plan before they meet with their father and he crushes them, they giggle and smile and laugh at the prospect of running the company together, and competing on even ground.

What would things look like if you stepped away tomorrow? If there were a sudden vacuum in your business, or your life, where a person or rule or institution currently makes things so? What about that person or rule or institution is pushing things in a direction you don’t like? What do you want to change?

The Roy kids in Succession get these insights far too late. We all have a chance to ask these questions now, so that it’s never too late for us.

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