The end is always brutal, especially when you don't see it coming. That's certainly true on television's most fascinating water-cooler show "Succession," but let's be honest, it's also, just--true. Sure, in this case, it's just television, but is it really? Family businesses can be messy.
Warning: this column discusses plot points and might include spoilers.
Last night's season finale takes place almost entirely on a very large yacht, which works, mostly because the show is constantly rocking back and forth between the overly-dramatic and sometimes ridiculous. And while it usually manages to rest just barely on the sane edge of the absurd, there are actually a few important lessons for every business.
But first, let's talk for a minute about what happened on the yacht--and even more importantly, what happens when one family member leaves as the "blood sacrifice." Embroiled in a scandal, the family patriarch, Logan Roy has to find someone to take the blame--someone who can fall on their sword to save him and his empire. Of course, being the loving, kind, generous father, he decides to pin it on his second-oldest son, Kendall.
"The Incas, in times of terrible crisis, would sacrifice their child to the sun. I said to her they were a bunch of f---ing savages. Her thing was, what could you possibly kill, that you loved so much, it would make the sun rise again," Logan says, describing a conversation with his wife, as he informs his son that he has been chosen to pay for the father's sins.
These guys (and ladies) are savage, which is largely why anyone cares about their elite, one-percent, mostly self-contrived problems. That Kendall might be perceived as less than savage is partially why he was chosen. "You're not a killer. You have to be a killer," Logan tells him. That face meant that Kendall was just sympathetic enough to make the whole thing worth caring about.
Which is why the ending is both brutal and satisfying, when--instead of taking the blame himself--the younger Roy pinned it all on his father during a live press conference. It's totally unexpected, catching us off guard, which is hard to do on television anymore. It's also why it works.
But beyond the astonishment of the knife-in-the-back moment, there are actually three lessons every entrepreneur and family business should consider from the show:
1. Money changes things.
Money breeds its own loyalty, which means that when a family is involved in a business, it's not that far-fetched that things can spiral out of control. That's not to say that there aren't successful family enterprises, but it introduces an entirely new level of tension to a relationship and it's worth counting the cost first.
In fact, think twice before you hire people because they are "family." It's tempting to surround yourself with the people you love and trust (hopefully), but that doesn't make them a good fit. It often makes it much harder to lead, and it's certainly harder to let people go when they aren't able to deliver the kind of performance you need.
2. Business is brutal.
It just is. I don't mean the knife-in-the-back kind of brutal, though it can certainly be that. But in general, running any kind of business is really hard. Figure out whether you really want to put your family through that kind of challenge.
Here's why--being a parent and an entrepreneur isn't impossible, but it's very hard. In fact, in many ways, you are setting one up to compete with the other for your time, effort, and even affection. And both are hard enough on their own without combining the two. If you do, consider how you will prioritize each, and understand the cost it will have on the people around you.
3. You need to have a plan.
Anyone who actually loves their family, or their business for that matter, should have a better plan than "let's see who survives an inter-family knife fight." It can be very easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of "now," and forget that someday you'll either want to do something else, or you'll die. That's not meant to be morbid--it's just reality.
There's certainly something romantic about passing down a family business to your children, but if that's the case, have a plan and be clear about it upfront. Make sure everyone understands their role and how they fit into the bigger plan. It's impossible to avoid all drama--that's just reality--but you can do your part to minimize surprises and tension.
Otherwise, you may just discover that Kendall was a little more of a killer than anyone expected.