The television series Succession is a modern parable of power, family dynamics and corporate intrigue, tearing a family apart; a perfect case study for understanding the complex interplay of leadership and legacy. As the Roy family wrestles for control over their media conglomerate, the show reveals the intricate strategies and personal sacrifices involved in maintaining influence. This article answers some of the key questions that Succession raises about leadership, ambition, and the often precarious balance between family and business.

Question One: When should business owners start considering succession planning? Ideally, succession planning should begin before the business is even created. Starting with a plan, even a simple one-page outline, helps avoid numerous issues stemming from assumptions and ambiguities when these decisions are postponed for “when I have time.”

The second-best time to think about succession planning is now. Even if it's inconvenient or you can only manage something basic, it's better than doing nothing.

Question Two: What are the key steps and considerations for beginning the succession planning process? The first step is to establish a common goal that all stakeholders, both family and non-family members, can agree upon. This goal could be as straightforward as “generate profit now and in the future” or “maintain family ownership now and into the future.” Having this common goal is crucial because each stakeholder will have their own objectives. If these objectives do not align with your common goal, they can be set aside as irrelevant to the agreed-upon purpose.

The next step is to define the objectives that propel you toward the common goal. These should be specific and measurable, such as “increase the presence of the younger generation in the company’s management within the next five years” or “acquire one of our competitors by 2025.”

Subsequently, identify the best strategies to achieve each objective. For example, if the goal is to maintain family ownership and the objective is to avoid estate taxes upon the death of the current owners, a potential strategy could be to gift company stock to family members. These strategies should be necessary, sufficient, aligned and feasible for achieving the objectives.

Finally, determine the tactics. While strategies outline what you will do, tactics detail how you will do it.

Question Three: Should succession planning and estate planning go hand in hand? Yes, succession planning and estate planning both involve transferring ownership and control of assets, either during your lifetime or at your death. Both aim to protect the family’s people and assets and sustain a legacy across generations. Estate planning is often simpler, primarily because the client’s assets are usually less complex.

Question Four: Are the mistakes the Roy Family made in Succession common and can they be avoided? The most frequent mistake business owners make is failing to inform stakeholders about their succession plans, often because the owner is unsure about their succession plan themselves. Another common error is delaying the establishment and implementation of the succession plan for too long.

Question Five: Do Succession/Estate Planning Rules Vary by State? While there are differences between jurisdictions regarding the rights of minority shareholders and the existence of state death taxes, most succession plans primarily focus on federal rules rather than state-specific regulations.

Question Six: What are some of the strategies for Passing a Business to Employees Instead of Family Members? There are various strategies. One option is an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), which offers significant tax advantages to the owner but is highly regulated and complex to manage. Another strategy is a Purpose Trust, also known as an Employee Ownership Trust. This is a perpetual trust designed to maintain company ownership for the benefit of current and future employees. While more common in the EU and the U.K., Purpose Trusts are gaining traction in the U.S. A notable example is Yvon Chouinard's use of a Purpose Trust for the clothing manufacturer Patagonia.

Question Seven: Who should a business owner consult to initiate the development of a succession or estate plan? The most crucial ally in creating a succession plan is often the business owner's spouse. Start by having a candid discussion with your spouse about it. Following that, seek advice from trusted professionals such as your accountant, lawyer, business consultant, or another advisor you respect. Finally, engage the various stakeholders, both in the family and outside of the family, in the discussion of what is the Common Goal. Many succession plans end up unused because they fail to address the Common Goal, leaving no one motivated to implement them.

The Succession series is a truly tragic show, with greed, pride and generational trauma. The Roy family is constantly ripped apart by the three Roy siblings always turning on each other at the drop of a hat. This is something that Connor Roy and Uncle Ewan point out constantly throughout the show. However, they are unable to save the Roy siblings.

In reflecting on the outcome of the Succession television series, it becomes clear that a well-thought-out succession plan is indispensable for a smooth and successful transfer of leadership. The series underscored the chaos that can ensue without proper planning, highlighting the importance of addressing both federal and state-specific regulations, considering viable strategies such as ESOPs and Purpose Trusts, and consulting with a trusted network of advisors. As real-life business owners contemplate the future of their enterprises, it is essential to create a succession plan that aligns with a common goal and is flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances, thereby ensuring the longevity and continuity of their legacy.

Matthew Erskine is managing director of Worcester, Mass.-based  Erskine & Erskine.