The Power of a Leadership Development Strategy: Learnings from “Succession”

A young Black woman leads her team in a project meeting

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Robyn Kern

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Note: This article contains spoilers about the TV series, “Succession.” The hit TV show “Succession” takes viewers on a rollercoaster ride through the high-stakes world of the Roy family and its media conglomerate, Waystar Royco. Watching the power struggles, ethical dilemmas, and dysfunctional dynamics within the organization, it becomes evident that a strong leadership development strategy could have made a significant difference in the company’s culture and, ultimately, its longevity. It also would have probably ended the series after an episode or two, because who wants to watch a show about a well-led company with little conflict? 

Since in the real world we desire solutions instead of problems, this blog post explores how the narrative of “Succession” might have unfolded differently had Waystar implemented robust leadership development practices. You just may find that the learnings could help your organization avoid the drama depicted on screen.

3 Ways a Leadership Development Strategy Would Make “Succession” Different

1. This type of training would support proper succession planning

The premise of the show (and reason for its title) is that as Logan Roy, patriarch and CEO of Waystar, reaches the end of his career, his adult children and other insiders vie to become his successor. This absence of a clear succession plan is one of the primary challenges faced by Waystar. Relationships between Logan and his potential successors alternately peak and fall throughout the series, as his confidence in each one’s ability to lead ebbs and flows according to their actions. As a result, ongoing uncertainty about the organization’s future leadership threatens the stability of the business.

While as a family-run business it’s assumed on “Succession” that one of the children will eventually assume control of the organization, none is offered strategic guidance to prepare them to lead. A leadership development strategy typically incorporates steps such as assessments, one-on-one and group coaching, 360 feedback, and trackable development milestones for evaluation. Such activities would have helped inform a succession plan for Waystar, sidestepping the decision-making ways of the company that often seemed to be driven solely by feeling. There likely would have been a more obvious line of succession, a seamless transfer of responsibilities, and more stability throughout the business. 

Leadership development programs prioritize identifying and grooming future leaders. By implementing a succession plan, Waystar could have avoided the internal power struggles that plague the company. Effective leadership development would have prepared potential successors to carry forward the vision and business plans that preceded them.

A young, female executive leads a meeting of diverse leaders.2. Leadership development coaching would cultivate collaborative, ethical leaders

The autocratic leadership style of Logan Roy is a significant source of tension and dysfunction within Waystar. His children and employees struggle to be heard and to have their contributions valued and ideas employed. Efforts to advance are frequently thwarted, even while there’s a culture of one-upmanship and backbiting.

Leadership development coaching that emphasizes collaboration and inclusivity could have transformed the company’s culture. By nurturing this type of leadership, Waystar might have fostered an environment where diverse perspectives are valued, innovation is encouraged, and decision-making becomes a collective effort. This shift would have empowered employees, reduced internal conflicts, and led to more effective and ethical decision-making processes. Ethical lapses and questionable practices are prevalent in “Succession,” undermining the reputation and long-term sustainability of Waystar. Leadership development programs that instill ethical leadership could have cultivated within Waystar a culture of integrity, placing emphasis on responsible decision-making, and maintaining the trust of stakeholders. 

When an organization’s team at large is on the same page about the vision and approach to achieving its business goals, the company has a much greater chance of long-term success. A structured coaching program that guides emerging and experienced leaders alike to learn and promote the values and processes that benefit the organization can help create an environment that values diverse thought and innovation, paving the way for future achievement and growth.

A young, Black, male career coach leads a group of emerging leaders through leadership development training3. Developing leadership internally would foster loyalty and retention

Throughout the series, factions within and outside Waystar favor different potential successors, with those allegiances often changing. With shifting loyalties and multiple agendas among stakeholders, there can be little certainty about the future of the organization and one’s place in it. As a result, at different times throughout the show, there are attempts to sabotage one’s claim to leadership and efforts to undermine the company in pursuit of personal gain, at any expense.

Had Waystar publicly rallied around emerging and existing leaders who were identified to be equipped to carry forward the vision of the company, and provided them with the support and training needed to succeed in more senior roles, the culture could have fostered retention and confidence in leadership. 

Employees are less likely to remain at an organization that hires externally more often than it promotes from within. Having established programs to develop talent that are transparent to employees helps employees to fully understand how and why colleagues are chosen to participate, as well as what they must achieve to be promoted. Such programs also offer a clear path to career growth, which helps to retain those who have aspirations beyond their current roles.  

Throughout the series, the Roy family disregards talent development, perpetuating a culture of nepotism and favoritism. This culture and the ensuing infighting becomes its downfall, when Logan Roy’s successor as CEO is named by GoJo, the acquiring entity, rather than by a succession plan committee within Waystar. By implementing a leadership development strategy, Waystar could have prioritized talent identification, growth, and retention. Nurturing employees’ skills and providing growth opportunities would have strengthened the organization, enhanced its ability to innovate, and allowed for a more dynamic and resilient workforce.

Choose Leadership Development Programming Over Drama

“Succession” captivated audiences with its portrayal of power dynamics and corporate intrigue, but it also provided valuable insights into the importance of leadership development. By envisioning a different narrative, where Waystar implemented robust leadership development practices, we can see how the organization could have thrived. 

Succession planning, collaborative leadership, ethical conduct, and talent development are all critical elements that could have transformed Waystar’s—or any company’s—trajectory. As real-world organizations watch the show, they can learn from these lessons and recognize the transformative power of investing in leadership development to shape a more prosperous and sustainable future.

This article is part 2 in a series of learnings from the TV show, “Succession.” Read part 1, “Why Is a Succession Plan Important? Lessons from the Roy Family.

Main photo: HBOINTOO’s coaches help organizations develop leadership from within. Learn more about how our career development programs can improve retention, help with succession planning, and increase your company’s skill diversity.

Robyn Kern

Robyn Kern is a seasoned business writer who has written in the HR, education, technology, and nonprofit spaces. She writes about topics including outplacement, layoffs, career development, internal mobility, candidate experience, succession planning, talent acquisition, and more, with the goal of surfacing workforce trends and educating the HR community on these key topics. Her work has been featured on hrforhr.org and trainingindustry.com.

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