Game of successors–last part
The fantasy epic Game of Thrones (GOT) provides several insights for family businesses. Last week, we discussed two: Keep your promises, since the family name and honor are paramount in business dealings. Grow and maintain your brand, since this will differentiate you from your competitors.
Prepare for contingencies
Many family businesses are lulled into false security, hoping things will stay the way they are. Founders often do not want to invest in innovation or develop novel strategies, since anyway, they were able to make profits in the past using the tried-and-tested method.
Many families do not raise worthy successors.
Many families request my help with relationship dynamics, but the cases which I find impossible to take on (and immediately turn down) are when parents indulge their children for decades, giving in to their every whim, until the children develop a sense of entitlement and run the business to the ground. By this time, family relationships are broken, and any intervention is too little, too late.
The main protagonist in the first season of GOT, Ned Stark, meets an untimely death, which throws his family into chaos. Thankfully, because of their upbringing, those in the second generation manage to defeat the forces of evil, but at great cost: their mother, the eldest, and the youngest meet horrible deaths.
While Ned has set the exemplar by word and deed, he has not prepared his children effectively enough to navigate the real world. They have had to grow up quickly—and painfully—when he is killed.
Train worthy successors
Tywin Lannister tries to raise son Jaime to be his heir, by training him in sword fights. But Tywin never gives Jaime any tips on common sense, which lands Jaime in trouble, from committing incest with his sister to getting captured countless times.
Jaime recognizes his shortcoming, telling his brother Tyrion ruefully near the end that their sister Cersei always called him “the stupidest Lannister.”
Leading a family business requires both brains and strength, not just one or the other.
Preparing for succession effectively means determining (through reason, not emotion) who among the potential candidates is the most capable heir.
Tywin, though wily in business, is blinded when it comes to the most obvious heir: his youngest son, the dwarf Tyrion, whom the father blames for causing his wife’s death in childbirth.
Family businesses often fail because the wrong heir is chosen, whether because of age, gender or personality. Sometimes the workaholic youngest daughter would have made the better successor, instead of her eldest brother who prefers wining and dining clients.
Heed good advisers
Many family business leaders treat their boards as rubberstamps, in the belief that they know more about the enterprise than the latter do. In some cases, this might be true, but in today’s fast-changing landscape, no one can claim to always be in the right.
Before going mad, Daenerys Targaryen is able to ascend quickly to power because she surrounds herself with wise advisers. Jorah Mormont guides her how to best deal with the Dothrakis. Barristan Selmy, former lord commander of the Kingsguard, becomes head of her private bodyguards. Tyrion Lannister becomes her adviser who is instrumental in several of her victories.
These wise men have always kept Daenerys’ worst impulses in check. Jorah tells her to forgive Tyrion, reminding her that she has made mistakes, too. Barristan counsels temperance, the opposite of the hot-headed Grey Worm, who exacerbates her need for revenge through violence. Tyrion pleads with her to spare the lives of the innocent, but when she turns against him, too, she has lost all moral authority to lead.
By the way, not everything in GOT is sacred creed. Early on, Cersei tells the doomed Ned Stark, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
Sounds nice, but it’s not true. The most successful businesses aim for a win-win.
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