Succession Lessons from The Crown

by Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP
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Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP

At my daughter’s urging, earlier this summer I watched the Netflix series The Crown. The Crown is the story of the reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth II. The first season presents the transition of the crown from King George VI to daughter Elizabeth due to the king’s untimely death. Recall that George VI became king because his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated the thrown (a/k/a: quit the job) to marry an American divorcee. That is a succession story for a future blog.

As I watched the 10 episodes, my thoughts gravitated to the difficulties of leadership transition in family businesses. I can’t help it — it’s what I do. In the case of Queen Elizabeth II, the transition of leadership in the family business (and what a business it is!) was an emergency succession. The good news is that there was a long-standing succession plan in place. But, although there was a plan, the transfer of leadership was not easy. It seemed especially hard on Elizabeth’s younger sister, who was not chosen for the job, and the former king’s executive team, who now had to answer to a leader who was just a 25-year-old “kid.” It happens all the time!

As you know, Elizabeth persevered. In fact, she has now been Queen of England for 64 years. That’s what we call a successful transition of leadership.

Leadership transition from parent to child in a family-owned business is challenging.  I noted a few factors in the successful, though difficult, transition portrayed in The Crown that may be helpful in your own “kingdom.”

  • First, Elizabeth knew from very early in life that she would take over from her father at some point. The expectation was set well in advance of the transition.
  • Second, since all stakeholders – family and executive team – knew the plan, all were focused on educating, mentoring and training Elizabeth for the role. They all had ample time and proper motivation to make certain the transfer of power would be successful.
  • Third, the family and executive team understood, ultimately, that Elizabeth’s success was paramount to the success of the nation (i.e., the business). They put the “the crown” before self to support and aid the queen. Elizabeth also understood and embraced her duty, accepting that she had a duty not only to her family, but also to the entire British Empire.
  • Finally, she had an incredibly strong COO – Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The prime minister knew the history of the family and the empire.  He had been with “the organization” for a very long time. He also held strong views about how the organization should be run and shared his wisdom with the queen. But through the transition and her early reign, he remained doggedly loyal to her and often served as a buffer. Churchill’s support for his boss and commitment to her success was unflagging.

Most family-owned businesses don’t resemble the British Empire, obviously, but lessons from The Crown do translate to these businesses in many ways.

  • If the desire is to have the next generation lead the family enterprise, start the process at birth. Teach the next generation about duty, not just to the family owners, but also to the employees of the company and their families, and to the communities where those families live.
  • Educate, mentor and train the next generation in the business. Teach the history and customs of the family and the business. Employ the next generation in the business from the ground up, and send them out into the “empire” to get to know the people.
  • Make sure the executive team understands the goal of a successful leadership transition. Involve the team in the process. Emphasize to the senior team that their support and aid is essential – failure is not an option.
  • Finally, if you can hire Winston Churchill as your COO . . . . do so!

God Save the Queen!

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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