Aunt Toots and Succession Planning

My extended family, along with quite a few friends, had to sadly say good-bye to my Aunt Toots last year. My father’s sister, legal name Kathryn, died unexpectedly after a thankfully short struggle with cancer.  The name Toots fit her well—she was spunky, funny, very transparent, and a friend to everyone. She had been the matriarch of the family, and her departure has left holes in the hearts of loved ones, questions that can no longer be asked of her, and doubts about who could possibly replace her service in the multiple roles she held during her life.

As I pondered what these factors meant for my personal life and our family life, I was struck by the overlap with my work life, in helping companies and family businesses with succession planning and generational change.

Who can take the place of? …..Dad, the long-term President; Sue, the only person who really knows the spliced-together legacy billing and inventory systems; Jean, the peacemaker when Board members take strident sides…..Those key life characters that all of us have, regardless of our situations. People who have skills, capabilities, multiple duties, or wisdom that will leave big gaps if they are no longer in their roles.

As a family, we are struggling with who can be the family matriarch, and who will host the holiday gatherings. As a business leader, you may be pondering whether or not you have an internal successor who can handle the job, and how to balance respect for past practices with creating new traditions to meet the needs of a younger and more diverse workforce.

As we realized the implications of her diagnosis, I and other family members were scrambling to listen to Toots’s stories, and somehow record multigenerational and nuanced memories that captured themes and instances of our family history that warranted attention and consideration for posterity and for our shared identity.

Similarly, business leaders need to download implicit information and practices that are essential for continuity and for the future growth and viability of your organization, so that these become shared assets and practices available to a wide range of individuals.  This process also includes capturing, and honoring, those aspects of your organizational culture that should be carried forward to keep your distinctive contribution to the marketplace, and that draw and keep talented individuals in your company family.

We cannot replace Toots, but we can carry her in our memories and keep her alive in our family’s stories, values, and traditions.  That realization creates warm feelings in me.

You may not be able to duplicate individuals or systems, nor should you.  You can take a strategic and practical perspective so that you proactively plan for the future of your organization, avoid too much dependence on a single person or process, and consider ways to facilitate the continued growth and success of your endeavors. Hopefully, doing so can bring a warm sense of accomplishment, purpose, and legacy to you.

CMA Global can help you with succession planning and generational change.  And, as consulting psychologists, we will treat you like family.


  • Henry Hummert, Ph.D.

    Henry is a Senior Consultant at CMA, where he focuses on assessments, coaching and team building, with a special expertise in conflict management. Henry holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from Illinois State University, and he earned his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from St. Louis University.