Life…Learning…and Succession Planning



Needless to say, I was terrified the first time I encountered her back in 1988. I thought of her as the First Lady of Orman Guidance. She could pierce a sizable pile of research methodology and pull out every misplaced comma. She was a highly skilled moderator and researcher. And when it came to her employees, she was not short on, a-hem, constructive criticism.

M. Jane Burns was Al Orman’s 2nd business partner and eventually Al Orman’s 2nd wife. Last Friday evening at her home, with her hand in Al’s, Jane passed away. She was 95 years, 7 months, and 31 days old.

I loved everything about Jane, even the no-nonsense, direct approach that one day had her throwing a pile of paperwork across the office in exasperation of her efforts to train me.  A formidable presence, she could guide a focus group of consumers as effectively as she could surgeons. Her project management skills and execution were something I could only one day hope to learn and emulate. And when she walked these halls, every back straightened.

Among my favorite early memories of Jane, she’d bring her daughters and granddaughters each year at Christmas time to Orman Guidance for a day long cookie baking orgy in Orman’s well-appointed kitchen. They made quite a production out of the day. Observing from the sideline, I thought, “What a lovely family company to encourage such a lovely family experience.”

As the years passed, Jane and I grew to very much like and respect each other. Moving away from daily office life into retirement in the mid 1990’s, Jane was still a regular visitor to Orman, often helping with things like client consultations, screener and discussion guide development, report writing, and more. The most exciting (and nerve wracking!) times occurred when Jane would sit in the viewing room, critique my moderating, and encourage my development as a researcher.

It’s been five years since Jane last walked the halls of Orman Guidance. At that time it was incredibly gratifying to gain her feedback about the direction we were taking the company as much as it was to reflect my gratitude for the generosity of spirit that permitted the Orman Guidance baton to pass from her, to me.

Life moves pretty fast. I find myself now in the same position that Jane and Al both experienced back in the day: succession planning and everything that goes with it … after a lifetime of learning from people like M. Jane.