Smoother Sailing Ahead for CEOs Who Stay at the Helm of these 5 Core Responsibilities

By Brian O'Donnell, CEO-in-Residence, The Raffoni Group

Delegation is absolutely necessary for any CEO to be successful, but there are a number of core responsibilities that shouldn’t be be passed on to another. Like a sea captain is fully in charge of the ship's most important functions, as CEO, you own these responsibilities.   

1) Set the Course – “A ship in the harbor is safe…but that’s not what ships were made for.” – J. A.  Shedd. One of the most important roles of any CEO is to set the direction for their organization, as well as drive the organization forward to achieve its mission. Developing the right strategies for the business sets the stage for everything else. While you should certainly involve your key leaders in the development and refinement of company strategy, you must be the one to set guidelines and objectives, formulate and drive the process, and separate out individual opinions from the elements of strategy that will make sense for the overall business. Setting the course and successfully implementing the plan is your most important job.

2) Hand-Select Your Officers – You know that having the right people on your executive team is critical to the success and wellbeing of both yourself and your company. Building a senior leadership team is your job and should not be delegated. The team must be structured correctly with appropriately designed roles and responsibilities, and the people in those roles must have the competencies and capabilities required. Individuals must align with company culture and, most importantly, be able to work effectively with other members of the team.

Your selection process must be rigorous not just based on personality and “good feelings.” Today, the most successful companies are using objective tools and interviewing techniques to dig beyond the surface persona and uncover more about a candidate, including leadership style, company culture requirements, reactions under pressure, and abilities to develop and mentor. As CEO, this probing approach is up to you. When you hire a team of people who are each excellent in their role, work together well, and have the ability to both be successful in their area of expertise, as well as step up and add value to the overall company success, you have done your job.

3) Manage Your Cargo Wisely - There is a line across the the hull a boat called the Plimsoll Line which “indicates the maximum depth a vessel can be safely immersed when loaded with cargo.” (National Ocean Service). The depth varies with dimensions, cargo, time of year, and the water densities. The success of the voyage depends on paying close attention to the Plimsoll Line and all of the external and internal factors that impact the excellent analogy for the tricky business of managing your company's finite resources.

You are operating an organization that has complexities, opportunities and limitations, and your surroundings are ever changing. As CEO, you must take all of this into account and allocate resources skillfully. Without your careful attention, your ship could go down or, reversely, miss out on maximizing its potential. You have the final say on critical decisions with respect to capital, people, and other assets in the business. And to stay on track, you need very focused objectives that come from your strategic plan. The key is to hammer the list of potential goals and objectives down to the most critically important, and make sure that the key resources are allocated to help you reach these goals. Given the many choices and tradeoffs that are a reality in all businesses (and all the various functions clamoring for more resources), it is your job to make sure the resources are allocated correctly.

4) Steer the Boat through Shifting Winds – “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” – William Arthur Ward. It is rare that everything goes to plan and it is your job to make adjustments when needed to stay on course. External occurrences, as well as unforeseen internal changes, impact business plans. Course corrections must be made and that is the job of the CEO. As we learn that certain objectives are just not going to pan out, or the obstacles are higher than we planned for, it is far better to face up to these issues as soon as possible, and modify (or even abandon) objectives to adjust to the new realities. The same holds true for external influences – a result of market, competitive, economic, disruptive or other short- or long-term changes. As CEO, only you can “adjust the sails.” It’s imperative that you remain alert and take action quickly!

5) Be the Best Captain You Can, for the Sake of Your Ship... and Yourself  – No one said being CEO would be easy, because it’s not. Sometimes it’s hard to keep the right perspective of what the end game really is. As Yogi Bera once said “If you don't know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.”

There are two things to keep in mind when thinking about the longer-term outcomes: First, you will probably never be able to achieve all the goals you set for your business or personal life, but if you seek to do your personal best along the way, you will have greater success as you move towards achieving those goals.

Second, as a CEO you are responsible for thinking of your long-term personal objectives, including what comes after your current position. With the average lifespan of a CEO being between three to seven years with one company, it’s important you think about what you would like to do next, and start to set the stage. That includes preparing the organization (discretely, of course) by developing good succession plans and setting an excellent long-term course, as well as making sure that you also are personally prepared, both financially and mentally, in terms of what you may want to do next. While you may be overwhelmed with the day-to-day whirlwind of your role of CEO, now is the time to start thinking and planning for your future – as it will be here before you know it!

Serving as CEO is both complex and rewarding. Success is not guaranteed, but it is far more likely if you are clear on what must be done by you, and not by others, to keep the ship asail and to reach as satisfactory completion of your journey as the Captain of this ship.

Why You Should STOP Thinking about Cascading Goals to Your Organization


By Melissa Raffoni, Founder and CEO, The Raffoni Group

Ok, now that I have your attention, I am not advocating that you stop cascading goals. What I am advocating is to not think about cascading goals when you have your yearly strategic planning session with your C-suite team.  At least not during the part where your objective is to agree on the "go forward" strategy for the business.

Here are the reasons why:

1) A cascading mindset often leads to watered down strategic goals which, in truth, are operational drivers. I applaud Kaplan and Norton on their Balanced Scorecard work. It refocused organizations on execution, it brought result measuring to the forefront, and the intent of educating, aligning and engaging employees was right on. My beef with the Balanced Scorecard is, in my humble opinion, that the end result doesn't always represent a new strategy, but instead, represents a framework for understanding what drives operational performance in the business.  Awesome for employee alignment, not so awesome for making true "non-business as usual" or working on versus in business strategies. In reality, most all companies want to achieve their financial targets, offer great products, provide great customer satisfaction, improve their processes and care for their talent—so, where is the strategy in that?  

2) Strategy sessions are meant to talk about strategy, not operations. If you are continually thinking about what you are going to say to employees, it will limit your true strategic thinking.  For example, if your strategy is to close a plant, or lay off employees, or acquire a company do you want to cascade that? Probably not or, at least, not yet. Focus on developing the right strategy, not on alignment. Alignment is a different objective and you can tackle how and when to do that after the strategy is developed.

3) There might be some things you do not want to cascade. I was recently in a meeting in which the C-suite team felt it was critical to improve productivity to free up resources to invest in innovation. Their guiding metric was revenue per employee. Right or wrong, the team spent far too many cycles discussing whether or not to put the metric on their Strategic Scorecard because of the potentially negative message it sends to employees. My point, create the right Strategic Scorecard for the C-suite and decide what you will and cascade later. Don’t not measure something that is critical because you are too concerned with employee perception. Again, alignment is a different objective.

4) Operational drivers should fundamentally stay the same, with tweaks where appropriate. Generally, if you prescribe to the balanced scorecard type of approach, the drivers or pillars or operating principles of the business (choose your term) should stay fundamentally the same, barring an overall business model change. If your operational drivers stay the same, it will be much easier for your organization to remember year after year.  Envision yourself on the podium talking to the organization and fill in the blanks:  “For our company to be successful we need to always focus on 4 (or 5) things...”  Statements around financial results, products, customers, processes and talent will most likely make the forefront, but they should not change much year to year.  Develop good ones that you believe in and are relatively unique. The cascading each year will then be easier as you simply tweak or reset the KPIs, leaving you more time to work on true strategy!                

Whether you call it working "on the business" versus "in the business", or you call it "making hard choices about what you will do or won’t do", or you call it "big bet thinking"-- it needs to be done. Your strategic planning session is critical to your on-going success as a company. Challenge your team to look at the external landscape. Challenge your team to hold up the mirror on your potentially crippling internal weaknesses and be honest about true core competencies that drive your competitive position. Challenge your team to be clever about how you can approach the market in a unique, differentiated way that will make your company stand out above the rest. So, stop thinking about cascading when you are with your C-suite team that you have invested so much time and effort into building, and focus the session on a strategy that is potentially game changing and that you are excited to brag about!  

Five Essential “To Dos” for Every CEO’s Summer Plan

By Melissa Raffoni, Founder and CEO, The Raffoni Group

CEOs, as you kick off that glorious time of year known as summer, here are five things to do to make sure you are set up for success, both for the business and for yourself.

1) Pay attention to and celebrate employee vacation plans - Employees want to know that their leadership team cares about both their career and overall well-being. Many employees take a summer holiday. Make sure to ask them what they are planning and encourage a great trip. Give your support to their absence. Share their excitement. I know it’s tough to lose somebody for a week or two, but, it’s important to rise above and put employee health first. And remember, when they come back, they will be rested and ready to jump back in!

2) Make sure “OOO” protocols are in place - When I first heard OOO- I didn’t know what it meant.  What does that tell you?  Out of office protocols are key. One way to improve your peace of mind when employees are on holiday is to put solid protocols in place for stakeholders (internal and external), making it clear both when they going and how they will delegate work to others. Other visible reminders, like email auto replies and calendar blocking are a must and should be added to the protocol list. Emphasize to your people that advance planning is important for the business, their colleagues and customers. You don’t want to realize you missed an important knowledge transfer for a big release when your top engineer is on safari in Africa.

3) Engage in “full-on” prep for your strategic planning offsite - If you haven’t started it already, now is the time to plan for your C-suite strategic planning offsite. This includes rethinking your overall leadership team strategy and who should attend, clearly articulating your planning objectives, developing pre-work for attendees, designing the agenda, and most importantly, working through your CEO vision and presentation. And of course, I suggest you consider a facilitator versed in strategy for your session.

4) Build a summer networking plan - Summer is a great time to grab a coffee or a drink. Whether it’s with a partner, talent who you have been passively recruiting, a key customer, or a mentor. Make a short summer coffee/cocktail list and find some great spots to meet up.

5) Take a break, and if you can, travel - With the increasing demands on all humans, “disconnecting” is not only more necessary, but more understood and embraced. Make a commitment to disconnect. It can be alone, with friends, family or your significant other. It can be for two days or three weeks. Just commit to something. It will not only be good for you (read my article about why CEOs should travel here), but will set an example for others. If you are up for an extra challenge, go longer and see how your C-suite leadership team does without you. Make it a test to see if you truly are leveraged!  

Preparation Makes Perfect: 5 Tips for Preparing for Your Strategic Planning Session

By Melissa Raffoni, Founder and CEO, The Raffoni Group

It’s time for your annual offsite planning session – a costly event. Hotel fees, dinner bills and the greatest expense — eight executives out of the office for one, two, maybe three days! The key is to get it right. This is the time to get your team aligned, set clear goals and figure out who is going to do what to ensure a killer year. Here are some tips to make the session highly effective and worth the expense…

1) Make sure the session objectives are crystal clear and tied to documented deliverables. When I interview executive teams prior to leadership team off-sites, I always start by asking them what they know about the meeting agenda and objectives. Their answers range from, “We are going to define a 10-year vision” to, “We are going to restructure.” I often hear these vague expectations even after an agenda has been set out in advance. That’s because everyone is skimming the agenda and has their own ideas of what would make the meeting suit their individual needs. Given this dynamic of human nature, it’s incredibly important to level set with your executive team on the meeting objectives and agenda BEFORE the session. This will ensure that the meeting is not thrown off track and that everyone leaves satisfied and fired up about what’s ahead.

Start and end the meeting with the objectives and the agenda. At the end of the session, your deliverables should clearly map back to the objectives. If the goal of the day is to identify key strategic goals, make sure they are documented. If your goal is to review your leadership governance plan, get it on paper. Note: Consider using last year’s forms or create templates advance.

2) Use pre-work to make your life easier and the meeting 10x more effective. If you can get the team to complete pre-work questionnaires in advance, it will have a big impact of your meetings effectiveness. Ideally, find someone skilled to compile the data. Yes, compiling is challenging but it forces the wordsmithing and summarization up front. It also gives executives draft documents to work from versus starting from scratch. Additionally, it minimizes much of the “getting things of the chest” chatter and creates more time for meaningful discussion. And lastly, it ensures everyone is heard in the written document.

3) Commit to governance. Set up a cadence of regular full-day strategy meetings. For years experts have said that one of the main failures of leadership teams is the execution of strategy. A mantra of many CEOs is that they don’t spend enough time working on the business, but rather deep in it. Loads of complex methodologies have been created to cascade goals, mange projects, track metrics, and the like. My advice is simple: at a minimum, set clear strategic goals and insist on a regular cadence of dedicated strategy meetings – ideally taking up a full day. If the meeting is on the calendar, you will create a “Oh #$@&, I have to present!” urgency in the team, forcing them to think about important topics that require them to step out of every day activities. This clever technique forces them to work on the business.

4) Use “cases” to make your strategy meetings count. We recommend the use of a format for strategy meetings that is similar to what we do in our CEO Collective peer groups. The presenting executives are responsible for writing and reading a “case” to the team about a specific challenge they are facing. They then invite clarifying questions and finally, accept concise feedback from each team member. Using this process ensures adequate preparation, problem solving vs. status reporting, and equitable contribution by all. Additionally, it drives ownership, accountability and feedback, and helps leaders to improve their communications skills.

5) Bring a strategic facilitator onboard to prep the CEO for the meeting. A fatal flaw of many CEOs is this: They attend their off-sites unprepared, only armed with the plan of brainstorming with their team. Before entering that room, every CEO should know where they want to take the team AND – here’s the catch – also remain truly open to changing their minds. A well thought-out CEO presentation makes all the difference (see my recent blog post on this topic). CEOs who brainstorm without an agenda, often confuse their team who are craving direction. A strategic facilitator can do the obvious by running the meeting, but the work leading up to that time is equally valuable. An outside expert can help the CEO to answer the questions he or she needs to before the strategy session helping him or her to set direction, motivate, create urgency, bring clarity, challenge, make decisions and thoughtfully guide the team through the session.



Strategic Planning: Why Start with A CEO Presentation?

By Melissa Raffoni, Founder and CEO, The Raffoni Group

When I work with a CEO to prepare for a company’s strategic planning session, I ask him or her to create a presentation to share a vision and plan for the next cycle. The question that I’m often asked is, “Why am I presenting my views at the start of planning session? Won’t that inhibit the creativity and alignment of my senior team?”

A great question, and yes, I see how this practice could seem counter-intuitive when you are trying align your team, but I take a strong position on this approach and here’s why: 

1. It’s the CEO's role to set direction. An effective CEO is in the best position to look across the landscape, both internally and externally, to see the forest from the trees. CEOs should have a point of view that is unique and at the highest level, and ideally, the most relevant.

 2. The best leadership teams know and appreciate that it’s the CEO's role to set direction. Team members already know and believe that their CEOs have a point of view—so, why hide it? Senior teams appreciate directness, transparency and the strategic education and insight. I always circle around with teams after the CEO presentation and ask if they appreciated the talk or if they found it constraining. Without fail, 100% of the time they thank us for taking this approach.

3. Senior leadership teams love CEOs who are clear and transparent communicators. The best executives want to know what is a stake in the ground (must haves) and what is up for grabs. If they know the boundaries and are inspired, the results of the meeting will be substantially more effective. Hidden agendas are counter-productive and disheartening. They cause hesitancy and can lead to decision-turning after a team has worked hard at a recommendation or plan.

How to make the CEO Presentation most effective:

 1. Good strategy meetings require prep work from all members, including the CEO. For strategic planning to work, all members need to come to the session prepared. The CEO Presentation forces the CEO to think through important questions and find clarity around issues so he or she can speak directly about his/her vision and goals to the team. The same is expected from other team members. One of the benefits of having a strategic facilitator is that he or she can organize, gather and compile this critical prep work prior to the meeting, including assisting the CEO with his/her presentation. This gives the leadership team a “strawman” or draft to work from on the actual planning day(s). It saves precious meeting time to prepare in advance.

 2. Set the right tone. It sounds like this, “Here is my point of view. I feel strongly about these points, I’m open on these points, and I’m looking for input on these points.”  This temperament is honest, true and appreciated. It sends a message that the CEO takes his/her direction-setting job seriously, is respectful of people’s time and open to diverse opinions. 

3. Live by the tone. If you lead with the statements above, make sure you stay true to them. Integrity is everything. Be careful not to be so collaborative that you are perceived as indecisive and be careful not to be so directorial that you are perceived as not open. It’s a balancing act, but the best CEOs know this to be true and carefully plan their words to convey this effective leadership style.

 The CEO Presentation is a key element of the strategic planning offsite. It sets direction, minimizes confusion and energizes the team. When putting it together, take the time, and get it right.

Learn more about The Raffoni Group's Strategic Leaders Program.



Five Signs It's Time to Make a Change to Your Exec Team

By Melissa Raffoni, Founder and CEO, The Raffoni Group

Strong CEOs regularly assess the strength of their leadership team. As your company grows and evolves, it's inevitable that your team will need to change to support the next chapter. While these decisions are often hard to make, they are the ones that many CEOs repeatedly say they wish they'd made sooner.

It can be very difficult to dismiss self doubt, trust your instincts and make a change on the leadership team. But the longer you wait, the more the misalignment impacts the organization. There is a good chance that you’ve known for some time that this person is not a good fit for the role. It's best to listen to your gut and get the right person.

You are the highest leverage point in the organization. Not only is your energy important, but the message you send to your team is as well. If you are being dragged down by this team member, chances are, your top players are feeling the same way.

Making a change might mean letting a person go or switching the exec to report one level down where a change in expectations can sometimes salvage the relationship -- and everyone is happier for it.

Here are the telltale signs it's time to make a change on your team:

1. You consistently find yourself dissatisfied with the same person and issues.
It’s very telling if you have to address the same issues with an individual over and over. Of course, there's room for mistakes, and when someone is new, it takes time to ramp up. It's great to be empathetic and most great CEOs are, but once the grace period is over, if you are regularly dissatisfied with the work and not seeing the level of improvement required, the person is not right for the role.

2. You begin to question your ability to clearly communicate direction to the team. When a good CEO is experiencing challenges with an exec, he or she can easily question whether or not they are clear in their communications with the team. The answer is in the numbers. If three out of four members of your team think you are being clear, you are not the problem.

3. You find yourself questioning what the team member is doing with his or her time. The fact that you are having to ask this question shows that the exec does not have a basic skill required to be in their role -- the ability to manage up. They are responsible for making sure you have visibility into what they and their team are focused on and where they are at in the process of getting it done. If you feel in the dark, that’s clear evidence that this exec is not doing his or her job.

4. You feel frustrated versus energized coming out of 1:1 and team meetings.  Meeting with and leading your team should be one of the fun parts of your job. You get to pick the handful of people you want to work with. If your relationship with one or more of your execs if painful, you will not be your best as a leader, period. Chances are, this pain will end up on your sleeve, or be the elephant in the room in team meetings, and will not serve in helping the person in question (or other team members) be the best they can be.

5. There is a clear distinction on your team between who you see as a partner in the work vs. a subordinate. When our clients are looking to make changes on their exec team, I ask them to reflect on the relationships they have with the CEOs in their trusted peer group. They should experience the same level of communication, as well as pace and quality of work on their exec team as they do with their CEO peers. You should find your team members to be true partners in the work, each within their area of expertise. If you feel that an exec is a clear subordinate, they are your weak link.

Building and aligning a strong leadership team is in your top echelon of priorities as CEO. If you’ve taken a look in the mirror and asked yourself if you are doing everything you can, and your answer is, "Yes," you've got the wrong person in the wrong role. Bite the bullet and make a change. Ultimately, you’ll be glad you did.

CEO, Do You Know What Makes You Happy?

By Melissa Raffoni, CEO, The Raffoni Group

Sorry to start things on on a heavy note, but it's what's on my mind. In the last few months, I have become aware of three suicides of middle age professionals in my extended circle — two c-suite colleagues and one college friend. Simultaneously, I've witnessed at least three executives go through what I would call severe burnout.

At this same time, I see books on happiness and positive psychology taking over the shelves (both actual and virtual). Search Amazon on happiness and you'll see the new releases, like 10% Happier, The Happiness Project, The Secret of Happiness, The Gratitude Journal, etc. A common theme: How burnout in themselves or others led the authors to re-evaluate and find some new strategies for balancing their lives.

As an advocate and driver of CEOs and their success, I would be remiss in this day and age to not take the topic of life balance and stress management seriously. Even when I put on my "let's build a high performing, kick-ass company" hat, I can't turn a blind eye to the fact that good talent, and in particular, millennial talent is asking for the same thing -- a balanced, happy life not over consumed by work and stress.

Bruce Pfau, in his blog post, What Do Millennials Really Want at Work? The Same Things the Rest of Us Dosites "The ability to manage my work life balance" as number six on the list of millennial long term goals and notes that Gen X and Baby Boomers rank this desire high as well.

I took the opportunity to ask our CEO and C-Suite clients to share what makes them happiest and/or puts them in "a state of flow." 

A state of flow defined: A mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full of involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
— wikipedia

Here are the top six activities (in rank order) that give the CEO and C-Suite Execs in The Raffoni Group CEO Collective program a sense of happiness and flow:

1)      Active Outdoor Activities (favorites include skiing, hiking, biking, boating and running)

2)      Time with Family (with spouse, with kids "when well-behaved, happy or succeeding", home projects, etc)

3)      Socializing (cooking, eating, drinking and laughing with friends)

4)      Vacations and Traveling

5)      Volunteering (mentoring and coaching)

6)      Music (watching it live, performing, or watching kids play)

My guess is that if you are a CEO or C-suite exec, at least one of your top five favorites is on this list. If you can't list anything that doesn't have to do with your career, you need to work on that immediately.

"How do I get the right balance between life and work?" Commit yourself. Commit to finding balance and take the appropriate action. Start by making a list of the top three to five things that put you in a state of flow. Now, open up your calendar and mark off time to make your happy/flow activities happen. And if one activity isn't that happy because you had a cranky child or fell off your bike, then schedule another as make up. Make it a priority. It's got to be ongoing too, not something you did last quarter. You work it into your schedule, commit and give yourself fully.

"I have to push through the next six months, THEN I will add some 'happy' activities in." Wrong answer. Two of the CEOs primary roles are 1) to set compelling, clear direction and 2) to build an aligned, productive leadership team. If you are fried, you are not able to set a clear direction. You will spin your wheels, be less effective and lose talent. 

"This stuff is too soft, next blog please." I get it. Research my past articles. Come to a CEO Collective meeting. I talk about ROI all day long. But, you know that I'm on to something here...and it's still warm out! So, go be a better leader and go play. Everyone in your life will thank you for it. And guess what? You’ll be happier (maybe even more than 10%) for doing it. 

6 Reasons Why Traveling for Pleasure Will Make You a Better CEO

By Melissa Raffoni, CEO, The Raffoni Group

I travel for pleasure a lot more than most Americans. Some say I'm spoiled. I explain to them, "It's my thing." The fact of the matter is, I get a lot out of it and when I don't do it, it shows. 

An important note before we move forward: Traveling for pleasure is not the same as traveling for business, even if you are going somewhere international or new. The type of travel I'm encouraging here takes you completely out of your regular patterns and most definitely out of work mode. I do very little work while abroad, and often times none at all, but some of my very best business clarity comes when I'm traveling. 

Here are six reasons why I believe traveling for pleasure makes us better CEOs:

1) It forces the practice of being present and in the moment. If you travel to a far away land and do active, new things once you arrive you are forced to be present. CEOs are rarely in the present. They aren't living in the moment, because their nature is to think ahead, to have vision, to anticipate problems, and to plan. When you are figuring out how to speak Japanese to find a temple on the streets of Kyoto, there is little time to think about plausible new pricing strategies. You are present.

2) It challenges your thinking paradigms and potentially opens your eyes to new business ideas and insights. CEOs analyze. It's what they do. What's the effect of people working different hours? How do labor laws impact culture? What can we learn from the aggressive carpet dealer in Turkey about good old closing strategies? Why aren't there yogurt shops on every corner in Spain? Who knows, you may find a great new business idea, it happens all the time! Since the process is not forced, what you often get are insights that are hard to uncover when you work with the same people in the same environment, day after day. 

3) It allows you to slow down without guilt.  Look, if you just summited Mount Kilimanjaro or trekked across the Sahara desert or volunteered in Haiti, trust me, you won't think, "Damn, I'm behind on my email." It will help you reset your mind, body and dare I say, soul's, pace. Even if only temporarily: it's worth it.

4) It pulls you out of the race, allows you to mix with the rest of the population and reflect. Most of the word is not focused on driving strategic goals and metrics. They are living day-by-day and simply. While it might not be my DNA to live this way, being around others who do sure as hell makes me rethink my life, relationships and how I spend my time. I'm always grateful for the level-setting I find from from jumping out of "the race" for a bit.

5) It makes you more educated, worldly and relationship savvy. Travel touches on history, sociology, economics, art, religion, math and science. It's applied learning. Doing business in China suddenly becomes more realistic after you've visited and experienced the culture. Also, not surprisingly, as a result of your global education, you'll be better able to communicate and connect with people in most all situations.

6) You'll learn how to travel often and NOT break the bank. If you travel for pleasure often enough, you'll realize you don't have to spend $20,000 to have an amazing trip. My combined airline fare for a recent trip to Tokyo with my daughter was under $1500 for both of us and our AirBnB apartment was about $100 per night. Day-to-day living was about the same as I would spend at home. We don't fly business class or stay in all 5-star hotels. We travel and absorb the culture. It takes a bit of research, but if you're willing to sacrifice a few high-end consumer products or double up on work hours pre-or post-trip, it's totally doable. 

A dear friend of mine who is an exec for a major global consulting firm in Madrid, annually organizes a four-week trip for a group of 10-20 of her friends and their families to some far off adventure during August when Spain shuts down for holiday. 

She explains, "Let's face it, what we remember, laugh about and cherish the most are the traveling holidays and memories that come with them." I couldn't agree with her more.

Coming off of summer, I'm sure some of you traveled. Go anywhere interesting? How did it make you a better CEO? Please leave a comment below or send me an email at and we'll post it for you!

The CEO's Role in Managing Culture: Do What You Believe in Most

By Melissa Raffoni, CEO, The Raffoni Group

My first job post-business school was as an organizational change management consultant with Oracle. I was a part of the business unit charged with successfully implementing large scale ERP systems. I read everything I could on managing change, driving cultural shifts and effective communication. And what I learned, was at the Fortune 500 level, implementing change was a slow slog at best. 

Now, I have the privilege of working directly with middle-market CEOs of growth companies. We make fast decisions. We barely talk about politics. We help each other make things happen. 

For a while, in my role of CEO strategic facilitator, I actually dismissed the idea of culture management, taking a strong stance that happy leaders make a happy company and that leaders are happiest with clear goals that they achieve and feel good about. End of story. 

While I do still believe in my original point of view, there are two additional perspectives I now hold to be true.

Number one: Changing a bad culture is really hard. This lesson has been learned over and over from our CEOs who adopt company cultures when taking on a new position.

Number two: Finding and keeping good talent is a heightened challenge at the moment. As a result, culture management is back on my radar.

With that in mind, here's a true story...  

Mr. Three-Time CEO is a great guy. He's hard-working and very successful by all definitions, yet to his peers, he admits the culture aspect of business always gets him down. His attempts at establishing values, providing bagels and offering ping pong tables has never produced the change he was looking for. 

This past year, at a CEO Collective peer group meeting, he presented a case to his fellow CEOs on his desire to change his current company's culture. He felt his engineering-based organization was not as passionate, positive or as enthused as he would like. The company was also moving facilities, providing a perfect opportunity to give culture change another go. He presented a lengthy plan to his peer group full of initiatives and they told him, "Hey, of all these, why don't you pick three or four that you are most excited about. Go with the ones you believe in most." And that’s what he did.  

He chose to initiate small group and company-wide community service projects, host cookouts on Friday, and run a photo contest where employees could submit their own photos aligned with the company's mission to decorate the office. He put a culture committee in charge of employee surveys and communicating results and planned changes based on learnings.

The CEO and leadership must believe in what they are implementing.

After making these efforts, Mr. CEO came back to his peer group singing a new tune, "I’m now a believer that change can happen. The culture is better, the people are more engaged, and I am more energized."

My takeaway here was as much as we want initiatives and values to come from the bottom, they really should come from the top. If we believe the real differentiator of culture change is leadership "walking the talk," then it makes perfect sense that they should believe in the "talk." 

Yes, employee involvement drives buy-in, but directionally, the CEO and leadership team must believe in what they are implementing. If not, employees see through it and aren’t motivated. In return, results aren’t much more than feel-good words on a poster, an occasional ping pong game, and a few extra pounds from all of those bagels.

Top 6 Signs of Burnout for CEOs and the C-Suite

By Melissa Raffoni, CEO, The Raffoni Group

Throughout my life, when people have suggested that I may be "burnt out" from a certain activity, I have shrugged it off. I have disregarded the comment because I've always been very driven and unless I was completely passed out and unable to move, I couldn’t possibly imagine that expression could apply to me. "Burnout" conjured up images of somebody who couldn't get out of bed in the morning, was uninspired, rundown, unproductive and maybe even grumpy.

Burnout is not a dirty word.

But the longer I’ve run my own business and the more I’ve worked directly with CEOs, I’ve come to realize, that driven executives who are heading toward burnout don’t actually see it's happening, until it does. The good news is that burnout is treatable and when we tend to it in ourselves and our colleagues, everyone will be happier and more productive.

Based on my experience working with CEOs dealing with burnout, here are six warning signs:  

  1. The “I’m So Busy/Taxed and I Must Push Through” Syndrome. I get that some people are busier than others. Asian travel, acquisition, the loss of a key employee, a start-up situation -- these all create hyper-busy and very taxing schedules. But the "must push through" piece doesn’t scale. It's not backed by wisdom and does not connote a graceful leader. At some point, the physical and mental signs creep in and worse off, a "martyr" type of attitude can instill itself, if not at work, then at home.  For most high-performing execs, this attitude often comes from a place of very good intent. It comes from execs who want to do the right thing, who, without batting an eye, embrace responsibility. They believe you are rewarded in life by "pushing through." These street fighter/survivor types need to step back and find a new way. 
  2. The Wake Up Hour is 4 AM.  If you took a poll of high-performing execs, I would guess that at least 25% will note a non-planned 4 AM wake up time or that they have issues sleeping more than seven hours. Not being able to sleep is a sure sign of stress and certainly can indicate burnout is on the horizon. 
  3. The "Stressor" Behaviors Are Unveiled. Many personality assessments (such as Hogan) tell you that when you are stressed, you are more likely to demonstrate your "go to" negative behavior. Maybe it's anger, lack of patience, extreme testiness, going "dark," or talking a lot. When you see this behavior in yourself or your colleagues, it's a good indicator of the need to course correct. 
  4. The "Repetitive Problem Treadmill" Doesn't Stop. This is when the same issues come up over and over and over, without resolution. Examples can range from, “I’m not getting my job done this employee is not right for this our model is not working.”  If the same problem or question comes up over and over, the individual just may not have the space, stamina or concentration to clearly resolve and act on the issue. 
  5. Physical Appearance Changes. The obvious signs are weight gain, bad posture, dry facial skin, puffy eyes and rapidly graying hair. What we can’t see or predict is what can come next, such as shortness of breath, chest pains, dizziness, fainting, headaches or a generally weak immune system that can cause nagging coughs or colds.
  6. The Failure of the "What Are you Doing for Exercise?" or "What are You Doing for Fun?"  Most execs I know, even when stressed, find time to exercise because they started the habit early in life. But when exercise falls off the cliff for a normally active individual, it's time to pay attention. Other burnout candidates may still be exercising, but fun, laughter, joy and happiness has been pushed to the side. In these cases, the activities that drive these emotions need to be identified, resurrected and, as cold as it may sound, "put on the calendar." 

Other warning signs may include blaming others, forgetfulness, impaired concentration, and things piling up. Many C-suite execs have systems to keep these behaviors in-check, but these warning symptoms could apply to family members, friends or other levels of staff.

When our CEO Collective peer groups spot a CEO on the path to burnout, we call it out and then move to emphasize sleep, healthy life practices (exercise, food, etc.) and a reflection on what activities provide happiness. Just calling it out can make a difference. For some, extra mental health support may be needed.   

In working with CEOs who may have direct reports suffering from burn out, we also discuss the CEOs responsibility in setting clear job expectations that map to the employee's strengths and values.

Burnout is not a dirty word. It doesn't mean that we are weak or not doing our best. It just happens sometimes as a result of a situation or lack of change in our jobs. For many highly driven, productive execs, it's a bit "par for the course" at some point in their career. What’s most important is recognizing it, not letting it go too far and putting in a course correction plan that, in almost all cases, will put the individual on a better track to being personally healthier and more productive.

Additional resources:  

Refueling Your Engine: Strategies to Reduce Stress and Avoid Burnout

The Tell Tale Signs of Burnout ... Do You Have Them?

Job Burnout: How to Spot It and Take Action

CEOs share the top 15 REASONS they make time for a CEO Peer group

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 3.57.00 PM.png

"It's lonely at the top. We provide you with a group of experienced, caring CEO peers who will help you to be successful. We have great tools that drive peer accountability. We help you define the right strategic goals for your company and execute against them, leading to great ROI." These are some of the key benefits of our CEO Collective program that I have spent the last 20 years talking about. And it's not a sales pitch. It's all true.

Three years ago, I engaged my brilliant friend and colleague, I Jian Lin, Founder of Brand Intent, to help with The Raffoni Group's branding. He came back with a lot that all boiled down to one piece of feedback: We were underplaying the value of the interconnected network. I was informed that we were missing the boat with respect to where our members got value.

I Jian said, "Melissa, your members don’t talk about your tools as much as they talk about the relationships they’ve made and the support and inspiration they’ve gotten from colleagues that drives them to reach higher ambitions."  

I read the document he wrote for me ten times and as a result, I agreed to promote the new tagline, "Where CEOs realize higher ambitions and exponentially improve the quality of their professional lives."

I made this change, but I wasn't buying into all of the value points that members were getting from the network. I was so focused on driving hard and fast business ROI for our members, I disregarded the rest. Now, as I enter into my twentieth year of running CEO peer group collectives, I'm listening more than ever.

Based on what I've heard, here at the top 15 reasons why CEOs make time in their busy schedules to be a part of a CEO Collective peer group...

  1. Energy: "My one-on-one session energized me."
  2. Insight: "I'm so glad I presented that case at my peer group meeting, because I was heading down the wrong path. My peers set me straight with really insightful feedback. I was looking at it wrong."
  3. Family: "My son got an internship at X member's company."
  4. Self-Care: "I'm glad the group encouraged me to think about myself. I've made better decisions for myself, my business and my family."
  5. Wisdom: “I learn from my peers when they make great decisions and mistakes too.” 
  6. Perspective: "I'm so stuck in the damn day-to-day. It's really helpful that in this group I pull my head up and look around. I'm better for it. An outside perspective is invaluable." 
  7. Validation: "I've always felt like I was the only one worried about my career, my family and money. It's good to see that I am not alone and that I'm doing the right things."
  8. Help Making Tough Decisions: "I really needed to make an organizational change. I’ve been dragging my feet. The group picked up on that immediately. It was hard, but I’m glad I did it. I needed the push."
  9. Peer Support: "I really appreciate one of the CEO's from the Collective getting on the phone with me to discuss my term sheet. His feedback was just in time and dead on." 
  10. Access to a Trusted Expert Network: "It's good to know that when I need a recruiter, an attorney, or any other professional services provider, my CEO network can quickly tell me who is good and who is not."
  11. Time Savings: "When I have a quick question or an immediate need, the Collective is the first place I go. I trust the advice and it helps me to get to the root cause quicker and find help faster. It saves me time."
  12. Accountability: "I need to be held accountable. If somebody doesn't keep me on the straight and narrow and help me to see the truth, I could stray."
  13. Curated Networking: "I always feel guilty taking a day and half out to go to the CEO Summit, but I learn so much from networking with all the other CEOs. It's worth the time."
  14. Facilitation/Frameworks/Tools: "The one-on-ones are really beneficial in helping me to frame my thoughts. They help me to quickly get what's in my head into a framework that drives action."
  15. Leadership Team Alignment/Effectiveness Tools: "I'm using the Strategic Scorecard with my leadership team and our alignment and effectiveness is better than it has ever been."

Am I bragging here? No. Just listening and repeating the facts. 

When I read through this list, does it make me feel proud to be a part of something that is making this broad of an impact on the lives of CEOs? Absolutely.

Contact us to learn more about the CEO Collective.

Are You Tracking Projects or Tracking Results? Tell the Truth.

I love process. I love project management. I love organization. I love communication. But, I’m a little down on some of the more sophisticated planning processes that I keep bumping into when we are asked to assess strategic planning that is already underway.

I sincerely don’t mean to sound flippant, because I am all for aligning the front line and have all due respect for Hoshin Planning and the Balanced Scorecard (both of which have greatly influenced my thinking and methodologies), but I have to ask where the strategy is in the following objectives...

  1. Meet our financial targets
  2. Take care of our customers
  3. Launch great products
  4. Improve our processes
  5. Take care of our workforce

When we knock down 18 various projects with 50 tasks in each and feel awesome about our progress, can we always point to the actual business results and/or significant shifts in the business strategy that have resulted in an increased company value?

I want to be very clear. If you have a planning process that makes employees feel productive and helps them to see the connection between their everyday work and the bigger picture, by all means, consider that a win, because it’s VERY HARD to do that. But, as a CEO or an executive leader, the question to ask is whether or not the development of true strategic goals and the accountability to real measures (not just tasks and dates) is happening?

If you are questioning this, then I encourage you to rethink your planning approach and leadership governance. It may call for simplification and/or a separate treatment of strategy from operations, which is our strong point of view.  

Here are a few tried and true tips to follow:

1. Don’t create your strategic goals with the question, "How am I going to communicate this to the organization?" floating around in your head. If the strategic goal is to shut down a business unit or anything else that is uncomfortable, so be it.

2. Separate your strategic goal discussions from your operational objectives discussions. One way to view strategic goals is that they are "non-business-as-usual," in other words, things that require collaborative or out-of-the-box thinking because they haven’t been tackled before. If you do this, your conversation will switch from, "Did we get it done? Okay, check the box," to, "How can we make this happen?" That's an entirely different tone and way of collaborating.

3. Focus on result measures first and tasks second. Here's a simple example: Don't measure the successful launch of a product by the accomplishment of building, testing, and taking the product to market. Instead, measure the number of successful rankings from beta testers, the number of initial customers who agree to purchase at launch, and of course, revenue. I'm not saying to neglect the important tasks listed above, but rather am suggesting that you avoid being mired in them and keep your eyes on the real prize. 

Getting things done, aligning the organization, and year-over-year functional improvements are clearly necessary for running a good business. The challenge is figuring out how to keep this engine going and also allow time to focus on new strategic business drivers that can change the game for your company and keep you ahead of the pack.

How to Make Sure Q1 Doesn't Get You Down: Focus First on Yourself, then on Your Company Culture

I just had three CEO one-on-one calls in a row and every person was a bit in the dumps, including me. I felt like I was talking people off cliffs, coaching them to get their energy up and mount to the top, all while I was hanging on by two fingers in a crevice on the side of the rock face. I chuckled a bit at this and decided to explore what was going on. Here is what I came up with...

Q1 Can Be a Bit of a Downer Because:

  1. It’s Dark. At least in Boston, it's dark when I wake my kids up and it's dark when they come home. Let's not fool ourselves, cold weather and darkness is a bit of a bummer.
  2. The Projections Are Lofty. Q1 numbers are set and, of course, we set them high—now reality sets in. The holidays are over and we have a lot to do.
  3. Some of Our Best People Are Gone.  Lots of employees wait until year-end to decide to move on. Losing just a few good ones can take the wind out of our sails.
  4. The Grind Factor. Sometimes, just sometimes, the job can be a grind. Let's face it, we are up early, we are up late, and we have been doing this for five to 10 years, maybe longer. There's no getting around it. Sometimes it's just a grind.

There's a good chance you aren't the only one feeling this way. Your team may be too. And they are looking to you, as their CEO and fearless leader. They look to you for tone, inspiration, energy, and clarity. And as humble as you and I are, we sometimes forget that. Have I gotten your attention?

Here are Three Things to Focus on to Have a Good Q1:

1. Find Your Energy. As you should always do, take the beginning of the year to reassess the way you use your time. Break it into categories: Strategy, Leadership Team, Day-to-Day Ops, Culture, and Sales—then ask yourself, "Is this where I should be spending my time?" Historically, I have always said to assess this with the company's strategic goals in mind, challenging CEOs to look at the best leverage for their most precious commodity, time. But, if you are feeling a bit ragged, ask yourself where you get energy from and where you don't. You are best in places where you have "flow" or energy, so, re-allocate accordingly. Don't burn out. There is zero leverage in that. Here's a Harvard Business Review article I wrote with more info to help you assess how you are spending your time. No time to read? Listen to this brief podcast.

2. Assess Your Personal Leadership. What is your personal approach to leadership? How strong are your leadership skills? Some ideas for continued assessment and growth include reading a book or article on leadership (here are a few of mine to check out) as well as committing to take some time to listen to your staff, your customers, and even your family. Q4 and Jan Q1 require the CEO to do a lot of talking. Normally, we reset the vision, articulate the goals, get people on board—now, it's March, and maybe you should just stop talking for a bit and listen and/or ask questions.

3. Review Your Culture Plan. Hiring and human capital management are becoming increasingly more important as differentiators. Ten years ago I would have said something different. And, as a reminder, I grew up as an Organizational Development consultant. Now, culture is more important than ever. Have you done an employee satisfaction survey recently? Do you have the right HR initiatives? Are you branding internally, as well as externally? Do you like the vibe in your organization? If you have answered "no" to more than one of these questions, I’m going to remind you that as CEO, a big piece of your job is building a sustainable, high-performing culture where people feel good about coming to work and are likely to spread the word as such—whether it be glass door or to refer friends. Your employees provide some of your best PR. Make the investment into that asset.

“They are all good days, just with some bad moments. Luckily, the moments go away and we are left with all good days”
— Ken Dryer, Former Vistage Chair, Former CEO of Eliassen, a CEO Collective Member company and mentor of Melissa Raffoni.

9 Steps for an Eye-Opening Assessment of Your Leadership Team, Strategy, and Strategic Planning Process

By Melissa Raffoni, CEO, The Raffoni Group
Ed Barrows, Strategic Facilitator, The Raffoni Group

The year is coming to a close. Your offsite is over, the new goals are set, and the budget is finally done. Now it’s time to execute!

CEOs, before you head into the new year with your leadership team and plan in place, reflect on the topics below to be fully locked and loaded for a successful year of business.

  1. Closely examine financial results and trends. Now that the results are in (or close to it), look back and see if your team’s actual performance met budgeted expectations, especially in areas that may not be typically measured, such as customer mix, sales growth for selected products or services, and ROI. A few key slides are in order to plot the trends over time
  2. Ensure that your team’s SWOT has a real external view. A solid SWOT lists externally driven opportunities that include macro trends such as shifts in the market, customer needs, competitors and regulations. Not a list of “this product” or “that market” or the opportunity to "improve on our internal weaknesses." To be effective, your list needs to be comprised of a concise evaluation of each area.
  3. Grade the goals from last year. List the goals from 2015 and grade them A, B, C, D and even F, followed with a narrative of what was done well and not so well. Warren Buffet does a nice job of this in the Berkshire Hathaway annual report in the section entitled, “The Year at Berkshire.” Refer to the defined success metrics and the original words of the goal—did you make progress against the goal as defined by the team last year?
  4. Ask if last year’s goals were truly strategic? Goals including hitting your numbers, taking care of your customers, investing in great talent aren’t strategic. Are your strategic goals really strategic or just “business as usual”? Will the goals drive true strategic change aimed at increasing the value and position of the company?
  5. Refer back to your three-year business direction. Are you on track? In our methodology, we call this the long-term direction. In our Strategic Leaders presentation we illustrate in a single slide a three-year forecast of CEO financials, what you sell, to whom you sell it, and your key differentiator. Is it the same as what you laid out last year? Did you execute on the plan?  
  6. Take a hard look at your C-suite and organizational structure. Is it set up to support the organization for the future? Do you have the right seats on the bus and do you have the right people in the rights seats? CEO success is strongly linked to the capability of the supporting team.
  7. Have your team answer the question, “What did our leadership team do well and not so well?” and review their responses. Probe on areas such as meeting management, problem-solving, decision-making, collaboration, open/honest/direct communication, humor, follow through, commitment, understanding of the business, clear accountability, inter-departmental collaboration, adequate time “on” vs. “in” the business,
  8. Have your team answer the question, “How well is the organization (underneath executive leadership) aligned?” and review their answers. Probe on questions regarding the alignment and involvement of the organization in achieving the company’s strategic objectives and goals. Find out if employees understand the relevant strategic priorities, if they are committed and involved in helping to execute the goals, and if they see where they are relevant in the organization.
  9. List the critical success factors for your leadership team for this past year. Ask yourself if they were truly integral to your success and then, raise the bar for the upcoming year.  

A CEO presentation with the findings these questions uncover is an important part of getting the whole team onboard with the vision for the upcoming year.

Want more information on how to build an effective CEO presentation to share with your team? Contact us to get our CEO Presentation guidelines for annual offsite strategic Planning. We are happy to share.

Here's to a successful and prosperous 2016! twitter @melissaraffoni / twitter @edbarrows

For Mature CEOs Only: Ask Yourself These 12 Probing Questions as You Close Out 2015

By Melissa Raffoni, CEO of The Raffoni Group

As we approach goal setting and planning for the new year, The Raffoni Group team asks CEO members hard, somewhat personal questions we think few people ask. Asking the tough questions and answering them honestly takes maturity. You ready?

Ask These 12 Questions:

  1. How do you want next year to look different for you and for your company?
  2. Are you happy with how you are spending your time, both at work and personally?
  3. How is your health?
  4. How is your family coping with the demands put on you as CEO? If negative, what are you doing to address their concerns?
  5. What was the biggest mistake you made this year?
  6. What is your biggest weakness as CEO?
  7. How much personal compensation did you take home in 2015 and are you happy with that?
  8. Do you like having investors? Would you do it differently next time?
  9. Is there someone you need to fire?
  10. Is there someone you need to hire to compensate for your weaknesses?
  11. Do you like being a CEO?
  12. What do you want to do next?

Just today, a CEO of a 300+ million dollar company told me that the CEO Collective has been invaluable, as there is no other forum where he can share and get input on these topics. These comments remind me of how lucky I am to have this job and how much I enjoy what I do. We are privileged to have these conversations with our members.

In my conversations with hundreds of CEOs like you during the past 20 years, questions like the ones above have uncovered some anxiety points that they are generally hesitant to admit. My goal is not to “expose” anyone, but to shed light on the fact that you have a hard job with many demands, externally and internally. You are naturally driven and as a result, take on superhero level responsibilities. You are a leader who holds your head up high, puts your worries in your pocket and charges full speed ahead with what appears to be grace and ease. But, the truth is, you are often carrying a heavy load.   

If you feel you are doing everything in your business, then you’ve got the wrong team. If you make excuses for not exercising or eating well, your priorities are wrong. If your family is begging for your attention, give it to them. Use the questions above to hold up the mirror and change some things for 2016. Life is short and one thing CEOs are good at is driving change. Make sure you are driving change in your own life to make it all you want to be.

@melissaraffoni on Twitter







2015 CEO Collective Summit Recap

By Melissa Raffoni

Trying to find a day that meets the schedule of more than 40 CEOs, organizing the speakers, the meals, and the fun (you’ve got to have fun),  is no small task. My team jokes that it’s like planning a wedding. This year was our 9th Summit, so we’d like to think we’re getting the hang of it.

While the planning can be stressful, each year I come away feeling the same—excited and inspired. Our goal is that the Summit be a valuable tool in the lives of our member CEOs. I was pleased to see such high marks on this year’s evaluations and that 100% of the CEOs said they found the retreat valuable.

Missed the Summit? Here’s a recap of many of this year’s topics:

  1. Leadership development —It’s hot. hot. hot. Everyone wants to talk about it. Everyone wants to figure it out. CEOs recognize that they must go beyond setting direction for their leaders. They must rise to the challenge and build their leadership group into a world-class team.  Special thanks to Rich Rosier, SVP, Linkage, and Jeff DiSandro, Partner, Howard Fischer Associates, for talking candidly about what works, what doesn’t, which jobs are hardest to fill, and sharing numbers on competitive salaries.

  2. M&A—Our CEOs are sophisticated. They understand that organic growth is not the only way to grow a company.  When asked to speak, our panel of six CEOs, all with buy and sell experience, had excellent insights on how to drive a deal. We spoke about how to navigate the best deal (both as a buyer and a seller), who to engage to help you with the process, and how to keep your head clear as you navigate what is ALWAYS a distracting and stressful time for the CEO. Thank you Rob MacLeod, Managing Director, Bigelow, LLC and Stephen McGee, Director, Bigelow, LLC for sharing knowledge on how deals go down and your point of view based on many years of respected experience.  

  3. Scaling Sales—Umm-now this is a tough topic. Lots and lots of questions, and more importantly lots and lots of approaches. The discussion included when to hire a VP verus a director, how often do you change a comp plan, and what has worked versus what hasn’t. Our panel of six CEOs, all of whom have successfully scaled (three of which have scaled in excess of 200m with visions for 1b) shared their stories. 

  4. Audits—CEOs love to challenge and swap war stories on audits. Thank you Travis Drouin, Lead Partner, CPA, Moody, Famiglietti & Andronico for showing us that accountants can be good guys too (wink). 

  5. Getting Personal—The CEOs are willing to sharing the challenges and joys of being a CEO as it relates to their personal lives, including how they manage their schedule to ensure quality time with their families and attending to their health, what stresses them out, where they have fallen down and how they got back up again. We took a risk asking people to tell the personal truth and the results were meaningful.  

  6. Hang Time—It’s always a good sign when the crowd stays up late just to hang out. It’s great to see the relationships built through the CEO Collective and the Summit. That’s at the core of what we offer to our members—lasting and meaningful connections with other CEOs.

A few thank yous…

Thank you to all the members who came out this year and made the Summit what it was through your presence and participation. You are an inspiration.

Thank you to Tom Fay, Regional President of BNY Mellon, for setting the stage post cocktail party by engaging us in a great discussion about where the economy is heading. Tom is our annual speaker on economy and  is always well versed and prepared to address a tough crowd.

And special thanks to the Raffoni Group team members who helped plan and staff the Summit, Ed Barrows and Erin Mullen.

If you are interested in learning more, please see the links below. If you weren't able to make it, I suggest you join us next year. You'll be glad you did.

See the full Summit agenda.

Get general information on the Summit.

Does Your Leadership Team have High Executive Function?

By Ed Barrow, Strategic Facilitator, The Raffoni Group

Anyone with young kids has probably heard of the term “executive function.” It refers to the management of cognitive processes that includes things like working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, problem solving, as well as planning and execution. You don’t need to be a psychologist to observe that kids who have strong executive function skills have an easier time in school than those who don’t.  

Kids who lack executive function skills have real trouble focusing on their work, curbing impulses, and completing tasks they start, in addition to a host of other challenges that make basic activities very challenging.  And the problem doesn’t go away as they get older; adults with weak executive function skills struggle at work and in their personal lives. If your starting to wonder if this piece is about you personally, don’t worry, it isn’t. The executive functioning we're discussing here is the kind that applies to top management teams as a whole. 

How does executive function apply to a management team? What’s interesting about the definition above is that it includes three aspects of individual cognitive ability that are equally important to any successful top team: Planning, Execution and Problem Solving.  What we’re finding more and more as we engage with clients inside and outside of the CEO Collective is that these three skills—which together comprise our concept of execution function—vary widely across organizations.

What we see is that senior teams with well-developed executive functioning skills seem to do better, a lot better, than those that lack them. The good news is that each of these subordinate skills can be developed if the top team commits to doing so. It’s not easy and there’s no quick fix. Over time however, execution functioning can be developed.  If you’re wondering how strong your team’s executive function skills are, we’ve created a series of questions within each of the three categories that leaders can use to assess their team’s overall executive function.

 1.  Does your leadership team plan effectively?

Research shows that about 60% of small to mid-sized organizations engage in formal strategic planning.  That number grows to 90% for large organizations. Moreover, most companies who engage in strategic planning do it annually, even if the planning horizon is longer than that. The annual planning process has become a key vehicle for a top team to think through important issues, set goals and actions, and chart a comprehensive course for the future. It’s vital to overall direction and alignment, which is why so many organizations do it. If your organization does engage in strategic planning ask yourself if the leadership team is effective when doing so. 

Is your leadership team highly functioning in the area of planning? Does your team:

  • Adequately prepare for planning meetings by collecting background data and supporting information?
  • Use a structured process that guides them in a way that addresses the most significant challenges facing the organization?
  • Actively engage with each other and participate in a meaningful way?
  • Challenge one another so that the very best thinking is brought to bear on the issues the company is facing?
  • Make key decisions during the process?
  • Produce an actionable plan that everyone is committed to and able to support going forward?

NOTE:  When assessing your team’s performance, it’s useful to apply a simple four-point scale:  0-poor; 1-fair; 2-good; 3-excellent.  We’ve included a summary assessment at the end of this article. 

2.  Does your leadership team execute effectively?

Planning strategy is important but getting the strategy executed is the sine qua non of high executive function leadership teams.  Some might argue that planning strategy is relatively easy and set aside a few days with a top team, engage a facilitator to guide the process, set goals and measures, align key projects, and develop a schedule for periodic review and follow up.  Completing projects, making measurable progress and ultimately achieving the documented goals is much more difficult. 

Strategy execution requires teamwork, discipline, flexibility and almost a singular focus on task completion.  When we ask top executives how may strategies fail to get implemented most respond with answers well over 50%. Not great odds but clearly odds that call for a leadership team with strong executive function skills.

Is your leadership team high functioning in the area of execution?  Does your team:

  • Possess a sense of urgency regarding accomplishing the organization’s most essential priorities?
  • Have clear roles and responsibilities relating to strategy execution?
  • Fully accept accountability for completing their strategy projects and strategic goals?
  • Align the actions of their subordinate organizations to the overall strategy?
  • Take the appropriate initiative to drive the strategy through to completion?

3. Does your leadership team effectively solve problems?

Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth Karl Bernard Gar Von Moltke is probably not someone you know, but his advice should be. As the architect of Germany’s Wars of Unification he is credited with saying, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force” or, as we say today, “No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” This same can be said of strategic plans, which invariably encounter problems as soon as execution begins. It is for this reason that problem solving rounds out our set of key execution function skills. Each and every leadership team encounters problems and, if they are not looming on the horizon at present, they soon will be. High functioning executives must be able to detect problems, frame them appropriately, analyze them for purposes of generating realistic courses of action, and then choose the best one among the set of alternatives. Doing this well calls for the very best of any executive team’s abilities. 

 Can your top team effectively solve complex problems? Does your team:

  • Agree on what the biggest challenges facing the business are today?
  • Actively use business cases to analyze and communicate the specifics of major issues?
  • Think both critically and creatively in generating novel solutions to big problems?
  • Know how to analyze possible courses of action and effectively reach decisions regarding what to do?
  • Scan the operating environment regularly looking for signals that indicate disruption may be taking place?

Definitions aside, executive function is really the highest order skill that any executive team can have.  As is the case with a youngster in school, deficiencies in three areas presented above will lead to the top team creating performance issues throughout the organization. The good news is these skills can be developed if the time and investment is taken to do so. The sixteen questions below in the Executive Function Team Assessment Tool provide a good starting point.  Great leadership teams have great execution function.  There’s no reason your team shouldn’t have it as well.




Top Seven CEO Personal Development Goals for 2016

Have you set your goals yet? Here’s what your peers are thinking about.

By Melissa Raffoni, CEO, The Raffoni Group

We always work with CEOs within our Collective to develop strategic plans for their organizations prior to their leadership team offsites. We strongly encourage these CEOs to vet their thoughts about business direction and strategic goals with their peers prior to going live with the executive team.

During our CEO Collective meetings, we encourage our CEO members to challenge each other, to expose the truth, and to band together in helping to improve the collective performance of everyone around the table. As a result, a part of this exercise also includes having the CEO articulate their personal development goals.  

Here are the seven recurring themes we hear from our CEO members who generally have five or more years of experience in the role and are running growing, profitable companies.

  1. My goal is to shift my work so that I am less mired in day-to-day operations and spending more time working on strategy.
  2. My goal is to help my leadership team to be less silo-oriented and caught up in the day-to-day.
  3. My goal is to be disciplined about setting up a good governance structure that includes highly effective strategy meetings at a regular cadence, separate from the operational meetings.
  4. My goal is to to be more strategically involved in sales. If I am pulled into a sales call, it should be for strategic reasons.
  5. My goal is to be more involved in sales, period. I have drifted from the sales process. I need to apply urgency and figure out what we are doing right and where we can improve. I need to get closer to the customer.
  6. My goal is to make better decisions about people, more quickly. My regrets always revolve around putting the wrong people in the wrong boxes.
  7. My goal is to take a vacation. I’m not sure when, but, I know I need it. My team needs me to take a vacation.

As you think of your own personal CEO development goals for 2016, I encourage you to ask the following questions of yourself:

  1. What’s the breakdown of how I spend my time? What percentage do I spend on strategy, operations, leadership team development, sales, culture and PR?  
  2. Do I want to shift how I allocate my time?  
  3. What do I want to do more of, and, why?
  4. What do I want to do less of, and, why?
  5. What energizes me to be the best leader I can be?
  6. What do I do well and not so well?
  7. What is my highest and best use?
  8. Am I acting as a bottleneck to my company’s growth in any way?
  9. Can the company scale properly as is or do I need to adjust the way I work to facilitate growth?

As CEO, you are the highest leverage point in the organization. The way you spend your time and the talent you surround yourself with will make or break your company. I encourage you to look in the mirror and commit one or two personal CEO development goals for the coming year. I believe you will be pleasantly surprised by both the personal joy you receive from your CEO job, as well as the results of the company. Just do it.

Email Melissa at mraffoni at



Are You An Engaged CEO Champion? Ask Yourself These 3 Questions

By Ed Barrows, Strategic Facilitator with the Raffoni Group

Recently, a CEO in one of my groups came to me with this dilemma. He said, “Since I’ve gotten the scorecard installed and the right people and processes in place, things are starting to really hum. We’ve got our management system functioning, people know what they’re supposed to be doing and we’re meeting our targets. Honestly, I feel like things are finally moving in the right direction. Now I have a different problem. With things working so well, I don’t feel like I’m needed. To be honest, I’m not sure what I should be focusing on as the CEO. How should I being using my time?”

I was struck by the sincerity of his question and wondered if other CEOs sometimes felt the same way. With that in mind, he used this challenge as the basis for a case study that led to a great discussion with the rest of the group on how CEOs should spend their time. It was clear that there are many things a CEO should be doing on a day-to-day basis and many varying views on exactly what those things should be.

At Raffoni Group, we see one overarching role that must be filled by CEOs at all times and at all costs: The role of the Engaged CEO Champion. 

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a champion as “someone who fights or speaks publicly in support of a person, belief or cause.” The cause in question here—which is specifically the CEO’s job to champion—is strategy and the execution of it. In order to help maintain the focus on strategy, we’ve identified three simple questions CEOs can ask themselves that will lead to better engagement as strategy champions.

1.)  Are you adequately prepared for your strategic off-site meetings?

For many organizations, the watershed event in the life of a strategy is the annual strategic offsite. It is at this meeting where the most important issues regarding the company’s future are discussed and decisions are made about goals for the future. Resource commitments are typically part of this activity, as well the output of a strategic plan — the document that will guide executive action. But too often the offsite is conducted with only a cursory look at past performance void of meaningful analysis and preparation for discussion. As Bob Frisch and Logan Chandler note in their article Off-Sites That Work, “The greater expectations, the higher stakes, and the unique nature of strategy discussions require special planning to ensure that meaningful and constructive conversations happen.”

Here is where engaged CEO champions set the bar considerably higher. In advance of the offsite, the CEO should mandate a comprehensive analysis of financial performance. Also, each leader participating in the session should complete a SWOT analysis to help identify major issues to be discussed. As a rule, no more that three to five major issues should be identified for the sessions.

This background information—coupled with an honest evaluation of the top team’s performance in the areas of alignment and effectiveness—should be complied in the form of pre-work and circulated in advance of the session. Preparing in this way ensures that the team arrives at the meeting engaged, informed and ready to tackle the most pressing issues of the organization. 

2.) Do you hold your leadership team to an agreed upon strategic planning process that ensures accountability and follow through?

An effective offsite and a well-crafted strategic plan provide an excellent foundation for focus and execution.  Sadly, many CEOs let their teams stop strategy work with production of the plan itself. Once that task is complete, the plan is neither reviewed nor revisited until the next strategy offsite. Here is where CEO champions can earn their pay by implementing a strategy execution process that maintains focus on the strategy long after the plan has been set on a shelf.  

What is strategy execution? It’s typically a set of activities that when taken as a whole enable a company to achieve its most critical objectives. Accountability and follow-through come from scheduling regular meetings to review the performance measures that gauge whether or not adequate progress is being made. Further, it’s the frequent review of the action plans and milestones that are directly linked to achieving critical goals. Strategy execution also incorporates the decisions that have to be made when the strategy begins drifting off course. Regardless of how well defined, strategy execution will not happen unless the CEO holds his team accountable to the strategic process AND the results that the strategy is designed to produce. The CEO is the one person responsible for making execution happen.

3.) Do you generally stay the course or are you prone to chasing shiny objects?

In an ideal world, a sound strategic plan and an effective execution process delivers results. The problem is executive teams don’t live in ideal worlds. The world around most leaders is rife with change, with some of it bringing genuine business opportunities. More often than not these so-called opportunities are little more than distractions, or as we at the Raffoni Group like to call them, “shiny objects.” There’s even a name for this behavior: Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS). 

As author and motivational speaker, Jack Canfield wrote in a blog post on the topic, “It’s easy to get distracted from the goals and commitments you’ve already made. Rather than seeing things through to completion, you abandon the goals and projects you’ve started to chase whatever new thing has just caught your eye.” If strategy execution is predicated by accomplishing goals and projects, a case of SOS is cause for an immediate distress signal for getting the strategy back on track.

Again, it’s the engaged CEO that must toss out the lifeline and reel in the team in order to refocus them toward the original course. A clear strategy and a well-oiled execution process can help in this regard, but effective CEOs have to have an innate compass that drives the efforts of the entire organization toward relentless achievement of the company’s most critical goals.

Most CEOs will tell you and the old adage is true:  it's lonely at the top. It’s lonelier still when the CEO questions what his best and highest value is to the company on a daily basis. Engaged CEOs don’t struggle with this question—they know the questions to ask as well as the answers they need to guide their teams toward their ultimate destination.



5 Mistakes Even the Best CEOs Make

By Melissa Raffoni

In your role of CEO, you face tough choices every day. The path is often unclear and even the very best of you can falter. Some of the most costly missteps are ones that can be avoided. Here are five mistakes you don’t want to make:

1.) Thinking you know the answers and not collaborating with other CEOs. In a CEO Collective (peer group) meeting yesterday, one of our CEOs was weighing the pros and cons of accelerated growth, versus slower and more controlled growth. In the end, the group came to some strong conclusions on what to do and not do that were completely customized to this CEOs specific business, its ownership, its industry and his strengths as CEO. This exercise reminded us all of the power of the collaborative process and the importance of vetting big decisions with other credible colleagues who know you and your business. Making decisions in a vacuum is a sure-fire way to fail.

2.) Forgetting that your demeanor, attitude and words matter. A lot. The best CEOs have egoless-confidence. As a result, they often forget that others look to them not only for business direction, but for tone and inspiration. If the CEO is frenzied, the organization will be frenzied. If the CEO is structured, the organization will be structured. If the CEO is entrepreneurial, the organization will be entrepreneurial. If the CEO cares about culture, the organization will have a strong culture. It’s like a parent-child relationship; children undoubtedly carry many of the traits of their parents.

3.) Being too open when setting strategy. The best CEOs are open to the ideas of the stellar leadership team they have built, but the role of the CEO is to set direction. A CEO should walk into a strategic planning meeting clearly communicating direction and vision and then, be open. Most experienced executives appreciate having a place to start when it comes to strategy, especially since the larger portion of their day is focused on their operational day jobs. It also makes for a more productive conversation, which all team members appreciate. The CEO's role is the oversight of all the functional areas of the business, putting him or her in the best seat to set direction.

4.) Getting stuck in the day-to-day and neglecting strategy. In the case above that illustrated the need for collaboration, the CEO was living the pain of day-to-day growth strains. With the encouragement of his peers, he took a step back and what resulted was a more thoughtful plan that tied targeted growth to key strategic goals. Building a thoughtful plan requires time away from the business, the office, the clients, and the blocking and tackling. Not once have I heard a CEO say, “developing my plan was a waste of time.” But often I have heard a CEO say, “I really need to take step back and look at the business, develop a plan and align my team around it.” Bottom line, spending time on offsite planning, prepping for it, and making sure you have structures in place, such as regular strategy meetings, time to work on strategy, and CEO Peer meetings, will ensure you stay out of the weeds and do one of your most important jobs—setting and managing the strategic plan.  

5.) Holding on to the "wrong fit" team members for too long. Each year we ask our member CEOs, “What mistake did you make this year that you wish you didn’t?” Year-over-year, the number one answer is, “I held on to person X too long.” Contrary to popular perception, the best CEOs are often great human beings, which is why people follow them, but this fatal flaw of holding on to someone too long in the hopes of making it work can have detrimental effects. Keeping people in the wrong roles or keeping the wrong people in the organization will create damage that is difficult and painstaking to repair.