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 you to word smith and summarize up front. It also gives executives draft documents to work from versus starting from scratch. Additionally, it minimizes much of the “getting things off 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 communication 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.



How to Improve Your Strategic Scorecard

By The Raffoni Group Team

In the article, What Is a Strategic Scorecard and Why Should You Care? we discussed the importance of having a strategic scorecard. They are an essential way to track the progress made in achieving strategic goals and help teams focus effort and improve problem solving. Keep in mind that strategic scorecards are not the same as operational dashboards — tools to manage operational/functional goals — although they do have some of the same elements. To have an effective strategic scorecard requires clarity regarding four essential elements: goals, measures, targets and actions.  

1) Goals: Goals are quite simply singular statements of "what" is to be accomplished. Most executives understand goals well; they have scorecards containing goals such as "Grow Revenue", "Reduce Costs", "Improve Teamwork" to name a few. In addition to those high-level phrases, it's also useful to support each of them with a few statements that provide direction on how this goal can be achieved. In the case of "Improve Teamwork", it's also useful to have description illustrations such as, "spend more time collaborating on group problem solving" and "establish employee-led group to identify ways to enhance morale." A few well-thought-out goals, supported by goal statements, help clarify what the real intent of the goals are.

 2) Measures: Measures quantify the efficiency and effectiveness of an action. For every goal, there should be one, maybe two, measures to provide a metric that enables managers to understand if the goal is being accomplished. In the case of "Improve Teamwork" a simple measure might be "Employee Satisfaction with Work Section Teamwork." The thinking here is that if employee satisfaction with teamwork is increasing, the goal of improving teamwork must be getting accomplished. Be careful to avoid using measures that are easy to collect but don’t provide a good gauge of performance with respect to the goal. While “Employee Turnover” might be readily available, it isn’t a good proxy for teamwork.

 3) Targets: Targets specify the level of performance improvement that needs to be achieved. A simple rule is where there is a measure, there must be a target. Targets can be challenging to set but the process is eased when they are set based upon business demands (e.g. Costs must be reduced 10% to maintain margin) or competitive benchmarks (e.g. 50% of our top competitors revenue is to repeat customers). Sometimes getting the baseline or the starting point can be the most difficult. In order to "Improve Teamwork" it's essential to know what the "Employee Satisfaction with Work Section Teamwork" score is at the outset. A survey of the work section might indicate that "Employee Satisfaction with Work Section Teamwork" is 5.5 out of 10. This initial reading provides a baseline to set the target that over the short-term—a year for example—might be a score of 7 but over the longer term, such as three years, might be 9.

4) Actions: Actions are the specific steps or projects that will drive performance from the baseline to the target. They may be quick hit steps or longer term initiatives, but either way they scope what needs to be done and they provide accountability. Through regular action plan reviews it's possible to determine if the actions are driving results not just effort. Looking back at the goal definition helps to identify the actions that could be implemented. With the example, "Employee Satisfaction with Work Section Teamwork," say the number needs to reach 7 in one year and 9 within three years. A quick action might be, "Establish employee-led group to identify ways to enhance morale." This would only take a short amount of time to set up and might prove enough to move teamwork performance from the baseline of 5.5 to the target of 7. Reaching the longer term goals of 9 might require a longer term action such as, "Set up and deploy a company-wide problem-solving process." This wouldn't be a quick hit program, but if done correctly might have a major impact on "Improving Teamwork" as well as overall company performance.

5) Owners/Teams: These are the individuals and groups that serve as accountable executives in driving strategic progress. Typically goal/action plan ownership is given to the executives or those in the areas of the organization most aligned with the content of the goal or action plan. Assigning ownership is critical because it clarifies and improves accountability. In our example, the goal of, "Improve Teamwork", the measure, "Employee Satisfaction with Work Section" and the action, "Establish employee-led group to identify ways to enhance morale" are probably well aligned with Human Resource leadership. They would constitute the owners and teams needed to drive progress in this area. 

This approach might seem highly structured and to be fair, it is. But the process has been proven time and time again and, if followed, works very well. Be sure to set goals, measures, targets and actions as a set, being as careful as possible to design them in direct support of the most pressing business needs. You’ll find that your focus, problem-solving abilities and overall results will measurably improve.



What Is a Strategic Scorecard and Why Should You Care?

By Melissa Raffoni

Ask any CEO, “What is your company's strategy?" and I bet you’ll get a variety of answers depending on that person's definition of the word strategy – ranging from Michael Porter’s classic teachings on the barriers to entry, differentiation, and focused Webster's basic definition of simply having a plan to achieve a particular goal.   

Define it as you will, my intent in this post is to encourage you to go beyond the definition and understand the importance of building a Strategic Scorecard to support your strategy.

What is a Strategic Scorecard? It's a document—a communication tool —that clearly lists carefully articulated strategic goals with associated measures of success and accountable owners. 

 A Strategic Scorecard is:

  • On one page

  • Built through the collaboration of the company's leadership

  • Focused on strategy not the day-to-day business operations or "business as usual" activities

  • Clever, unique and grounded in solid strategic principals aimed at helping the company to succeed in the market

  • Worked on with regular cadence during a dedicated strategy meeting

What can it do for you? A Strategic Scorecard accomplishes a lot of objectives, but three important ones include:

1)  It acts as one of the tools for building alignment and agreement among your company's leadership and appropriate level of staff.

2)  It provides a basis for communication, reflection and problem solving, inspiring questions like…Did we get the strategic goal right? Are we on track? What do we need to do differently to get on track? Should we double down? 

3)  It brings rigor and discipline to teams, helping them to focus on "working on the business" in the midst of their busy day-to-day work lives.

Creating a strong Strategic Scorecard can be a challenge for teams, but it is well worth the effort. It's key to remember that the use of the Scorecard is just one piece of building in an on-going and evolving planning, communication, and accountability process that will help your team to be more effective.  

If the effort you put in to create your Scorecard is solid, your outcome will be a clearly aligned and motivated team, a higher probability of execution success, and most importantly—stronger business results. 

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

By Melissa Raffoni, CEO, 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 2019! twitter @melissaraffoni

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.

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!  

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.