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7 Smart Moves for CEO Success


Guest: Frank Buonanotte, a coach at CEO Coaching International. Frank has been a founder, chairman, and/or CEO at several highly successful companies within the commercial real estate, retail, and franchise industries, including Party City. 

Quick Background: Working with a CEO coach gives you access to decades of top-level knowledge from business leaders who have been there and done that. And while no two companies are exactly alike, combining tried-and-true best practices with discipline and accountability is a formula that leads to winning, exponential growth, and Making BIG Happen.

On today’s show, Frank Buonanotte shares the 7 Smarts to CEO Success that he used to lead companies in multiple industries to BIG.

7 Keys to CEO Success from Frank Buonanotte

1. Articulate vision.

“I think the CEO must have, and be able to articulate, a very clear and compelling vision for the company,” Frank says. “It’s kind of like painting a picture with words. In order for a CEO to do that effectively, they have to be able to see it in their mind’s eye: a picture that’s so crystal clear that they can describe it in great detail. And by doing that, they’re able to have others see that same picture in their own minds and then want to move towards it.”

Frank honed this skill when he was in commercial real estate: if you can’t describe what you’re building and get prospective tenants excited about it, the building is going to stay empty.

The Crystal Ball Tool from our Making BIG Happen system can help CEOs refresh and refine their own visions. Only by looking ahead and seeing the company you want to be running at the end of the year can you put the processes in place that will rally your team around realizing that vision.

2. Create culture.

“The CEO has to create a culture that is reflective of both his own and the team’s personality,” Frank says. “In my mind, it’s very different than a mission statement or a value statement. Many companies spend a lot of time, days, weeks, or even months, crafting their values and their mission statement. And I think that’s great. And then they reduce it to words and hang it on the wall or incorporate it in their letterhead. But culture is different than words. It’s a living, breathing organism. It’s a personality. And it’s up to the CEO to actively develop and promote.”

Here’s a quick mental exercise to test the strength of your company’s culture: if you left the business tomorrow, would the culture carry on? If not, think about ways to bring those keywords off the breakroom poster and embed them in your daily operations. You could start by encouraging team leaders to set aside time at the end of weekly meetings to publicly recognize employees who are putting your culture in action.

3. Develop trust.

Many CEOs are struggling with the trend towards EQ leadership because they’re not used to connecting with employees on a personal level. But building relationships at the office doesn’t have to be all touchy-feely. Birthday cards and small talk about the kids are nice touches, but fundamentally, employees really want to feel like they can trust the person at the top of the organization to treat them well.

“The CEO must develop trust,” Frank says. “And he does that by being fair and consistent with his employees, and externally with his vendors, suppliers, investors, strategic partners, et cetera. Always do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing. And even when it’s the costly thing. Trust is earned and you can’t compromise. Once you compromise and lose it, it’s exponentially harder to regain it.”

4. Stay connected.

It’s hard to trust an “ivory tower” CEO who only steps out of his office when something is wrong. Spending time on the ground with employees at every level of the organization, learning about their routines, their challenges, their responsibilities, and their customers, is good for your relationships with employees and for your understanding of what is and isn’t working at your company.

“The CEO must stay connected to the frontline employees and the frontline of the business,” Frank says, “because that’s where the business of the business is happening. And as a business grows, there’s more and more layers between the frontline and the C-suite. And as communication goes up and down through those layers, it gets distorted. At Party City, every couple of months I would get out of the corporate headquarters and go from store to store to store and spend hours rotating in and out with stock clerks, sales clerks, assistant managers, hearing their perceptions of their job, of the company, of what was going on on a day-to-day basis, getting their feedback. Oftentimes we’d hear problems, ask them for their suggestions, and gain valuable insights on how to improve the company.”

5. Provide support.

A BIG point of emphasis at CEO Coaching International is the importance of having the right people in the right seats at your company, particularly in leadership positions. But true leadership impacts the quality of service that your employees are able to provide customers, whether they’re solving problems or selling your product. Optimizing these daily interactions that are ultimately driving the growth of your business should be the end goal for every level of your company.

To that end, Frank challenges CEOs to flip their org charts on their heads. He explains, “In most companies, you have the CEO and the C-suite at the top and then the vice-presidents, directors, managers. And then at the bottom you have the stores and offices and employees. My organizational charts at Party City looked the opposite. At the top were the employees, the stores, the offices, and then underneath that the managers, and then underneath that the VPs, and then the C-suite. And then me, the CEO. I wanted to visually demonstrate that the role of all of those people worked upwards, supporting the frontline. And I changed the name from ‘corporate headquarters’ to ‘store support center.'”

6. Share value.

“If it’s your own company, you have two choices,” Frank says. “You could own a big piece of a small pie, or you can own a small piece of a big pie. And the only way you get a big pie is through people, because you can’t do it all. So if you want to accomplish growth through people, then I think it’s only fair and appropriate — and extremely effective — to share value with those people who are helping to create it.”

While profit sharing, phantom stock, and ESOPs can all be powerful tools to attract, retain, and motivate top talent, money isn’t the only way to share value. Providing your best people with a career path, rather than just a job, or making internal promotion part of your culture shows employees that they’ll get out of your company what they put in. You can also expand your total comp package to include perks like flexible hours, sabbatical time, volunteering allowances, or internal mentorship opportunities. Encouraging employees to grow personally and professionally sends a message: your success is our success.

7. Be legendary.

Years ago, when one Mark Moses’ companies was at a low point, he rode an elephant into the annual meeting to get everyone focused on thinking BIG. The next day, Mark found toy elephants perched on desks and countertops all over the office. The company’s turnaround and eventual success started with the CEO doing something BIG that galvanized the whole team and set the tone for how they would all work together going forward.

Frank wanted his Party City employees to feel like they were family. The Chinese New Year dinners he threw for managers became so popular that employees strove for promotions just so that they could be part of those dinners and that inner circle of high achievement.

During one of his fact-finding shifts at a Party City store, Frank was talking to a teenager who was excited about prom, but struggling to work out transportation because he didn’t have a car. Frank loaned him his Jaguar for the night. Word spread throughout the company, enforcing the family atmosphere Frank wanted to create.

“I think the CEO should strive to find the opportunities to create legends for himself and for the company,” Frank says. “And I think the simplest way for that to be accomplished is to astound employees or astound clients and thereby make disciples out of them. I was giving a customer service talk about how the customer is always right, and one of my senior managers raised his hand and said, ‘Frank, that’s just not true. The customer is not always right. We have a return policy. It’s written on our receipt. The customer comes back and she’s trying to return something that’s been open, it’s obviously been used, and she’s not right.’ And I said, ‘You’re absolutely right. The customer is not always right. But the customer is always in charge. So it doesn’t matter if she’s right or not. And if that’s what she thinks needs to happen, that’s what we’re going to do.’ Astounding employees or customers creates legends.”

Top Takeaways

1. Communicate your vision and your values so that employees and customers can see them too.

2. Support your customer-facing employees with empathetic leadership.

3. Inspire your team to Make BIG Happen for the company and for themselves.

About CEO Coaching International

CEO Coaching International works with CEOs and their leadership teams to achieve extraordinary results quarter after quarter, year after year. Known globally for its success in coaching growth-focused entrepreneurs to meaningful exits, CEO Coaching International has coached more than 1,000 CEOs and entrepreneurs in more than 60 countries and 45 industries. The coaches at CEO Coaching International are former CEOs, presidents, or executives who have made BIG happen. The firm’s coaches have led double-digit sales and profit growth in businesses ranging in size from startups to over $10 billion, and many are founders that have led their companies through successful eight, nine, and ten-figure exits. Companies working with CEO Coaching International for two years or more have experienced an average revenue CAGR of 31% (2.6X the U.S. average) and an average EBITDA CAGR of 52.3% (more than 5X the U.S. average).

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