Barri Rafferty Transcript

Clint Betts

Barri, thank you so much for coming on the show. Tell us about how you became the CEO of Morrow Sodali, the Americas' CEO, and you've held that position since 2023.

Barri Rafferty

Yeah, it's great to be here today. Thank you. It's kind of fun to share personal stories and corporate stories. And in this case, I will be honest: the headhunter called me, and I said, "Not the job for me," and literally gave them names when they first called. Two months later, they called me back and said, "We really want to meet you. We think you have the operational skill sets." And so it was one of those where I didn't really know what Morrow Sodali did, and a lot of the foundational business was not something I had grown my career in, but where they were pivoting to, and a lot of the new adjacencies were areas that I was an expert in. So, I ended up coming in and meeting with the private equity firm first, which has a majority of Morrow Sodali. And after a couple of meetings with them, I decided, "Well, maybe this is right for me." And here I am eight months later. So there you go.

Clint Betts

So what does the company do?

Barri Rafferty

So, the company is a global advisory firm, and we really help people think about navigating the full spectrum of shareholder and stakeholder engagement. We started the business 50 years ago as a proxy solicitation business, then grew into mergers and acquisitions, activism advisory, and corporate governance. And around that, we've now added two additional buckets. In the corporate governance bucket, we've added a lot of ESG total capabilities. I think sustainability, climate. And then the third bucket we've been adding the last year is around specialty communications, investor relations, and financial communications. So, we can provide a whole spectrum of services to our clients, starting with that deep insight into your shareholders and stakeholders.

Clint Betts

So, what does a typical day look like for you?

Barri Rafferty

A typical day is always different. Today, I'm, you can see, in New York, you'll probably hear some sirens going by up an office in New York and an office in Stanford, Connecticut. And really, I always think as a leader, you're focused on kind of three key areas. One is the business of the business and the operations, and really thinking that through, how do you profitably grow a company and think about the products and services you want to offer? Two is the talent and what is. I'm constantly meeting new talent and helping coach and advise our current talent to make sure we have the right people, and they're positioned in ways that they can fully succeed in delivering on their job. The third is the client focus and whether we provide counsel, advice, and products and services that our clients will be happy with and want to continue returning and repeat business with us. So I think they're always juggling all three of those areas. My meetings and calendar vary from day to day.

Clint Betts

So, given that it varies, I wonder, as we talked to a lot of leaders and CEOs, how do you decide what to prioritize and what to focus on each day?

Barri Rafferty

Yeah, so I have a weekly ritual. I look at my calendar and really decide a... I think you vote with your time. So there's times on Sunday night when I look at my calendar and go, "You know what? I don't really need to be in that meeting. Someone else can do that. Let me send them a note and let them come back." So, I try to consider where I put my energy and time. I also try to do mostly half-hour meetings. So, if someone wants a longer meeting, they can request it, but it usually means there's something more strategic that we need to go over. It's not just to catch up. And then I also think I did an exercise kind of when I was a mid-level manager that always stuck with me. Are you spending time with your high-value talent? Are you spending time really on growth initiatives? So I don't do it weekly anymore, but I used to kind of look at my calendar in those buckets and make sure I'm managing that time. Now, as you get a little bit more mature in your role, you get a sense of it. But if I'm over-inducing one way or another, I try to balance it out as well.

Clint Betts

It sounds like you're talking about self-leadership in many ways. What do you think about self-leadership? How do you apply it at work and in your life to create that balance?

Barri Rafferty

Yeah. I think self-leadership often starts with self-care, and you heard the term "put your oxygen mask on first." To me, that's critical. How you show up as, in a sense, a corporate athlete? Are you taking care of yourself physically and mentally, getting rest, hydrating, and all you need to do to show up? And then also, I'm a big believer that sometimes you need to lead from the front, and sometimes you need to lead from the back. So, I will look at and analyze the situations when you go into a meeting, how you show up, and what will help with the best outcome for that group or initiative. And so I think flexing your leadership style as well is essential. And so, I don't think of myself as one type of leader. Some days, I'm in a service leadership position. Some days, I'm role modeling and leading from the front and making decisive decisions; some days, I'm coaching others to make those decisions. It varies from day to day in that way as well.

Clint Betts

What do you read? What reading recommendations do you have for us?

Barri Rafferty

I read a lot. Days when I come in on the train, it helps, too. But I start... I am going to miss... I know Alan Murray at Fortune is retiring, and I start a lot of mornings with his column, so the new person will take that over and do well. I listen to Bloomberg Radio in the morning because it gives me a more global perspective on business. And then, I'm looking at different sources because if you read the same sources every day, you get jaded sometimes with one opinion. So I try to mix it up. My kids are getting a lot on social media, so I'm looking at things the Daily Brew, things that they're looking at, too, to get some different perspectives. And then at night, I try to read more fiction, relaxing. I try to turn off the business stuff later at night and try to read things that are going to actually let me relax and go to sleep.

Clint Betts

That's great. Yeah, that's perfect. That's incredible. I wonder, given the business you're in and the companies that you would advise and the various leaders you advise and work with, how they're all thinking about artificial intelligence and this kind of wave that is coming, how you are thinking about it and what we should all be expecting in the future and how companies are adapting to it.

Barri Rafferty

Yeah, adapting is the keyword in AI, right? We're all in this experimental phase. I know we're testing different areas and types of co-pilots, which will help us be more efficient in our day-to-day work and visualization. There are a lot of things now. If you could take something and put it into AI, and it comes out looking beautiful, that would save me a lot of time and effort trying to move around those PowerPoints. And then we're looking at it. We have the Morrow Sodali platform, where we have a lot of data and insights on institutional investors and shareholders and corporate governance issues. And so we're starting to look at our data integrity and how we look at predictive modeling with AI and ways to pull data out more precisely. And a lot of that is looking at the precision, too, of how you prompt and ask for that data and what that looks like. So we're doing a lot of tests in our firm to make sure that we invest in areas that will help our clients deliver and output and help the efficiency of our people to do their jobs better and make it easier.

Clint Betts

What have you seen in terms of post-pandemic, work-from-home versus hybrid versus in-person? How are companies handling that?

Barri Rafferty

Yeah, so I think we're hybrid for good right now. I know there's a lot of companies looking to get back. I see tremendous value in people being together. And so we have some teams that now come in, they kind of pick what days their teams are going to be in the office because you don't want to come in and be sitting at your computer on Zoom all day when you could be at home, right? So we're trying to make sure the days people come in that time is collaborative, but we also want to make sure there's that informal time as well. And then we have a lot of employees, probably over 50 now in the US, that have gone hybrid and will stay hybrid. So we have to look at ways to bring them to together, bring them in as needed when it makes sense. But also even our holiday parties, for instance, we did in-person parties, and we did hybrid virtual parties and tried to send people things to do activities and things and engage with us at home. So I think we're all working at what is that bifurcated model today that allows people to create work-life integration and show up and do their jobs and be together when they need to be but also have that flexibility to be home when that's most effective as well.

Clint Betts

How do you define culture inside of your company?

Barri Rafferty

Well, we're going through an interesting change in management right now. As a firm, we've grown tremendously‚ÄĒmore than doubled in the past 14 months. We've made seven acquisitions worldwide, which helps evolve your culture. So we're doing a lot of looking at our vision and mission right now and our cultural beliefs that we started with at Morrow Sodali. But also, as we make acquisitions, we're looking at what's integral to their cultures and how we blend those cultures. So, together, we have some outside support. We're looking at our overall branding and trying to bring those together in a way that works for a culture that's been delivering and based on collaboration and integrity and things for the last 50 years. And then we've acquired companies where the average age is 27. Some of our people in Morrow Sodali have been here for 27 years. So how do we make sure that our culture works for our diverse portfolio of talent, of ages of people all over the world in different regions? And that's going to be critical to us because if that culture isn't something you can live and believe and stand for, and it's not embedded in a way that everyone understands it, then it's hard to bring to life and be a differentiator for your company. So we want to make sure we're not being stagnant, but we're evolving with it.

Clint Betts

Seven acquisitions is a lot. What is that process like? How do you determine, like, "Hey, they're going to be a good cultural fit, they're going to add to the business"? I imagine you've become somewhat of an expert on this; I mean, that's quite a few to go through all in a row. Tell us about how you think about it.

Barri Rafferty

Yeah, so it is a bit of a dating game. I kind of joke that we're out there dating, and you got to kind of figure out who you want to walk down the aisle with. And I think that's true. It's not just about adding businesses. I mean, I think we have goals that we want to continue to build out ESG and our specialty communications and areas, but the leaders need to be a cultural fit at the organization. We also want to look for depth of talent. So, we don't want to buy a company that's reliant on one person or one founder. So, that's critical to us to look at the depth of talent. We then look at how will they fit in and be able to cross-sell because, obviously, if we can't make one plus one equals three, and it's not additive, that's important. So how will they be able to walk the halls with our people, pitch with our people, go to clients together and, solve problems for our people, and be strong advisors? And then as we connect the dots globally, it takes a lot of time to integrate and educate. So, the integration involves a lot of technology integration. It involves learning and development, making sure people understand the products and services that we deliver, and it involves people learning to trust other people, right? Because as we know in advisory businesses, people bring in people to their client relationships to solve client challenges. And so we're also just spending a lot of time now having our people get to know each other from the different companies we've brought in. So, different leadership meetings and things coming up to make sure we're exchanging knowledge and also having fun together and starting to get to know each other better.

Clint Betts

ESG is an interesting concept, and it seems like a good concept. It's also become somewhat political, and I'm not entirely sure it's understood entirely. What would you have us understand about ESG that maybe is being misconstrued out there in the world?

Barri Rafferty

Yeah, well, there's been a lot of backlash to ESG, even the term ESG, in the past year. But what I would say as we talk to clients and big companies around the world is that I think they're shying away from the word, but they're not shying away from doing the right thing for society's future. And that can be diversity, climate, all different areas of sustainability, or corporate governance. So, as we look at that, we're working with our clients to ensure that they're future-proofing their business, and future-proofing can be all kinds of things, right? There's a lot of regulation out there and things that are going into place. If you're a global company doing more than $150 million of business in Europe, you have CSRD regulations that you will have to start to follow in 2025. The SEC is putting things in place in the US that are evolving. Our goal is to ensure we work with clients to not only define their purpose and mission and the areas they want to ensure they're delivering on but also ensure they're ready for the regulatory environment that continues to evolve. By working through those two things, we hope to help make them better corporate citizens and develop sustainable long-term value for those companies.

Clint Betts

You touched briefly on the other business term that's getting attacked a lot: DEI. Why do you think that's getting attacked? What would you have us know about that particular issue?

Barri Rafferty

Yeah, as a female CEO who's promoted diversity, and through an organization I'm close with, C200, trying to move women even up the ranks, it's been disappointing to see the numbers are not moving forward. Pay equity is moving slower than we would like. And we have these bursts where something social happens that gets a lot of news, and everyone focuses on it short term, and then it wanes a bit. But the importance of the data is there. More diverse companies have more senior teams, and diverse boards around the table are more successful. Diversity can speak to all different types of thinking around the table and other kinds of points of view. Representation is going to be critical for now and in the future. So I hope that as some of this wanes and comes back, we stay committed long-term because it's essential to be successful societally and in business.

Clint Betts

Of those three letters, E is probably the most controversial of the DEI, which is equity. Some believe that this means equality of outcomes. Some think it's equal opportunity. And I wonder if we could all figure out what that definition is, this wouldn't be controversial. Because equality of outcomes is a whole different thing than equality of opportunity, right?

Barri Rafferty

Yeah, but they're intertwined. You want to ensure that the opportunities are there for people of all types, ages, sexes, and everything else and that they're paid equitably for the return on investment that you're putting in. Sometimes, diversity isn't rising in organizations, so is that giving them real opportunity? When they rise, and you're doing pay equity studies, you realize they need to be more comprehensive. So, we must work on both sides of that spectrum to ensure genuine equality in the workplace.

Clint Betts

Who's a leader or example of a leader that you admire?

Barri Rafferty

It's so funny. There are so many leaders that I admire. As you grow up in organizations, sometimes you learn from the best leaders and from those who are not such good leaders what you want to emulate and what you don't want to emulate. So I look for examples daily; whether I'm reading business stories or meeting industry peers, I get to work with many amazing people. And so I've taken those traits to heart that will be additive for me, but also make sure the ones that don't make me feel good, I don't put those on others and pay that forward. So, sometimes, if I look back at my career, I've learned the most from leaders I didn't thrive under as much as those I did.

Clint Betts

Oh, that's interesting. It is actually quite fascinating, like learning what not to do in a lot of ways.

Barri Rafferty

Yeah. Because as you see leaders that give you the rope and motivate you and coach you and push you out of your comfort zone, there's a lot of things I've looked at, and then there's leaders I feel like maybe have held me back or not allowed me to thrive. And so I take that to heart and think about that. Because the key is for me, when I look at my career, it's not only about my success but all the people I've been able to coach and bring up behind me. Seeing those people and building in my succession brings me a lot of joy and value. I've always left a job and been able to appoint someone almost always internally. That's when you know you're being successful, when you're getting people you've coached through the years who are thriving, and you say, "You know what? I'm going to leave, but here's someone else." Maternity leaves have been great for me. I know that sounds crazy, but when I leave, I put someone in charge, and they take on a lot of the work, and I'm like, "Great, you keep that. I'll go do new things." So you just have to make sure those people are being developed as you are.

Clint Betts

What role do you think empathy plays in leadership?

Barri Rafferty

Empathy was undervalued before Covid. And now it's become one of those hot words. When I was at Ketchum, we talked a lot about empathy. It's essential. And what empathy means is fearless listening. It means making sure that you're paying attention and reacting. It also means giving people a sense of security at work, which is not always easy, but there's a ton of data that shows if people are secure, understand the vision and the mission and what you expect of them, their KPIs are clear, that they're much more set up to be successful. Therefore, empathy can be broadly interpreted but can also be very valuable to business today. Particularly with so much going on in the world that's destabilizing for people, creating that safety at work can be important today.

Clint Betts

I like this idea of fearless listening because we aren't listening to each other right now. And this idea of, "Hey, let's listen to each other and listen to each other without fear of what we might hear," that is a pretty fascinating concept, too.

Barri Rafferty

Yeah. And that's listening to clients internally as well. I do small group meetings called Breaks with Barri, inviting people from different company levels to make coffee. Sometimes, they're virtual; sometimes, they're in person. By asking questions, I hear many things that we might or might not be doing well, but it's more candid; it's off the cuff than the employee or engagement surveys we do. And we listen to those a lot, too. But you often get honest, demanding answers if you ask the tough questions. But it's hard sometimes as leaders, so you must put yourself out there and listen. Then, be actionable and decide what you hear as you listen to themes because sometimes one-offs could be better. Still, as you start to listen to themes, if you don't respond to those, then shame on you because you're not listening to things bubbling up in your own company or culture, and similarly for clients and their needs.

Clint Betts

It's interesting that as CEO, you now have to think more and more about what's happening outside of your company and the macroeconomic environment, just like there are a bunch of elections in a bunch of countries this year. There are all of these different things that, as a CEO 20 years ago, you wouldn't have to have thought about, commented on, or talked about, but now you do. And you've already mentioned things like, "Hey, I listen to the news. I read all these different sources to try to stay aware." What is your general feeling? "Hey, as a CEO, I have a responsibility to think about and talk about more than just what's happening inside of my company, but what's happening in the world"?

Barri Rafferty

Yeah. Well, we're advising companies the time, and they're looking at their stakeholders and shareholders and what that means, as well as the valuation of their companies, proxy votes and tabulations, and all kinds of things. So, as we look at the macro environment now, it's scary and confusing sometimes. As you say, we've got lots of elections coming up, wars going on, we're seeing escalation of things in different parts of the world. As we've been talking about, there's a lot of inequity and a lot of debt. So, it's not simple right now. And then it defies logic, and we're doing pretty well, and the market is doing pretty well. So, trying to understand and balance those things and look at the short-term forecast and the long-term forecast and build our business around the things that we see that we think are longer-term shoots that are going to be available for us to grow, but also to help our clients navigate the complexity of the landscape. A lot of what we're doing on stakeholder engagement back to listening is talking to stakeholders, trying to understand what's important to them, what they value in companies, why they're holding shares, why they're voting specific ways, what's important to them in sustainability or executive compensation so that we can bring that back to our clients. So, in this changing environment, you must be out there listening more and more agilely to your strategy than ever before.

Clint Betts

You mentioned something there about just how odd this economy is. Some sectors are doing exceptionally well; we're seeing job growth, but it doesn't feel like that to most people. We're in this exciting environment where nobody knows where we're at. It's almost like a malaise. But what are your thoughts on the current macroeconomic environment? How does it shake out this year?

Barri Rafferty

There's so much at play, right? And you look at this country; the election and the polls are closed. You are trying to figure out there with what's going on in the Middle East and Europe. Gas prices went up 50% here at the pumps in the US, right? So there's this inflation, recession. What's interesting to me, and what's the hardest thing to navigate, is the more you listen, the more discrepancy there is in the marketplace on what will play out. And so I think there's a bit of what I would call short-termism that we have to play right now: you have to stick to the long game strategy, but you have to react to the short game and what's happening day to day, and month to month. That's making it much more challenging for leaders and businesses to figure out how to respond to your services, products, pricing, and things in the current marketplace. But that's the reality of what it is. If you try to stay the same and don't make any changes, that's fine for some businesses. For many other companies, that won't work in this day and age.

Clint Betts

Barri, thank you so much for coming on. Seriously, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. We end every interview the exact same way, and that is at CEO.com; we believe the chances one gives are just as important as the chances one takes. And I wonder when you hear that, who gave you a chance to get to where you are today?

Barri Rafferty

So, when I look back at my career at Ketchum, I see that there was a CEO, Ray Kotcher, who took my career on a different trajectory. I had a global job. I wanted to head our brand marketing practice, and I had two young kids who needed something else. It wasn't where you could sit here and talk to China at 9 p.m. on your iPad at home or whatever you were in the office. It was just a very different environment. And he said to me, "You know what? I think you should move to Atlanta," where I grew up, never thought about going back, "and run our profit center there," which was our Atlanta office at the time that needed a turnaround. I agreed to go down. My parents helped me find a house in six weeks when they thought they'd have their grandkids nearby. But trusting in me to run a profit and law center, turn around a business, and take on something that I still needed to do or wasn't a clear trajectory made me believe I could run a company and take on operations. Our finance team was amazing in helping me get through those first months. And so I think when you have a leader that sees things in you that you might not see in yourself and pushes you out of your comfort zone, it's, I think, led to me being much more comfortable out of my comfort zone, volunteering for new things and trying jobs like this one at Morrow Sodali that might not have been that perfect fit when I looked on paper and checked every box. Still, I could see my ability to morph, engage, take, and grow this company. I hope everyone gets a chance to do that. Have someone who pushes you a little more out there than you might think is comfortable, but once you show that you can do that, you prove to yourself and others that there's a lot more you can take on in business and life.

Clint Betts

Barri, thank you so much. It's an honor to talk to you, and best of luck with everything in the future.

Barri Rafferty

Great. Thank you. I enjoyed it today, and I hope your listeners do as well.

Edited for readability.

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