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How a 5-year-plan transformed me into a “badass CEO”

Former President and CEO of Celebrity Cruises, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, unpacks the leadership strategy behind her success.
A badass CEO smiling in front of a blue background.
Lisa Lutoff-Perlo / Wikimedia Commons / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • A “badass CEO” can be defined as someone who figures out how to change the trajectory and reputation of their brand.
  • Perspective is critically important — people expect results, but no one expects immediate results.
  • A bold plan sent Celebrity Cruises into an industry “category of one.”
Excerpted from Making Waves: A Woman’s Rise to the Top Using Smarts, Heart and Courage (Matt Holt Books, February 20, 2024), copyright © 2023 by Lisa Lutoff-Perlo. Reprinted with permission from Matt Holt Books, an imprint of BenBella Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

When I became president and CEO, with many years of experience under my belt, I knew the expectations of the chairman and the board were high. Returning strong shareholder value was my ultimate responsibility. 

I was determined to do just that, and I knew I had to do things differently than had been done up until then. Time for bold moves. Time for transformational results. And time, unfortunately, was not my friend. It rarely is. I needed to use all my experience and that of the team to start the trajectory of transformation and strong financial performance. 

I needed to be what others now affectionately (I think) call me: a “badass CEO.” What is a badass CEO? I’m guessing it’s someone who performs well. Someone who is brave. Someone who takes risks. And someone who figures out how to change the trajectory and reputation of their brand. 

During the first couple of years, I worked with the team to develop our five-year plan. As a new leader, I soon learned that nothing happens overnight. I learned it was going to take a little longer than I wanted. But I also learned perspective, which is critically important. No one expects immediate results, but people do expect results. At this higher leadership level, I learned that the accountability and scrutiny are in an entirely different league. And I needed the strength and the fortitude to be able to deal with that. 

A big part of the successful turnaround for our brand was the new series of ships that were ordered before I came in to lead the brand. My boss, colleagues, team, and I did a lot of work throughout 2015 to completely redesign and reimagine the strategy for that series of ships. That was the catalyst for the brand—not only because of the financial performance that series of ships would later achieve but also because of the halo it would provide for the rest of the fleet in both brand positioning and pricing power. 

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After two years of developing our strategy, doing our planning, repositioning the brand, changing our pricing structure and model, and incorporating bold ideas and change of direction for the brand, I was able to share our five-year plan with the board, showing a strong financial trajectory. 

The trajectory was based on the introduction of this new series of ships along with the other changes we were making. It showed how all of these changes were translating into historic performance, which was the critical measure for them to assess my competence and success in the role I was in. 

My ultimate success was overwhelmingly based on the financial performance of the brand. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. My team and I can choose interesting ways to get there. But the end result has to be strong financial performance. 

That plan that I presented at that board meeting was the accelerator of everything that we have done during the time I was the leader of the brand. It drove us toward the financial results we’ve achieved. It drove the transformation of the brand itself. It enabled us to keep creating and innovating and improving our ships and our fleet and our experiences for our guests. It drove the stature of the brand within the company and the industry. It made us a meaningful contender and the premier brand within our competitive set. It enabled us to become a “category of one” in our industry, and it helped me become affectionately known in some circles as a badass CEO. 

What is a badass CEO? I’m guessing it’s someone who performs well. Someone who is brave. Someone who takes risks.

My aspiration for the brand was no different than the aspiration of any of those who held the position before me. What was different was the plan my team and I put together to achieve those aspirations. We envisioned the positioning and the potential of the brand differently. We thought about our target market, demographics, and psychographics differently. We thought about teams and team dynamics differently. We thought about passion, alignment, courage, and risk differently.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The team I brought together was aligned and passionate about our vision and our future. Nothing happens without that. And our colleagues in other areas of the company rallied around our vision and our strategy and helped us achieve our goals. I always say, “It takes a village.” When you create and align around a bold and exciting vision with an aggressive ambition, with a great group of people around you who believe in you and what you are doing, the outcome can be even better than you ever dreamed it could be.

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