On Episode 22 of The Wealth Cast, Charles Boinske talks to Robert “Cujo” Teschner, former US Air Force fighter pilot and current CEO and chief consultant of VMax Group, which specializes in helping organizations build high-performing teams. Robert has taken the principles of fact- and evidence-based accountability he learned during his time as a fighter pilot, and brought them into the business world. He shares his insights about leadership, molding effective, fulfilled team members who “buy in,” and the importance of separating fact finding from the apportionment of responsibility.
Hello, and welcome to The Wealth Cast. I’m your host, Charles Boinske. On this podcast we bring you the information that you need to know to be a good steward of your wealth, reach your goals, and improve society. Today, I am absolutely thrilled to have Robert “Cujo” Teschner as my guest. Cujo is an Air Force fighter pilot. He has served on many different postings through his 20 year career in the Air Force, but they included being chief of weapons and tactics for the F-15C fighter, chief of training at the NATO air operation center, he’s a distinguished graduate of the National War College, and a veteran of the Seventh Fighter Squadron, which he commanded.
Subsequent to his career in the Air Force, Cujo formed VMax Consulting Group where he takes the lessons he learned in the Air Force in terms of team development and leadership, and applies them to helping businesses and other organizations develop high performing teams. I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did, having the conversation with Cujo.
Cujo, welcome to The Wealth Cast. I’m so pleased to have you here and honored that you would take some time to talk about the things that you’ve learned in the Air Force and how they can be applied to business leaders and business situations. So thanks so much.
Chas, thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here in your midst today, and I love the subject matter that we’re covering, so this is spot on, and the best way that I could think of spending time today with you.
Well, thank you. Well, I thought the best use of our time today would be talking about the idea of the Raptor Debrief that’s in your book. And for those of you listening, if you go to the show notes, Cujo has been kind enough to provide a copy of that chapter of his book that you can download and read for your own benefit. But why don’t we start there. Before we go through how that debrief is orchestrated, and run, can you give us some background on how that’s used in the Air Force and the importance of it, etc.?
Absolutely. So Chas, let me just tell you a little bit about my background. Coming out of high school, I was about 145 pounds soaking wet, I was a non-athlete, I was the guy that 100% of people surveyed, said there’s no way this yahoo’s ever going to become a fighter pilot.
But I told anybody that would listen that that was my ambition, and it was firmly planted in my soul that this is what I was meant to do. And so ultimately, I was accepted to the Academy. Ultimately, I got a pilot slot at a time when there weren’t that many. And the next thing that I know is, I’m in pilot training going through and I get selected to go fly the F-15. And this scrawny non athlete gets into a world of high performance, a world that’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. And frankly, even though I knew that this is what I wanted to do, I was a bit intimidated once I got into that world going, “Hey, can I actually pass muster? Can I do this?”
And what I found was that not only was the answer yes, but the people that taught me—the great instructors who shaped and molded me—they utilized the power of accountability to get me past the hurdles to excellence, and in very, very short order, reshaped me into who they knew I needed to be to be an effective teammate on teams that have to win, no matter where we are on the planet.
And so in, again, a very short period of time, I came to champion and advocate for the approach that transformed me into becoming the best teammate that I could possibly be, and I tried to start thinking about, what are the domains might this approach be useful in? And when I retired from the Air Force, the obvious answer to that question was, the business teams that we field. And the reason why business teams are so important to me is that American small business ends up being the backbone of our economy. We have to, in the midst of all of the disruptions that we face, maintain a strong backbone so that we can feel the defense that we need. And how better to do that than to utilize the same mechanism that took young Robert Teschner, transformed him into Cujo and helped me to have a successful flying career in the F-15 and the F-22.
Thank you for that perspective. I think those of us in the business community realize, I think, that continuous improvement is an important part of having a successful business. But the process to use to get there—to encourage accountability and to set the stage for improvement—is sometimes a little bit murky. Everybody does it a little bit differently, and what I found really, really helpful in your book was the process that you laid out to do that.
But before we go into that in some detail, let’s talk about accountability where it really counts, which I think at your level in the Air Force, there’s a lot at stake there in terms of being accountable for your actions as a fighter pilot. Can you talk about sort of the attitude of accountability that you saw in the Air Force, and how we may think about that from a business perspective?
Absolutely. So if you think about, where did I used to work, it was in a high reliability organization, where we could not drop a bomb on the wrong target, we could not shoot down a friendly. And so when you consider the implications of both of those, and the fact that the President gets involved, in certain cases, depending on the gravity of the moment, you realize that accountability is mission critical to achieving success. And yet—and yet—in that environment, one of the takeaways that I found to be most striking, most impactful, is the fact that we didn’t live in fear. And we learn to embrace failure.
And if you think about this, you may say, “Wait a second, has Cujo lost his mind? You know, it seems like these two ideas are diametrically opposed. On the one hand, you cannot afford to make one of these types of mistakes. And yet on the other hand, you’re saying, you’re embracing failure? How is that possible?” In the high performance world, what we’ve learned is, is that we have to eradicate the fear in order for us to perform our very best, and we also have accepted the fact that even in the pursuit of excellence, we’re never going to fly a perfect mission, and we’re going to make mistakes along the way.
By being open to talking about those mistakes, we don’t repeat them. By being open to discussing our mistakes, our weaknesses, our faults, our, problems—heck, even the things that we’re afraid of—we learn to become better, quickly, and we learn as a team, to build each other up. Our outcomes—the desired outcome of our accountability session is—to have a better day tomorrow than we did today, to build a stronger team that comes back tomorrow, bounces back from whatever today’s experience was, and does that much better. It breeds resilience and it builds trust.
When you take and think about those implications, and you transfer them into the business domain, I cannot think of a business that doesn’t benefit from eradicating fear, from learning how to avoid repeat mistakes, and especially in the midst of a global pandemic, learning how to be resilient and come back stronger tomorrow than we were today. All of that is what we’re looking for on the business side, and so why not draw from high performance teams, and learn what we can, cross-apply it to build better teams in the business domain?
Yes, that makes total sense to me. So it’s clear to me, having had conversations with you in the past, and also reading the book, that this process is sort of the core of the whole accountability improvement effort, and it’s relatively straightforward.
It has to be. It has to be repeatable, it has to be something that’s comfortable, it has to be something that the newest member of the team can embrace quickly, as well as it has to be sophisticated enough to allow us to unpack the tremendous disasters that take place. All of the things that exist as a fighter pilot—if you lose an aircraft, if you lose a team member—we have to learn how to learn from that experience quickly so that nobody else goes through that same experience on tomorrow’s mission.
And so what we see here in the approach that I call Raptor, which is the encapsulation of the approach that I taught and experienced for—you know, my 20 years as an Air Force fighter pilot— what we find is the Air Force has invested a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of resources to craft an approach that works consistently, no matter where we are on the planet. And the simplicity, the utter simplicity of it allows us to be able to take it and cross-apply it into the business domain, and then further cross apply it into any other team domain that we find ourselves in.
That’s fascinating, and I think it makes total sense. So the first step in the process is to reconstruct what happened, and I imagine that this might be the most difficult depending on the circumstances, especially in the high performance environment you were in previously. Let’s talk about that first and then move on to the second step, so can you walk us through how that reconstruction should occur?
Let’s take one more step back if we may Chas, and let’s talk about the necessity of a fact- or evidence-based approach to accountability. What I’ve found in my experience in any team setting that I’ve been on, and we’ll look maybe outside of the Air Force first: A lot of times, we as leaders have a tendency to trust our gut. We’ve been conditioned to do so because that’s expected of us. We make decisions based upon limited information, and most of the time we’re right. Colin Powell talks about, he needed only about 30% of the information to make a good decision. He said anything more than 80% was almost too much.
That said, when we’re practicing accountability, there’s no need for us to trust our gut, and in fact, the danger of doing so says if our perspective isn’t complete—if we don’t have enough of the facts—we may go down a path that ends up harming members of our team. And because we’re the leader, the team members that we’re working with, they may say “Yes, boss,” you know, they may say “You’re right.” But on the inside, they’re going, “Are you kidding me? Didn’t you see that I did this, and that so and so did this other thing?” You missed it completely, but they may not share that.
And so the fact- or evidence-based lead-in to this accountability approach is designed to protect the leader from doing something that he or she may regret later on, and it’s also designed to allow everybody to have a say in the capture of the facts. And so it’s a collaborative effort.
It’s one of those where we sit down, we block out enough time in a room that’s got a whiteboard, or some other way to capture the relevant data. Somebody leads, harnesses, shepherds us through this process, but their job is primarily to elicit inputs. And so if you and I are sitting together debriefing something, I’m not just going to say, “Alright, here’s what went down, and how come, how did you allow this to happen?” It’s going to be a, “Here’s how I remember things kicking off, Chas—what is your perspective? What am I missing? What have I already gotten wrong?”
And so it’s a participatory exercise to capture our combined perspective of the facts of what it was that took place. And only once we’ve armed ourselves and equipped ourselves with the relevant facts, can we then go further and practice accountability well. And one rule of thumb that I would offer—if you’re convening to conduct a debrief on the heels of this podcast, and let’s say you’ve only got 20 minutes to do so, you’re going to want to spend up to half of that time just on the reconstruction. Just on the fact gathering. That’s how important it is. It’s going to feel awkward and uncomfortable the first time that you do it. You’re going to assume everybody knows what happened. Trust me on the validity of the approach, and following that rigor always.
And let’s just say that, it turns out, everybody had the same shared perspective of the facts. Validating that says, “I care that we’re all on the same page going into this approach here,” and even that lends credibility to the whole thing. You can’t go wrong by taking the time to gather the facts collaboratively.
It sounds like that fact gathering is the most important foundational element of the whole process.
It is, and we equip ourselves in the fighter world—we’ve got tapes that record everything in the cockpit, and we’ll come back and we’ll review those tapes before we convene for a debrief. I think in the business world, we do similar things—we might have a meeting, there’s a scribe, the scribe’s taking notes, we’re going to use those notes to help us with the reconstruction. It could be that at the end of the day, we gather our thoughts together, and we have a journal of what it was that took place during the day.
Whatever the techniques are to capture the relevant facts data that we’re going to use in our debrief, let’s harness that to help us to have an expeditious debrief. But let’s prepare for the debrief by putting our thoughts down on a piece of paper so that when we come in, we’re already armed with at least our individual perspectives of what took place. I’ve had CEOs tell me that just preparing for the debrief yielded tremendous insights that were tremendously useful in helping the team to move forward in a positive and effective way.
Yeah, I think, based on what you’re saying, it also would appear that making sure that before you actually start the process, understanding clearly what the mission and the outcomes are that you’re looking for, is a further prerequisite. Right? You know, and I believe you talked about that in the book. It’s the clarity of, what is it that we’re trying to do. If you don’t have absolute clarity on that, that debriefing doesn’t yield the results that may be helpful to the organization, or is unlikely to yield the results.
Amen. It’s all about what was the mission, and what were the objectives. If we don’t have clarity on that, we don’t have a solid entry point into the practice of accountability. We run the danger then, of having people with different expectations of what an acceptable outcome was. And so therefore, we’re holding each other accountable for different things, which can create conflict and cause us to be frustrated in the team accountability setting. So you’re 100% correct. The entry point is always, “What was the mission? How did we define success—or what were our objectives? And that frames the umbrella under which the debrief is conducted, which then sets conditions for proper accountability.
So let’s imagine for the purpose of this discussion—we’ve clearly articulated the mission, and the objectives that we’re trying to achieve. We’ve gathered the data after the mission, after the project is done, and then we walk into or we step into that reconstruction. Alright, something either went, okay, poorly, or really well. Let’s talk about how we talk about that as a group and as a team.
In that reconstruction Chas, there is no emotion. There is no judgment, there is no evaluation. It’s simply the gathering of facts. And what’ll happen is that early on, as we embrace this approach, folks are going to violate those principles. As we collect something, if something didn’t go well, somebody on the team’s gonna say, “Hey, why did you do that? Didn’t you realize? Da da da da da da.” And it’s the team lead’s responsibility to say, “Hang on, we’re not there yet. Hang on, this is just the emotion-free capturing of facts.” And if the leader can come into the debrief with a positive, affirming tone—if the leader can come in and say, “Look, we understand where you want to go with this, we’re going to get there. It’s all okay, let’s just stick to the process right now,” it’s going to help everybody on the team to acclimatize, I suppose, and to follow the rigor appropriately.
And so if you do that, well, then it becomes easier—at least my understanding is it becomes easier—to agree on what the fundamental question is that you’re trying to answer.
That’s exactly right. Step number two of our Raptor process is agreement on what our focus is going to be. And let’s just say that in a business context, we’re debriefing a process that may have lasted six plus months. There’s a lot that we could uncover here, there’s a lot of things that we could talk about. What we don’t want to do is talk about everything that we could, because the debrief is never going to end. Nobody’s going to want to come back to a second one, and the whole process will kind of fall on its face.
So let’s just say that the objective was to sell 15 widgets in those six months. We ask ourselves as our most basic focus, “Why did we? Assuming that we achieved mission success, why did we? In the high performance world, we do not take success for granted. We recognize that we may have won, but not because of us. And so we treat our successes with the same degree of rigor as we do our failures. And so we still want to ask why. If it’s because of us, if we won, because we did everything the right way, well, then we’re going to set ourselves up to celebrate that fact, to reinforce it, and hopefully to scale it. If not, we’re going to figure out how to avoid winning by luck the next time around to ensure that, you know, we’re intentional about winning according to our processes.
And then the obvious easy situation is if we didn’t win, why not? So it’s always going to be our fundamental question, as we put it is, always going to start with a why and then with a question mark, and that’s going to frame the conversation to only the things that matter the most. If you have the time, the resources, the inclination, and the need to expand the scope of this conversation beyond that core why, that’s okay—that’s perfectly fine. But at a minimum, we have to knock out the mission objective as our primary responsibility in this debrief process.
And then as part of that, Cujo, once you’ve understood that fundamental question, you need to develop your focus points, right, what are you going to focus on as part of the part of the debrief? You know, is there a rule of thumb to how many many things you should be focusing on, or how are you prioritizing those focus points? How should we think about that?
No rule of thumb in terms of numbers, Chas. The rule of thumb that I use is, we’re trying to teach and apply “empathetic root cause analysis.” And we throw in “empathetic” to acknowledge the fact that most of our team—and by the way, another entry point to this accountability discussion is my fundamental assumption in writing Debrief to Win is that we’re working with team members who are bringing their A-Game every day. They’re trying hard, they’re looking to achieve success. They’re not coming in saying, “I want to hijack this company, I want to destroy our fundamentals, I want the team to fail.” We know how to deal with criminals. We know how to deal with people that don’t belong on the team. And so today’s conversation doesn’t deal with them.
So if the essence is that our team members are bringing their best and they’re trying hard, the empathetic root cause analysis says there’s a reason why you made the decisions that you did, and we in the debrief setting want to unpack that. The definition of a debrief, Chas: it’s the constructive evaluation of decision quality in relationship to our objectives. Decision quality—not outcome quality—because we recognize in a complex world that decision quality doesn’t equal outcome quality.
And so with that as the reference point, we go back in, and we take a look at in steps three and four of the Raptor Debrief, “What was the plan? What was our concept of operations, as we stepped out the door today, or whenever it wa,s to achieve mission success? And then how does our capture of the facts or the truth compare to what it was that we thought we were going to do?” And that gives us the basis for the questions we’re going to ask, the focus points that we’re going to spend some time analyzing.
If there are deviations, if there are things that don’t look the way that we expected them to, those might be potential answers to our why question. And so we’re going to explore those. And we’re going to do it not in an accusatory way, but in a way that says, “I care to understand more about why you chose to do the things that you did.”
And that’s then going to lead us down the path of people sharing the stories that inform the decisions that they made to justify that you know, they did try hard, and maybe they made the right decision, they just didn’t know how to execute it. That’s an easy fix. Or maybe they made the wrong decision, because they’ve never been in the situation before. This is an easy fix. Most of the challenges that we face are easy fixes, but we’ve got to equip ourselves to understand, why did our team members or fellow teammates do the things that they did?
Yeah. And you have to create the conditions where they can articulate those things as part of the solution, not as the cause of the problem, or the success even, right?
That’s exactly right. And what we champion here is setting conditions for success by building psychological safety in all that we do: creating an environment where it’s okay to be vulnerable to admit to weaknesses, to mistakes, to whatever it might be, in a team setting. And if we can create psychological safety now, now the steps of the Raptor Debrief can fully come alive, because people can speak without fear, they can talk about areas where they may have failed, with the desired outcome being, to learn from the whole experience so that tomorrow goes better than today did.
So the outcomes that were sort of expected are one issue, right? That’s relatively straightforward. The two extremes are probably the harder ones to deal with—the poor outcomes versus the really good outcomes. Is there a difference in terms of how you deal with those in the extremes?
Not really, and in fact, what I learned early on in my evolution as a leader in the flying domain—so you know, you spend probably a year to a year and a half as a wingman, as somebody who’s supporting the rest of the members of the team, you know, lowest level of responsibility on the team, very basic things that you need to do, and then all of a sudden, you fleet up your ramp up and you’re making the call on behalf of the team. That’s a tough transition.
I flew a mission early on in my evolution that went horribly. I mean, it really—the bad guys felt bad for me. That’s the kind of a mission it was. And when we came in, and I was leading this debrief of three of my teammates and myself, I spent several hours just knocking each of us and talking about how horrible we were and how miserable we had executed. And oh, it was just—the whole experience was a rough one. And then I turned over the reins to my instructor. And he said something to the effect of “Cujo, it’s gonna take me years of counseling to recover from today’s debrief. But I want you to know this: Because do you realize we were two decisions away from victory today?” Now, I had just finished speaking emotionally and passionately for three hours. In one minute, he reframed everything in a way that inspired me to want to come back and try again tomorrow. He said, “We were two decisions away from victory,” and he pinpointed them. He went back to the facts. And he said “Right here, Cujo, if you had made this decision at this time, you would have been fine, and if I had made this decision over here, at this time, we would have been fine, and collectively, our foreship would have been in great shape.”
That’s how simple he made it. He said “Cujo, do you have any questions? Is there anything that’s confusing to you about this?” I said, “Actually, no.” He said, “Are you ready to come back tomorrow and win this thing?” I said, “You bet, boss, let’s go do it.” And in ten minutes of his debrief, the one extreme as you put it Chas, where we did not achieve mission success, looked totally differently.
Now. Let’s take and cross apply that into the family team domain, and think about our relationships with our kids. It’s so easy to come in here and to find the source of the problem, and to identify the failure and the fix, and talk about “How could you have,” and “What led you to…” and you know, “You you you,” and “Bad bad bad.” Wouldn’t it be so much neater to be able to come back and say “Son, Daughter, do you realize you were one decision away from having a tremendous success today at school, in your private life,” whatever it might be. “Any questions about how to make that decision better next time? No? Well, then I love you and go forth and conquer.”
It reshapes the way that we talk about one of those extremes. I’m not worried about the extreme where things went well, because if we can come back in, and identify the root cause of why and celebrate that, that always feels good. In either case, coming out of a debrief done well, we ought to feel pretty darn good about our ability to bounce back and win tomorrow.
Yeah, learning from your errors is the most important part of continuous improvement in my view, and creating a structure, to enable your team or your family, or someone else you care about to do that, seems to be the keys of the kingdom.
Absolutely. And in today’s world, where we are continuing to grapple with the implications of a pandemic, societal disruptions, you name it—I would argue that the faster we can learn, the faster we can apply quality learning into how it is that we march forward to tomorrow, the more confidently we embrace the disruptions that are out there, and the more poised we are in handling it, and the better equipped we are as leaders to lead through it. And the better our teams respond to it. It’s it’s just a net positive. All we have to do is figure out how to embrace these tenets, and apply them wherever it is that we work.
I have to say, You’ve done a really good job of articulating the importance of it, and creating the structure that you would need to implement this, whether it’s, as you mentioned, in a family situation, or in a business situation. I’ve been practicing, you know, in my field for a long time, and I’ve learned over that time that, you know, we’re gonna have successes, and those are great, and there’s things you can learn to make the next success even more successful. But how you’re going to really take a step forward is to acknowledge that you’re going to make errors, and then developing a process to deal with those errors and improve from them in the future.
And I just wish I had learned how to do that in this methodology, forty years ago. It would have made things, I think, a lot easier. So better late than never, Cujo.
But I really appreciate you spending time with me today, and sharing this methodology and process. And I would encourage the listeners to take advantage of the fact that you can download the chapter from Kujo’s book on this subject on our website in the materials for the podcast. In addition, we’ve included all the information that you would need to get in touch with Cujo should you desire to do so.
I can say from my perspective, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and all the conversations we’ve had, and really appreciate your willingness to share your your ideas with the listeners.
Chas, I would echo everything that you just said right back to you. And I’ve especially appreciated building a friendship with you, ever since we first met at one of my presentations. I’m passionate about what it is that I wrote about, only because I’ve benefited so tremendously from it. And I realize that we’ve got these small pockets of goodness where folks understand how to do this, and so the vision here with our little company is to spread that wealth—to help build teams that understand resilience, positivity, forward looking and how to build cohesiveness and trust to do better tomorrow. Why wouldn’t we? Why wouldn’t we harness this for good—to help the economic engine, the backbone of our economy to stay strong, so that we, as a nation, can remain strong. I appreciate the opportunity to share this message with your listeners today, Chas, and I appreciate the ability to continue to work with you to bring Debrief to Win out into the world. Great work, and thank you so much for your questions today.
You’re very welcome, and I hope we have the opportunity to continue our conversation at some future point in time. Thanks so much.
Absolutely. My pleasure. Thank you, Chas.
Thanks for joining Robert “Cujo” Teschner and myself today, on this episode of The Wealth Cast. I hope you found it helpful. We’ve provided additional information, including as I mentioned, one of the chapters from Cujo’s book, Debrief to Win, that has to do with the Raptor Debrief process. In addition, we provided all of Cujo’s contact information in the show notes for this episode. Thanks so much again for joining us, and we’ll look forward to connecting on the next episode.
- Debrief to Win: How America’s Top Guns Practice Accountable Leadership…and How You Can, Too! by Robert Teschner
- Chapter 6 excerpt from Debrief to Win
Robert “Cujo” Teschner is a retired multiple award-winning United States Air Force fighter pilot and is now the CEO and chief consultant at VMax Group, which he founded in 2016. In the Air Force, Robert served as the 125th F-15C Instructor at the Air Force Weapons School – the Air Force “TOP GUN” Program, as well as commanding the 7th Fighter Squadron “Screamin’ Demons,” one of America’s only front-line operational F-22 squadrons. Attaining the rank of full-Colonel, he spent his entire career leading high-performance teams to success, and even flew combat missions over the skies of Iraq.
Robert has bridged the divide between military performance and the business world through a focus on teamwork done well. The core of that principle is accountability – taking ownership of decisions and actions.
Robert is the author of Debrief to Win: How America’s Top Guns Practice Accountable Leadership…and How You Can, Too! He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science at the Air Force Academy in 1995, attaining the honor of Distinguished Military Graduate. Robert is also a Distinguished Graduate of the National War College at Fort McNair.
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