In theory, executive retreats are a wonderful idea. Your organization’s top leadership goes off to a secluded, perhaps posh, location to concentrate on the Big Picture needs of the business without distraction. The reality is that there are many ways a retreat can go wrong, scuttling all your good intentions and leaving you with a big dent in your budget. For a positive outcome, you need to plan and execute the retreat carefully. The keys to success include developing an agenda that all participants can sink their teeth into, managing the logistics carefully, and planning for and conducting appropriate follow-up.
All good agendas begin at the end. What do you want to have achieved at the close of the retreat? Everything on your agenda should lead directly to that goal.
For instance, if you want to create better working relationships among executives, the agenda should focus on team activities that can help participants better understand each other. Need to increase sales? The agenda should center on analyzing your customers and products, brainstorming on how to tap new markets and so forth.
Carefully consider the type of background information and material your participants will need beforehand to discuss agenda items. Prework, in the form of reading materials and surveys, is a good way to get people up to speed. Just be sure to give them enough time to absorb the material — and don’t make the reading list too onerous.
Avoid the temptation to pack every minute of the agenda with official business. Everyone will be more productive if you include adequate breaks and downtime. After all, sometimes the informal interactions among executives are as fruitful as the “official” retreat sessions.
Offsite retreats are almost always more productive than those held in the office. Removing participants from the daily distractions of their jobs helps them to think differently, and focus on the forest and not just the trees in front of them.
Strive to find a location that is as comfortable as your budget will allow. Bad food and an uncomfortable meeting room will hinder productivity. Whether you end up at a local restaurant, a wilderness retreat center or a hotel conference room, ban all cell phones, pagers, BlackBerries and similar devices during working sessions.
Also, be considerate when choosing your retreat dates. Don’t force your participants to give up an entire weekend or ask them to leave the office during their busiest season.
To make sure important goals and action plans approved during the retreat become a reality, wrap up the session by recapping all the decisions and commitments you decided to pursue. Be rigorous about assigning responsibilities, next steps and deadlines.
And make postretreat communication a high priority. Think about what “audiences” will be affected by decisions made at the retreat. For example, if attendees decided it was time to reconfigure the company’s approach to customer service, determine what and how to communicate with front-line customer service employees to get them on board. If you decide to revamp your fee structure, you’ll need to reach out to current and prospective clients with the news.
Retreat participants are an important audience, too. The retreat facilitator should follow up quickly with a recap of the outcomes and thank participants for their time and input. As time goes on, provide regular updates on the progress being made toward any new goals or initiatives to keep both the participants and your employees motivated.
Executive retreats don’t have to be fancy to be effective. They just need to be planned and executed thoughtfully and thoroughly. Done well, you’ll see the real value of the retreat comes after everybody packs up and goes back to the work-a-day world.
Councilor, Buchanan & Mitchell (CBM) is a professional services firm delivering tax, accounting and business advisory expertise throughout the Mid-Atlantic region from offices in Bethesda, MD and Washington, DC.
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