Learning executives play a critical role in creating the conditions for a successful retreat. They help executives get clear on what they are trying to achieve and can assist in developing the process for achieving those objectives. Here are six principles that can help the sponsor of the retreat and the learning executive.
Define the Purpose
The most essential ingredient for a successful retreat is a clear purpose. Ask yourself, “What do I really want to gain from the retreat? What do I expect to be different after the retreat?” This may sound simplistic. In fact, many leaders try to shortchange this step with vague statements about getting together to talk. This temptation is deadly. Without a clear purpose in mind, the retreat will yield disappointing results.
A starting point for gaining clarity is to gather data. Depending on the nature of the retreat, you may want to obtain customer surveys, financial reports, industry trends, news from recent events or employee surveys. The team can help gather this information.
The hard data is not the only source that drives your purpose. Sometimes the reason to meet is based more on a gut feeling that you know something needs to change. In this case, consider the “From-To” formula. You simply ask yourself what you want to move away from and move toward. For example, “I want to move away from a crisis-based approach to handling customer concerns to a proactive approach.”
Additional questions that create focus include: “What has happened that makes now the time to hold the retreat?” or “What will happen if we do nothing?” The next question is my personal favorite, “What do I not want to happen at the retreat or after the retreat?” When answering this question, leaders often come back to what they really want most from the retreat.
One reason not to do a retreat is to “fix” an individual. This approach can waste the time of team members. If an individual has a problem, address it directly by meeting one-on-one with the person to mutually solve the issue. Ask yourself before planning any retreat if it is necessary for the group to assemble to solve the problem. It may only be necessary for a few people to take part in the retreat. If you aren’t sure who should be involved, share the purpose of the retreat with one or two of your close associates and get their opinion.
Also, be careful not to use a retreat to give the impression that you are gathering input from the group when the decision is already made. No one likes being manipulated. You may already have a highly workable idea that the group needs time to think about. If so, giving them time to work through the idea can be more beneficial than you dictating what will happen. However, you still need be open to feedback. No matter how great your idea, a new perspective can usually provide added value.
10 Questions to Help You Prepare for a Retreat
- What are you trying to achieve?
- What do you really want to happen?
- If you could have your wish, what would people be doing differently after the retreat?
- What obstacles are there to getting what you really want?
- What has happened that makes you want to have a retreat?
- Why is now a good time to hold a retreat? If not now, when?
- Who should be involved in the planning?
- Is there any “history” among team members that needs to be considered?
- What will happen if we don’t take time to retreat?
- What do you not want to happen?
With clarity of purpose in place, the sponsor of the retreat needs to prepare and get clear on the role he will play. If you are the sponsor, ask yourself, “Am I going to be the meeting leader of the retreat or a participant?” The tricky answer to this is that you have both roles. By virtue of the fact that you are the leader, even when you aren’t physically leading the discussion, everyone knows that potentially you can turn any conversation around. In fact, some people may tend to wait to give an opinion until they see where you stand. To handle this dilemma, you need to mentally prepare to fully listen to ideas.
A top killer of strategic retreats is leaders who talk too much. If the leader has the habit of grandstanding or putting down ideas, the retreat is likely to be a waste of time. For critical meetings, a skilled facilitator should be used to assist in achieving the goals of the retreat. The facilitator can also act as an executive coach in providing skills and reminders to help the leader achieve her objectives.
The first skill for the leader to learn is to wait three to five seconds after someone has finished talking before making a comment. This is not withdrawing emotionally, becoming stoic and stone-faced. Instead, it is a way to avoid judgments that will shut down all further conversation. If the first two or three people who speak at the retreat get told by word or tone of voice that their ideas are stupid, don’t expect much for the rest of the retreat.
A few phrases to help the process include “What else?” or “I’d like to learn more about your idea.” This doesn’t mean giving in to any idea or never challenging a point of view. Instead, you simply take the time to get enough information to fully understand the other person. You can still disagree. Just make sure you fully understand what you are disagreeing with.
Prepare Your Team
Involving the team in preparation can create increased interest and commitment. Typically, the leader has already spent weeks thinking about the importance of the retreat. Because of this forethought, the leader is ready to take action. However, the team has not made the same emotional investment.
If the team’s only real participation in the retreat preparation was an invitation or short discussion at a staff meeting, they will arrive expecting to be served. There can even be cynicism about having a retreat. The leader needs to determine what information or experiences the team needs to have prior to the retreat so they will be ready to take action when they arrive.
One way to get buy-in is through sincere involvement. This can include a request for suggestions for the agenda, gathering and contributing information and arranging for customers or speakers to attend. In many settings, I recommend gathering input from the group by way of focus groups, one-on-one interviews or surveys. This data is then compiled and used to define the final agenda.
If it isn’t possible to gather the data as described above, e-mail the team three questions related to the agenda of the retreat. Ask them to be ready at the retreat to share their answers. If possible, consider compiling the information before the meeting. By giving pre-work, the team will be more ready for critical conversations.
Another form of preparation is a reading assignment. I know of one leader who chooses a different book each year and requires everyone to read it prior to the retreat. Team members must prepare thoughts about how to apply the book to the next year’s business challenges. As part of the retreat, the group then determines action items relative to the book.
Define the Process
The process begins with agreement on the ground rules. Ground rules establish how the group will work together. They set guidelines about how everyone will be heard, how disagreements will be handled and how decisions will be made.
To keep the group energized and on task, strategies should be developed to vary participation. Consider providing time for large and small group interactions as well as one-on-one discussions. Provide time for people to think and write individually about a topic or decision before starting discussions. This process quiets the aggressive talkers and allows others a way to prepare more thorough responses. Using a variety of interaction techniques provides opportunities for all types of communication styles.
Keep discussions moving by creating a “parking lot” for issues that are important but outside the scope of the meeting. These can be posted on a flipchart and discussed at a staff meeting or future retreat. If you have chosen to use a facilitator, he can help manage the time and the progress of the group. Otherwise, assign someone to keep time.
Before moving from one topic to the next, summarize what has been decided and test for agreement. For example, “So, we’ve decided to increase our marketing investment for the next quarter by $150,000. To what degree, do we each agree with the decision? Please, share any concerns you still have?” These transitions ensure that there’s commitment and a plan to move forward.
The process should also include time for breaks. Take advantage of the location by having a time for a walk. Breaks not only rejuvenate the mind, but they also allow the group to think more deeply about strategic topics. And last, remember to have a variety of refreshments to cater to various dietary needs.
Use a Facilitator
For important meetings, a skilled facilitator is a must. A facilitator encourages participation, keeps communication fair and on track and makes sure that the decisions are agreed upon. Also, the facilitator will push back and test for the reality of decisions. Typically, the facilitator will also help design the retreat.
A facilitator can come from inside or outside the company. Your three basic options are a team member, an internal consultant or an external consultant. Team members have the benefit of familiarity with company issues, politics and personalities. However, because of their role in the team, they also have personal biases that can sometimes cause them to get “hooked” into issues. It can be harder for an insider to challenge the group or the leader because they are at risk and have to live with the organization after the retreat.
Internal consultants who are outside your span of authority can reduce some of the problems associated with using a team member. Although some company biases can exist, internal consultants bring a blend of organizational familiarity and objectivity. Check with your internal organizational consulting group, training department or human resource department to determine if these services are available within your organization.
When dealing with major issues, it is worth considering using an external facilitator. The insights, processes and candid feedback of an external facilitator can yield significant results that outweigh the fees. When possible, consider the combination of an internal and external facilitator. This provides the advantage of insider information and outsider impartiality.
When selecting a facilitator, be aware that just because someone is a consultant in a particular field does not automatically mean she can develop the trust and the interactions needed to make a retreat effective. Seek out someone who understands group dynamics and can provide examples of how he has dealt with challenging situations.
Follow Up on Decisions
Follow-up should be planned into the overall design of the retreat. Strategic planning should be thought of as a series of retreats or meetings, rather than an event. Before the retreat is over, set a date for team members to report on their actions. This type of commitment increases the likelihood of things getting done.
Once you’re back at the office, remember: “That which you hold people accountable to do gets done.” Everything else is a list of nice things. Have people report on their progress in staff meetings and one-on-one interactions. By connecting business results to what happened at the retreat, the team becomes more motivated because they see that their efforts paid off.
In summary, the learning executive helps the sponsor of the retreat think through these steps. The most critical role the learning executive can play happens before the retreat. The learning executive should invest the time to focus the sponsor on what has to be achieved at the retreat and beyond. Don’t underestimate the critical role of preparation. From there, a plan must be created to involve people. Take the time to do it right. Increase team member commitment to the outcome of the retreat by involving them in the preparation process. For key meetings, enlist the expertise of a skilled facilitator. And remember, in order to accelerate progress after the retreat, follow up in staff meetings and in one-on-one conversations. An old adage about life applies to retreats, “You get out of a retreat what you put into it.”
Dave A. Jennings, Ph.D., is a speaker, consultant and author specializing in leadership, communications and change resilience. He helps organizations build more effective teams and increase bottom-line results. Dave has worked with leaders around the world with such clients as Mobil, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. Contact him at www.business-acumen.com.