Better Retreats

Nov 13, 1995

This is the time of year that many A/E/P and environmental consulting firms hold an annual management retreat. The larger a firm is, the more likely it is to have a retreat. Typically at these retreats, the year is reviewed and new goals are set for the coming year. It’s also not unusual for the firm to attempt to develop or update its strategic plan. It is common for just the board of directors or the senior management group to attend these meetings, but I have been at retreats with as many as 70 people. You would think that with all these expensive folks’ time being spent, the result of the retreat would be something that produces tangible benefits for the firm. But it doesn’t always work that way. I have moderated dozens of these affairs throughout the country, for firms large and small. Here are my thoughts on how to have a better retreat the next time you hold one: Poll your employees prior to the retreat. I find that this is always beneficial. The idea is to solicit your employees’ opinions on what’s good and bad about the company, what opportunities it offers and what threatens it, and simply what specific issues they think ought to be addressed by management at the meeting. This process is particularly effective if it is supplemented by personal interviews of a wide range of staff. Communicate the summary results of the survey to all employees and repeat the process every year thereafter. I would not, however, ask them what the mission for the firm should be. If top management can’t answer the question of why the firm is in business, how in the world can the employees? Develop an agenda and distribute it in advance to everyone attending the meeting. This is so critical. I like to develop a “draft agenda” and send that out with a request for comments to be returned by a specific date. That way, you stand a fighting chance of accommodating all the various internal factions who will want to make sure time is allocated for their particular concern. But make sure not to set the whole agenda around boring presentations of last year’s financials, or a unit-by-unit review of the entire firm. It can turn the whole meeting into a tiring affair. Select the list of attendees carefully. In smaller firms, this is typically the owners. In mid-sized firms, it may be restricted to just the board of directors. In larger firms, there may be a board group and a senior management group. Regardless of the size of the group that will attend, my advice is to be sure that the agenda does not require a group any larger than 8 to 10 folks to sit down and make decisions jointly. That doesn’t mean more than that can’t attend the retreat. Also, be sure to avoid excluding certain key management folks (i.e., the marketing, director, human resources, director, or finance/accounting or administrative heads). And if there is some reason you can’t bring them along (i.e., critical “stockholder-only” issues need to be confronted), be sure to talk with these folks beforehand about why they are being left out. Get away from the office. Get out of there! Holding these meetings in the office is a formula that virtually ensures continuous interruptions and emergencies. Go to a nice resort or conference center somewhere— a spot that is reasonably convenient for all who attend. Make sure everyone spends the night(s) so they have plenty of time to socialize with the other members of the group. And be careful about bringing spouses. While it can be nice to get them involved with the company, there’s a potential downside. That is if at the end of the day, everyone who was at the meeting feels guilty for not being with his or her mate, and as a result, goes into isolation at night. Provide ample recreational activities. No one wants to go to a beautiful resort area and then sit in a closed meeting room all day (at least I don’t). You need some recreational activities to break up the day a bit. Do things that people can do as a group. Golf is a common activity, but not everyone plays, so it’s best to play a “scramble” that allows novices to get out and contribute to the team. And don’t limit the activities to just golf. Skeet/trap shooting, basketball, softball, hiking, river rafting, jet skis, group boat trips— I have seen firms use all of these in an effort to get a management group to bond together. Use break-out groups for large meetings. I have really changed my thinking about the benefits of break-out groups. One formula that works well is for the break-out groups to handle a particular problem area or issue of concern to the firm. Have each group develop a certain number of strategies for how the firm should deal with the issue. These strategies should include quantitative measures that will measure how the firm is doing with the issue, goals, and specific action items to be accomplished in the coming year. Then let each group present its work to everyone else at the retreat, with specific instructions to sell everybody on the benefits of their thinking. It’s great! Keep accurate notes on a computer. Note-keeping is so critical, but almost never done well! Record the sessions if you like, but I prefer to have somebody there who knows how to type. I want to print out meeting notes for everyone each day and receive feedback to them. And I want to be absolutely sure that there is no unnecessary delay in getting these notes ready for publication to the rest of the employees the day the group gets back to the office. Communicate with your employees the day you get back. People in the firm will be nervous. No one likes change. Some will be fearful. They all want to know what you did for the past two or three or four days (besides golf). Be ready to communicate with the whole firm on your first day back. If you like, before you leave for the retreat, tell your employees to be to work at 7:30 a.m. the day you get back so you can let them know what took place. And hopefully, making that promise will put a little heat under you to get something tangible accomplished at the meeting! Don’t try to do too much. While you do need to get something done, you can’t solve all of the firm’s problems in a single two-, three-, or four-day meeting. Keep the focus narrow so you make some real headway in a few areas. And avoid the temptation to stack up all the “to-do” items that come out of the retreat in the first 30 days after the meeting. I see ambitious firms doing this all of the time! Annual management retreats can do a lot for any A/E/P or environmental firm that wants to be more successful, have better relationships among its managers, and plan for the future— if they’re handled properly. Originally published 11/13/1995

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