Nov 16, 1998

I said something to my 78 year-old father the other day about going someplace or another to conduct a “management retreat.” His response was, “Why not a management charge?” He went on to say that firms do too much “retreating” and instead ought to be “charging” more. And you know what? He’s absolutely right— firms need to spend a lot more time thinking about how they are going to advance. But beyond that is what to do to make one of these “charges” or “advances” a worthwhile use of your time. Here are some of my thoughts: Get the right people at the meeting. If you are going to talk about financial problems, have your highest level financial manager there. Ditto for marketing, human resources, and information technology. Too many firms leave these people at home and only the owners or line managers are invited to participate. And the other person that you may want to consider bringing to this meeting is a capable note-taker. The notes should be taken as the meeting progresses— don’t make a recording and then get a transcription! It takes too long and there’s too much garbage in there. I like to key into a computer and project onto a screen, if possible. That way any errors can be detected on input! Get a good consultant. That means someone who understands our business, is not overly academic (engineers, scientists, and architects hate that!), and who can afford to tell you what you need to hear. Stay away from people who have never worked in our industry or held a position of responsibility in an A/E or environmental firm. They may know the buzzwords but their lack of experience will come back to haunt you somewhere along the way. Get all of your information together beforehand. Whether you want a client study where individual clients are interviewed on what they like or don’t like about your firm’s service or an employee study to determine the greatest obstacles your people face, the important thing is to get these out of the way before the charge meeting. I can’t tell you how many times firms try to short cut this process and end up making major mistakes as a result. They are essentially flying blind! Get the agenda out long before the meeting. You want the participants to have some time to think about it before the meeting. Studies, polls, and consultants can help with agenda topics, but usually the CEO sets the actual agenda. Don’t delegate this! It’s too important. Make sure whatever the management priorities are that they are included in the agenda. Don’t get too micro if you can avoid it— although it is important to get something specific done. I would, at a minimum, have time on the agenda to examine the mission of the firm (why it exists); the vision (what you are trying to become); strategies (philosophies for how you do things); goals (specific, quantitative, measurable); and action items (detailed tasks with dates and names of those responsible). You may also want to have some other topics such as what’s going on in the industry that could impact the firm. Or how about a discussion of what the firm will do if recession strikes? Or what the individual managers want out of their employment experience with the company. There are many more topics that could be on the agenda! Get out of the office. Go to a nicer hotel or meeting space somewhere. Make sure there are windows. Have food and drink there all day (I just got back from a meeting where we kept running out of water!). Make sure everyone is comfortable. Tell them to leave their cellular phones at home. And why not plan a social event or two while there? I have seen firms have special meetings for spouses, or, simply invite the spouses to attend all of the large sessions at the retreat. Get over the idea that you can stay small, maximize profits, and be around for the long haul. If this is your goal, forget building a company— you don’t want a company. You are looking to make a living. Why go through the sham of having a charge meeting if you don’t want to charge? It’s a waste of time. Spend some time talking about and planning for the initiatives that will help grow your business if that’s something you really want to do. Get ready to sell your plan to the company as a whole upon your return. Make sure you schedule how the business planning charge meeting results will be communicated to all employees before going to the meeting. That way, you will be committed. You know that your people will have high expectations for the output of this meeting. Maybe that will encourage you to have something specific, something substantive to say when you return. Get ready to invest. Any charge requires the commitment of resources. You will not do more exciting work or grow or be better service providers if you don’t invest. Accept the fact that as long as you are in business and take your responsibility for the stewardship of the organization seriously, you will have to invest. The pay-off can be immense, but the investments will be significant, too. The truth is that most of us decide how far we are going to go and stop investing in new things when we think we have made it. Manage the relationships of the attendees. If someone gets too venomous, stop him. If someone never speaks up but then undermines decisions later, confront that. If someone keeps revisiting the past, cut her off. If someone can’t get off of the trivia, stop him. So there it is. How are your business planning meetings? Are they more like a charge, or are they really just retreats? Think about it and take action if you aren’t satisfied. Originally published 11/16/98

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