Before the retreat
While it may be tempting to cram a lot of topics into the retreat agenda, catch yourself in the act! You’ll get a lot further with a more disciplined approach. Think about it. By the end of the year what would you like to have changed? You won’t get there with an extended partner meeting. What you need instead is one truly significant purpose driving the entire agenda.
- Consider all areas of the practice
- Refer to the firm’s strategic plan (if there is one already in place)
- Gather data on the firm’s history and objectives as well as trends in the sector and changes in the marketplace
- Gather input (by way of interviews, focus groups and surveys) from key stakeholders in the process, including: partners, clients, referrers and staff
Examples of a retreat purpose (this is just a starting point – the actual retreat purpose should be more detailed and specific than any of the items below):
- Celebrate teamwork
- Improve work / life balance
- Improve profit
- Shape the culture
- Adjust to changes in the marketplace
- Modify an area of practice
- Attract a different client profile
- Revisit the firm’s mission
- Improve communications
- Begin succession planning
- Revisit compensation…
The next big question is who to invite? In some cases it may be clear. But more often it’s a grey area. More people can be more inclusive. But less people can be less scattered. If you’re concerned, there are a number of ways to expand the circle after the retreat (with updates and the formation of committees to implement any resulting action plans).
Here are some ideas about how to decide who should participate in the retreat, based on firm size and makeup:
- Smaller firms: outside advisors, the whole office or lawyers and associates
- Mid-sized firms: lawyers or just the partners
- Larger, mid-sized firms: key non-lawyer managers (eg Office Manager, Marketing Manager or Finance Manager), senior partners, retreat committee, partners with a special interest in this year’s objective, rotating commitment among partners or partners segmented into sub-topics
The location for your retreat should support your retreat objectives.
Take the following into consideration:
- Outside the office
- Creative, relaxed environment
- Working setting, not a vacation setting
- Fit with firm culture
- Supports ‘soft’ objectives eg team bonding
- If it’s a flight or a long distance drive away, include 1 or 2 nights stay
The ideal location is a local club / lodge / hotel or a nearby resort with: meeting rooms and possibly recreational activities (on site or nearby).
The challenge with timing for the retreat is twofold – when to book it and how long it should run:
- Non-work days: Smart phones are never really ‘off’. So, it may be easier to get the undivided attention of participants on a weekend or holiday. Alternatively (for some smaller offices or offices with bench strength), you could formally take the day off from client work or close the office.
- Half-day to one day: This would be an appropriate duration for smaller groups, focused agendas and annual events.
- Two days: A longer retreat might be needed for larger groups or firms that are dealing with challenging objectives (loaded down with history and controversy).
Deciding whether or not to engage a facilitator can be a stumbling point. So, let’s examine both sides of the ledger.
Generally speaking a facilitator is recommended. A facilitator brings:
- Objectivity: no agenda with the work, no agenda with the people and fresh eyes on the topic
- Training in facilitation, conflict management and subject matter
- Presence of mind: not playing two roles and the ability to say no
- Professional discipline to stay focused and stick to the schedule
- Can also be a speaker
That said, there are exceptions, some firms have resources in house that may be suitable for this task. In that case:
- Consider someone good at:
- Driving true, consensus (so even the quiet ones voice their thoughts)
- Project management (the retreat is ultimately driving the development of an action plan)
- Staying focused on a topic (so old controversy doesn’t create barriers to progress)
- Leading a meeting (even if the individual reports to someone in the room)
- Not needed as a participant (it can be challenging to play both roles)
- Without a vested interest in the agenda
- Familiar with the retreat purpose
- Able to hand off an action plan
During the retreat
Distribute materials at, or just before, the retreat, in order to allow participants the opportunity to reflect on any data or insights that will be presented or discussed at the event. Examples of what could be included in the retreat package include:
- Schedule of events
- Background materials: expand on main purpose, update on the state of the nation, articles on the subject matter, executive summary (of gaps, issues or opportunities) and consolidated summaries (of data, interviews or surveys and other research)
- Worksheets, markers, easels and other materials for breakout sessions and independent work
- Theme giveaways
Some groups need them. Others don’t. Give some thought to your culture and what types of rules may be appropriate and helpful.
Some examples of ground rules:
- One person speaks at a time
- If it’s off topic, it goes in the parking lot
- Practice active listening
- Be supportive and respectful
- Be open to different perspectives
- There are no bad ideas during brainstorming
- Random or pre-assigned seating and groupings for breakout sessions
- Return on time after breaks
- Ask for what you need
- No phones
The last thing you want is to spend all this time and money on an event only to return to the office and learn that a few people were holding back. As a result, they haven’t really bought in to the decisions and direction arrived at on the retreat. So, that said, give some thought to managing group dynamics to ensure everyone’s full participation throughout the event, for true ownership of the resulting action plan.
Extroverts vs introverts:
- Group think and dominant communicators: use private votes and other strategies to get honest input from each individual
- Restlessness: involvement at the individual level will help to maintain engagement as would movement and breakout sessions
Manage people to arrive at true consensus:
- Conflict: use the parking lot to acknowledge (but not get off track) with sideline ideas, practice active listening, encourage emotional intelligence and take time-outs as needed
- Cliques: use random groupings and assigned seating to avoid having people fall back on their usual groups
Sustain the energy
Avoid the dreaded sugar crash and keep the participants engaged. This is the most expensive meeting of the year. Make it worth your while.
- Breaks: book bio breaks and email breaks
- Exercise: take the time to get the blood going to keep up everyone’s ability to concentrate including – nature walks, stretch breaks and short bursts of cardio activity
- Nutrition: rather than heavy meals that make the afternoon a write off, consider serving healthy meals, snacks and beverages
The action plan
The action plan is the ultimate goal of the retreat ie so everyone is in agreement on next steps. But at this stage it’s meant to be high level. So, how far is far enough?
- One action sheet for each strategy / initiative
- Outline the parameters of the plan
- This is not the time to figure out the details
- Specify: roles, responsibilities, milestones, metrics and reporting frequencies
After the retreat
- Distribute minutes and action plan
- Debrief (people will have had a chance to process and may wish to fine-tune next steps)
- Update the rest of the firm (use this as an opportunity for leadership)
- Assign the action plan (this is an opportunity to bring others into the process, for more inclusiveness and to accelerate the implementation)
- Define process to implement the plan (so it stays on track)
- Address the parking lot (so people don’t feel they were forgotten)
And, last but not least, book the next retreat!