Setting the stage for a business retreat was previously published in The Bottom Line, Government / Compliance, March 2015.
It’s the rare accounting firm that’s had a great experience with a retreat. But, for those few and far between firms, the event holds a sacrosanct position on the calendar. Partners look forward to it long in advance, knowing full well the additional commitment and responsibility they’re assuming.
The vast majority of accounting firms do not share this experience. While some may have dabbled with the concept – often landing somewhere between a work and play event – most never made it out the gate.
Given that some firms have made such an unwavering commitment to their seemingly productive retreats, the question is what’s the draw?
Put it this way: what would be the value of partners returning to the office energized, connected and just about itching to share and build their plans? Incalculable? Perhaps. Significant? For sure.
Why doesn’t every retreat end this way? Low expectations can be a self fulfilling prophecy in this case. If everyone is counting on partners to generate a few good ideas, take a little break from the office and share a few laughs, then that’s just what will happen. Make no mistake about it, however. If that is what happens, the ball was dropped. And chances are good that whatever it is that went wrong, it happened before the session got started. Successful retreats begin with pre-retreat planning. Here’s how.
Book pre-retreat meetings. Setting the stage for a successful retreat doesn’t happen on location. It happens in planning sessions that take place long before the event, months before in fact. This is where retreat objectives are discussed, prioritized and, depending on what those objectives are, delved into by way of interviews, research and analysis. So, instead of blank expressions and the same old questions that don’t go anywhere at partner meetings, everyone is presented with depth and clarity on the firm’s key issues and opportunities, enabling them to not only voice opinions but ultimately vote on direction.
Work with a consultant. While facilitation is key to keeping a session on track, it’s the pre-retreat involvement of a consultant that positions the event for success. Working with a consultant familiar with the process, the sector and, possibly even, the firm can help to ensure that the retreat stays focused on the stated goals, right from the planning stage. It can also help to ensure that goals stay high level, leaving aside micro issues that simply don’t require the attention of the firm’s highest earners.
Invite others into the process. The logistics of inviting others into the process grows in complexity the larger the firm. For small firms it may very well be worthwhile to invite everyone to the retreat, but at some point that becomes infeasible. That doesn’t mean that the retreat should happen in isolation of the rest of the firm – or the marketplace for that matter. Inviting input from others before the retreat makes for a more inclusive, thoughtful and effective event.
So, let’s say the firm does everything right from the pre-retreat meeting through to the engagement of a consultant and the involvement of others. Can the retreat still go off the rails in session? If so, what can be done to prevent that?
Objective facilitation at the retreat can help to ensure that everyone gets a turn to speak, the reserved and outspoken alike. It can also head off group think (whereby group discussions preempt the individual from disclosing and hence committing to their individual thoughts) or cliques, either of which would reduce the value of decisions made at the event.
Ground rules, if strictly enforced, set the stage for retreat meetings to be taken seriously. There is no one size fits all set of ground rules, however. They need to suit not only the goals for the event but the culture of the firm. Examples include – one person speaking at a time, discussions concluding on a win-win note rather than compromise and people returning on time from breaks.
A comprehensive agenda that is referred to throughout the session – and on which partners have had the opportunity to comment in advance – helps to ascertain whether or not discussions are moving the events’ objectives forward. And for those off topic points that are bound to come up, it’s helpful to have a ‘parking lot’ to keep them off the table for the purpose of the retreat but not forgotten in terms of the meeting’s minutes.
AN ONGOING PROCESS
Even the most energized and well intentioned team can return to the office, get sucked back into the vortex of day-to-day operations and never actually implement the golden action plan. So, the final step to securing a successful retreat is to develop a process that ensures continuity and commitment.
Invite others into the process, again. The process began with involving the rest of the firm and now it’s time to reconnect, to thank people for their input and to let them know what is going to be done about challenges and opportunities tabled in the research stage. Why were some items prioritized and others not? What are the next steps in the process? When and how can they expect to hear more about it?
Delegate responsibility. Establish committees to delegate action plans to the right roles and at the right levels. Develop a process for status updates and issues to be raised and discussed early. Share why these plans are important so that even at the micro level, everyone understands how their piece contributes to the big picture.
Plug the process into existing planning meetings. Even if many, if not all, tasks are delegated to others, there needs to be a process to funnel executive summaries back up to the top, in real time. Consider how to most efficiently plug the process into existing planning meetings and, if they don’t exist, use this exercise as the catalyst to organize them.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
It’s time to dispel old ideas about retreats that are neither accurate nor helpful. When the event – pre, post and during – is taken seriously, not only is participating in a retreat real work. It may well be the highest value work of the year. It’s where decisions are made that will affect the firm’s future long and short, priorities are established and identity examined.
A retreat can be especially critical if a firm is ready for growth or change – expansion, business development, performance management, succession planning, retention or training as but a few examples. But even for a firm well into its heyday, a retreat can be critical to its ability to hold fast.
The business environment can be a fast moving target. A retreat provides a discipline and a permanent forum to ensure that confidence in the future is backed by plans in the present. That’s the work that can’t be shuffled, postponed or delegated, at least not without consequence.