Best Practices: Planning an Executive Team Retreat

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Planning an Executive Team Retreat - Best Practices

Best practices for structuring an effective one-day executive team retreat are using the retreat as a way to "future-proof" the organization, challenge assumptions during the retreat, avoid PowerPoint, keep operational and strategic meetings separate, and include unusual team building models. Below is an overview of these practices.

1. USE THE RETREAT TO "FUTURE PROOF" THE ORGANIZATION

  • According to Robert B. Tucker, an internationally recognized thought leader in the field of innovation and leadership development, leadership retreat should be structured with the objective to anticipate the future and develop methods that will minimize the effect in the future.
  • Robert B. Tucker suggests future-proofing tools such as dot voting and trends list should be used during retreat meetings and for pre-retreat preparations for effective outcomes as it "gets their juices flowing in advance and alerts them to be ready to contribute".
  • Bob Frisch, Managing Partner of the Boston-based Strategic Offsites Group, suggests that effective executive retreats focus on an objective and commit to an outcome to help senior executive teams and boards focus on critical strategic and organizational challenges.
  • Strategic leadership meetings that are focused on short-term, day-to-day operational goals tend to be less effective, instead, leadership retreats are best used to discuss long-term strategic goals and opportunities.
  • This practice is effective because using future-proof strategies while structuring a leadership retreat helps alert the leadership in advance on the emerging trends that are worthy of diving deeper and helps them to connect new dots and discover exciting ways that trends can fuel growth and competitive differentiation.

2. CHALLENGE ASSUMPTIONS

  • Leadership retreats are best used for experimenting with preconceived assumptions, which can be personal, organizational, or industry-specific, and using the future-focused content to come up with out-of-the-box solutions.
  • Robert B. Tucker uses activities such as "playing with the clay" during the offsite leadership meetings to challenge assumptions and bring out creative outcomes.
  • Exploring strategic issues from multiple angles during leadership retreats helps the leadership team to address the long-term benefit through exploration before jumping in to solve strategic issues.
  • Offsite retreats are best for getting straight into discussing, debating, discovering, and making decisions, not for sharing information that is usually a part of regular meetings.
  • This practice is effective as it can result in transformational retreats when the structure/agenda of the leadership retreat involves activities that are based on challenging assumptions. With this practice, executives and managers are invited to reflect on the assumptions they have long held about customers, markets, culture, the industry, among others.

3. AVOID POWERPOINT

  • Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, highlights that during leadership/shareholder meetings he never suggests to use PowerPoint, instead, he recommends a narratively-structured memo with bullet points for discussion.
  • According to Bob Frisch, "Update memos, PowerPoint presentations, business cases, and voluminous research binders are fine for regular meetings—but not the retreat, these waste time."
  • This is an effective practice because brains process good storytelling much better than hard data, therefore, using a narrative memo instead of PowerPoint gives participants the chance to better understand full concepts.

4. KEEP OPERATIONAL AND STRATEGIC MEETINGS SEPERATE

  • Operational meetings are meant for short-term goals whereas leadership/strategic meetings are meant for long-term goals. It is vital to address long-terms goals in executive meetings as focusing on the long-term can fix a problem before it even occurs, or help to better solve short-term issues.
  • The basic rules for leadership meetings dictate that operational and strategic meetings should be conducted separately wherein operational meetings can be done weekly and strategic meetings can be conducted periodically.
  • Informational agendas should be avoided when structuring an offsite executive meeting and instead more interactions and actions should be incorporated.
  • This is an effective practice as scheduling separate meetings for operational and strategic topics helps participants focus on priority issues more effectively.

5. INCLUDE UNUSUAL TEAM BUILDING MODELS

  • When structuring a team retreat it is imperative to include fun team building activities. However, it is best to avoid traditional icebreakers which can sometimes feel forced, do not always work, and can even do more harm than good. Simple activities such as group kayak tour or volleyball on the beach are the best options.
  • It is suggested to plan one or two team-building exercises to encourage team interactions which, apart from the usual options, could be high-ropes course as part of the evening activity.
  • Frisch suggests that it is important to include play during leadership offsite retreats but that work should be separated from play and should either be before or after the retreat, but not during the discussions.
  • This is an effective practice as using usual team building models at times can do more harm than good and can feel forced rather than as an icebreaker. Simple activities can open lines of communication and even foster future collaboration.

FIVE TIPS FOR STRUCTURING AND EFFECTIVE RETREAT

  • Let the whole team participate: When planning for a leadership retreat, the invitation should not be limited to only executives and decision-makers within the company but also be open to other team members to boost their confidence, for clarity, and for efficiency.
  • "Hire a knowledgeable speaker": A quality speaker can help see things from a new perspective and bring new, creative ideas and thoughts to the table that could help solve challenging issues.
  • "Take the retreat offsite": Taking the participants' availability and budget into consideration, it is preferable to book the offsite away from the office location as it helps to boost fresh perspective on old issues.
  • "Have a round-table discussion to gather team feedback": Having a round-table discussion during the retreat can help clear the air and get matters out in the open by participants who have not opened up yet.
  • "The power of fun": Structure the team retreat with activities which are simple and more fun rather than the usual and traditional team building activities which rather than an icebreaker, become more of a compulsion.

EXAMPLE AGENDA #1


EXAMPLE AGENDA #2


OTHER INFORMATION

  • Many high-powered executives are using "digital-technology-free retreats, where they can spend time outdoors, work out, and meditate."
  • A survey conducted by Chief Executive and the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations found that "44% of CEO respondents said their most important communication goal for 2019 is to sell their products and services while 39% say their primary goal is to differentiate their company’s brand from the competition."
  • The most common mistakes leaders make when planning for an off-site retreat include creating a topical agenda, ratifying decisions, inviting everyone, picking a bad day, meeting onsite or at a poor site.

Research Strategy

In order to identify best practices for planning an effective and useful executive team retreat, we initiated our search by looking through research reports and survey findings from Mckinsey, Deloitte, Accenture, A.T. Kearney, CEO Survey, among others. However, through the search, no study or report was found published by any leading consulting/research firms which was related to best practices specifically for one-day retreats for executive teams for public relations firms. Although we came across a CEO survey report which shared the expectation of the leadership team (including those from PR firms) related to media usage and the priorities for 2019, which could be used to help structure the agenda of the retreat, it was not directly related to retreats.

Next, we tried to identify relevant information by searching through news articles (from sources such as HBR, Fortune, SME Strategy, Managing Americans, Thrive Global and so) on insights from thought leaders such as Jeff Bezos(CEO Amazon), Robert B Tucker (an internationally recognized thought leader in the field of innovation and leadership development), and Bob Frisch. Through the search, we were able to triangulate the above listed best practices/strategies/tips for planning an effective, useful executive team retreat and highlight why they are effective. These practices were mentioned in more than one credible source. However, none of the source material found was directly relevant to public relations firms, nor did they specify the type of organization it is applicable to. Hence, it can be assumed that these may be applicable to that industry too but in the absence of any reliable evidence or extrapolation available, we cannot say definitively that these best practices/strategies/tips are useful for PR firms and applicable for one-day executive team retreats.

Last, we tried to look for relevant insights from executive team members of various public relation firms by searching through their interviews, articles, blogs from sources such as Net Impact, Lead Positively, Lucid Meetings, Chief Executive and media sources from news forums which usually cover leadership interviews and statements (such as CNN, Entrepreneur, Medium, Inc. and so on). Most of the information available through this search was related to the recommendations for effectively planning leadership retreats along with two sample agendas. However, none of the examples were specific to public relations firms.
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