Did your last leadership retreat help you to achieve alignment, make decisions and increase commitment? Or did you lose credibility and generate cynicism or anger? Planning and executing a leadership retreat is a big investment, but wholly necessary. Doing it right is crucial.

Know your desired outcomes for the leadership retreat.

Be as specific as possible. If you’re vague, your leadership retreat won’t yield the kind of results you can get if you have a very clear list of desired outcomes. For example: develop a launch strategy for a new product or service, overhaul the performance evaluation and rewards process, develop a three-year technology plan, etc. What you shouldn’t tackle in a leadership retreat are serious interpersonal issues: don’t try to “fix” a troublesome teammate in that environment. Handle that in a face-to-face meeting.

Gaining buy-in from other company leaders about the desired outcomes is vital. Unilateral decisions to retreat to address an issue of one person’s choosing can create cynicism and resistance. To increase the likelihood of success, involve as many of the attendees as feasible in the planning and decision-making around the leadership retreat. Even if you ultimately make the decision, at least your colleagues will know that you listened to them.

Do your research before the leadership retreat.

Depending on what you’re trying to accomplish during your retreat, you may need to prepare reports, pull stats and data, review industry publications, obtain employee performance evaluations, etc. Make sure you obtain and provide this information to other team members well in advance of the retreat so they have time to digest the information and come to the retreat with good questions and recommendations.

Make assignments to team members before the leadership retreat.

A great way to lay the groundwork for a retreat is to make a reading assignment of a key article or book. New ideas can spark innovation, so encourage your colleagues to not only read the materials, but think about how the information can be applied to your business challenges.

Assign research and data gathering to your colleagues to “share the load” and gain buy-in for the leadership retreat. Depending on the topic and purpose, you may want each person to prepare a short presentation to bring everyone else up to speed with what’s happening in their respective areas of responsibility.

Choose a venue for your leadership retreat.

Select a location for your retreat that is appropriate for your needs. If you only have a day or two, obviously you’ll need to select something that’s only a short drive away. If you have more time, you can broaden the horizons of your search. For more information about selecting a facility for your needs, review our planning resource “Vetting the Venue.”

Choose a facilitator for your leadership retreat.

We cannot overstate the importance of bringing in a neutral party to direct the meetings, keep discussions on track, and step in to provide skills training when necessary. Not putting the “boss in charge” has an added benefit of leveling the playing field. Often teams wait to see what opinion their “bosses” have before voicing their own perspective.
This will avoid judgments that will shut down all further conversation. If the first two or three people who speak at the retreat learn through word or tone of voice that their ideas are “stupid,” the retreat will not be successful.

The meeting facilitator will also help to establish guidelines about how everyone will be heard, how disagreements will be handled and how decisions will be made.
A good facilitator will run the meeting in a way that varies participation: providing time for large and small group interactions as well as one-on-one discussions, or providing time for people to think and write individually about a topic or decision before starting discussions.

Depending on your meeting facilitator’s background, you could also engage in some real-time skills training around emotional intelligence, storytelling, or the leader’s role in stages of team development.

Stay energized throughout the leadership retreat.

Your retreat agenda should include time for breaks. Take advantage of the location by taking a hike or engaging in some other physical activity. Breaks not only rejuvenate the mind, but they also allow the group to think more deeply about strategic topics.

Another option is to schedule a team building activity that is physical in nature. Not only will your group feel energized, but they’ll increase levels of trust and improve communication skills. The breakthroughs that occur during team building activities can improve the results of planning and brainstorming later in the leadership retreat.

Follow through on decisions and plans.

Most leadership retreats fail to follow-through on the wonderful plans they’ve carefully crafted over the course of the time spent together. This needs to be built into the overall design of the retreat. Before the leadership retreat is over, set a date for team members to report on their actions. This type of commitment increases the likelihood of things getting done.

Once you’re back at the office, remember: “That which you hold people accountable to do gets done.” Everything else will gather dust. Have people report on their progress in staff meetings and one-on-one interactions. By connecting business results to what happened at the retreat, the team becomes more motivated because they see that their efforts paid off.

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