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Are YOU an Owner in Your Corporate Retreat? From Numbness to Engagement

February 19, 2012

Updated March 13, 2012

Your eyes are glazing over, head slumping dangerously closer to the table, upon which lie scattered papers. The coffee’s terrible, as are the fat-laden muffins and pastries. And you’ve grown numb from the incessant drone of your boss, who’s pontificated on the organization’s priorities and direction.

Yes, you’re at a corporate retreat. It may be at a local hotel or hall, or perhaps at a fancy resort (though this is now unlikely given the crappy economy).

One of the blessings of retiring in December 2010 is that I no longer have to attend corporate retreats. I now do contract work, mostly research and writing, allowing me to focus on my strengths and value-added to organizations.

I attended far too many such retreats over 30 years. Some were horrendously bad; some had good moments, but dragged on too long; and a few were very productive with positive outcomes later on.

So how do you go about designing, planning and delivering a successful retreat, whether with a large number of people or just with your team?

Too often, off-site retreats (planning sessions, town halls, team meetings) are driven by management, from the initial design and planning to the delivery of the event and to the typical no follow-up. Employees are treated as furniture: told when the retreat will be held, where and how long. Little thought is given to engaging employees from the start.

Virginia-based management consultant Rick Maurer states that many corporate retreats are a waste of people’s time. Alan Weiss echoes this sentiment, estimating that over three quarters of corporate retreats fail to deliver anything of substance to organizations.

The 2008-09 Great Recession and the continued weak economy in Canada and the United States have pushed companies and even governments to retract spending on corporate retreats, conferences, etc. But that doesn’t mean that when they’re held one should assume that management wants to get the biggest bang for the buck – namely, the engagement of employees with useful results that will help move the organization forward.

My experience over 30 years on being both on the receiving end of stunningly useless retreats and highly productive ones produced some important lessons. Here are my key success factors for a successful corporate retreat, large or small:

1. Clear purpose and short list of key objectives.
Without these, your event will produce nothing but yawns, disrespect for management and a waste of corporate resources.

2. Senior management corporate sponsor.
This applies to some cases, depending on the purpose, scope, impact and required resources. The sponsor is in effect your event’s cheerleader, who shares in the accountability of output.

3. Employee engagement in the design, planning and delivery.
This is where you build employee ownership and commitment to the process. If you have a union, be sure to include them at the start. That way the union will have a vested stake in the outcome and won’t sabotage your efforts.

4. Carefully select a neutral facilitator.
This is a vital step. Whether the facilitator is an internal or external resource, they must not bring their own baggage or biases with them (I’ve seen this happen too often).

5. Ensure that employees’ issues and concerns are incorporated into the design.
Treat people as adults and they’ll surprise you every time. This is not a top-down process.

6. Incorporate variety into the agenda to respect adult learning styles.
You don’t want people zonking out from boredom, or disengaging from the discussions. You want contribution.

7. Be sure that laughter is a big part of your retreat.
There’s no better way to keep up the energy level in the room, to break potential tensions and to encourage people’s active involvement than to have people laughing.

8. Assess the retreat against its purpose and objectives.
Tell the participants that they’ll be asked to complete a short questionnaire a week later. This delay is to allow them to digest what they’ve learned and reflected upon.

Take a moment to share an experience from a successful retreat you’ve attended.

We need to give each other the space to grow,
to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity.
We need to give each other space so that we
may both give and receive such beautiful.

– Max DePree

Photo by J. Taggart (San Francisco)

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