Plan an Effective Retreat

Perhaps your CPA firm or client is plagued with a problem, such as high employee turnover or a reduction in billable hours, that needs a creative solution. Or you want input on how best to proceed with the launch of a new service. Whatever your reason to hold a retreat, follow these six tips to make sure it goes off without a hitch.
Look for an appropriate location. Retreats work best in off-site, flexible, casual environments. Resorts in the off-season offer much less expensive rates: You could rent a beach house in the winter or a ski chalet in the summer, for example. The rustic lodges and cabins located in many state, county and municipal park systems offer another affordable alternative. You could even hold the retreat in the living room of a coworker if the space is large enough. Although you’ll need to bring all the materials (flip charts, markers, coffeemaker, meals and snacks), the relaxed atmosphere may help spark meaningful dialogue.

Get the length and size of the retreat right. The most effective retreats last only 2 to 2 12 days. That’s enough time to create the climate of trust necessary to make genuine progress, to explore issues thoroughly and to build a commitment to change (but not so long that participants lose interest). Limit retreats to reasonably small groups (fewer than 40 participants) if you want to accomplish serious work while making sure you include all necessary participants. Sometimes, though, it can be invaluable to have the broader perspective a larger group provides.

Interview participants in advance. Too often in the initial planning stages, a retreat facilitator speaks only to the senior officer that hired him or her. The executive’s input, while helpful, does not necessarily represent participants’ real concerns, and it’s not uncommon for the facilitator to get blindsided when unexpected issues come up during the retreat. By insisting the facilitator preinterview a good cross-section of retreat participants, you’ll help uncover some potential land mines while there’s still time to address issues in a productive way.

Be present. It is critical to the success of the retreat that the leaders of your firm be present—physically and mentally. Participants won’t take the work seriously if you and your peers don’t make the commitment of time and energy to be present and engaged. Show up on time for all retreat sessions and activities. Turn off your pager and cell phone and do not allow yourself to be interrupted unless there is an emergency.

Let participants in on the discussion. Don’t dominate the talks or take over the proceedings, even if you’re the “big cheese” and others defer to you (which they will at first). Holding back may go against your nature, but if you don’t, you may inhibit serious discussion and suppress differing viewpoints. To maintain control over a big retreat and allow each participant a voice, the facilitator might institute this rule: No one will speak twice until each person has spoken once.

Resolve conflicts on the spot. Look for points of agreement instead of dwelling on points of contention. If the facilitator can lead participants to discover areas of agreement, it will greatly enhance the climate for resolving disagreements. One way to diffuse tension is for him or her to break the group into pairs or threesomes for 5 to 10 minutes for more casual discussions or call a short break to give people a chance to cool off. The facilitator also can ask people to change their seats: Sometimes this literally gives people a new vantage point.

Back in the office, make the plan stick. Design simple, clear implementation strategies and show people how they apply to everyday priorities and decision-making tasks. Management must demonstrate support and commitment because everyone will be watching its behavior. Be willing to change systems and structures if they prove to be inefficient. Frequently report on progress because people need a sense their efforts have been worthwhile. Hand out a lot of praise and thanks for participation.

Source: Retreats That Work: Designing and Conducting Effective Offsites for Groups and Organizations by Sheila Campbell and Merianne Liteman, Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 2002.

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