NEWS AND RESOURCES

General Business News for December 2003

Retreat to Move Forward
Has this been a hard year for your business? Has it been a good year or a bad year? Now that this year is ending, where do you go from here? It's a given that you want to move forward and grow, but how do you do that?

May we suggest that you consider a retreat? No, we're not suggesting you run away from the competition. That would be self-defeating, wouldn't it? What we are suggesting is that perhaps you and your management staff take time out from day-to-day tasks, go somewhere and brainstorm about the future of your business. Does it sound desirable and doable? Or does it sound like more of a distraction than anything else? Regardless of your reaction, read on.

Just what is a retreat?

A retreat is sort of like a working vacation, except there isn't that much vacation and it's a lot of work. A business is not unlike a person in that a business, or rather it's management, needs time to process what's going on around them. In the case of people, that entails taking time to process all the little things that happen during the day and may be anything from going home and talking to the spouse to sitting in front of the television and "vegging" to sleeping. Anything that gives those little brain cells in our heads time to sort and file away today's data and then form an appropriate plan of action for tomorrow would qualify as personal processing time.

Similarly, the management of your business needs time away to concentrate solely your business's mission; it's growth goals, marketing and production strategies, and a myriad of other aspects of your business's life. In short, management of your business needs to help the company find its place in life and there are basically two ways to do that - in an organized manner or a disorganized manner.

You may be the exception, but many times we find that owners and managers who haven't taken the time to create a vision for a company and a strategy to get there are like overworked and underpaid firemen - they run around putting fires out all the time and never seem to get ahead of the game. Businesspersons who take the time to create a vision for their companies about which they can be passionate and then formulate steps to get where they want to go generally have a better sense of accomplishment and peace about the course they are steering. If they find the course is not the right one, they step back and change course in the direction that makes the most sense.

It is almost impossible to devote the necessary time to strategy when the telephone is ringing, the production manager has to see you about the latest glitch, accounting is yelling at you that you are spending too much money on this or that project and sales thinks they are the only department that's worthy of your attention so they barge in whenever they please. And all of this is before you get the first cup of coffee in the morning! So how do you find the necessary time to formulate the future for your company? You send a memo out that management will be engaging in a "retreat." It's not an optional weekend jaunt or a party that you will give company leadership just because. No, it's a mandatory, on the clock, exercise in company survival and prosperity that all invitees will attend and in which all invitees will participate. A retreat is time set aside for management to identify and address the major issues facing a business and how the business will react to those issues.

It is important to impress upon you and your company's management that the goals and actions the company will take to meet the goals are everyone's responsibility, not just the bosses. Properly designed, management will come away from a retreat feeling that major business issues have been resolved or a mechanism is in place to resolve the issues. Management will also come away with a greater sense of teamwork and trust in the management team in place.

First things first

Aside from the agenda, you will first have to decide two critical issues. The first issue is where the retreat will be held. Can you go away to a conference center for two days without harming the business? If not, can you conduct the retreat at another facility in town over the course of several weekend days? Regardless of your decision, keep in mind that you need to be committed to scheduling the appropriate place to minimize distractions from your mission.

The second issue is who will be your facilitator? Now before you object and tell us you don't really need a facilitator, think back to your last management or departmental meeting. How many times did you get sidetracked from your meeting agenda? How many "he said, she said" arguments did you get into? Did the meeting go as smoothly as you wanted and did you accomplish your objectives - with everyone leaving with a feeling of accomplishment?

Anytime someone from the company acts as a facilitator, they will bring with them their own views of the company and steer the discussion to their favor - either consciously or subconsciously. It's human nature.

A good facilitator is not inexpensive, but the facilitator's value is immeasurable. A good facilitator, who is versed either in your industry or in some way versed in the subject of your retreat, will take the time to interview attendees before hand, compile the results and help set the agenda. It may be that you plan on having a marketing retreat, but when the facilitator reports on the interviews, you may have an internal power struggle that threatens to destroy the company. Now what's more important, the marketing strategy or stopping World War III before it starts? Even assuming the planned subject of the retreat remains intact, an impartial outsider will have a better chance of steering discussion in a positive direction rather than allowing you to get off on unproductive side issues.

What makes for a successful retreat?

You know the retreat is a success when everyone comes away from the retreat feeling as if the common agreed-upon goal has been reached or there is a way to get to that goal where before there was none. The trick is getting there.

We've taken care of the first two critical issues, but what now? Once the facilitator has interviewed participants, the real work in setting the agenda begins. Assuming the interviews were properly conducted, you now have an idea of what the entire management team views are the major strengths and weaknesses of the business.

From this information, you can design a preliminary agenda to logically address the issues. Remember, in designing the agenda, leave time for the team members to have their own downtime and social time. You will more than likely address stressful subjects and if you don't allow for some downtime, blowups will occur from the stress of the situation. More than likely, even during the breaks, business discussion will continue, but it will be less stressful and, hence, probably more honest.

Don't assume that your agenda items are the only good ones. Circulate the agenda to all the parties to the retreat. This will accomplish two things; there will be no surprises and you will get better buy-in to the process from all team members if they have input on the discussion topics.

Once the agenda is set, make sure everyone has a copy so they will be prepared with whatever information they can bring. This will allow for a full discussion without someone needing to call the office for information. It also allows time to formulate suggestions.

Keep copious notes of the retreat discussion and circulate minutes of the discussion quickly after the retreat is over. This will serve to reinforce the commitment each participant made and maximize the chances agreed actions will take place.

Finally, try to have fun. If this is an overnight retreat, make time for socializing. Social time spent with colleagues will enhance interpersonal communication and that is the key to maintaining a strong management team.

Conclusion

Just like people need processing time for their mental health, businesses, as defined by their management, need time to assess their strengths and weaknesses to properly define their future course. It's impossible to attend to day-to-day fires in your business and, at the same time, properly plot your business's future course. Retreats offer a way to bring the key players in your company together to solve problems and create a sense of teamwork. A team unified by a common purpose will enable your business to achieve its goals. Give us a call if you think it's time to step back and look at your company from a different vantage point. We would be glad to help you in planning and executing a productive retreat.

Please keep our troops in your thoughts as we head into the holiday season. Have a wonderful holiday season and a terrific new year!

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