BUSINESS PLANNING & TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPMENT

Advancing by Retreat
As Published in MX Business Strategy for Medical Technology Executives March/April 2002

A successful executive retreat can be a powerful tool for addressing changing business conditions and gaining stakeholder buy-in.

Teri Louden

Every year, medtech companies spend significant financial and human resources to conduct executive retreats—off-site gatherings of high-level stakeholders, usually with a narrowly defined agenda or set of goals. Large companies are especially enamored with retreats, often holding a number of events each year for specialized constituencies such as the corporate board of directors, senior management, division management, middle management, medical advisory boards, and so on. In order to respond quickly to the rapid market and economic changes that have taken place over the past year, however, even small companies are putting a high priority on holding such retreats.

Executive retreats vary widely in purpose, scope, and type of attendee. They offer companies valuable opportunities to develop business strategies that address the rapidly changing market and economy, as well as to build stronger management teams and develop support for company plans. When they are effective, they can be powerful business tools. When they are ineffective, they not only waste a company's time and money, but can also reduce morale and team spirit.

Such meetings are rarely viewed as part of the day-to-day operations for which company leaders are responsible. Nevertheless, executive retreats can be an extremely useful method of quickly developing sound business strategies and pulling together a team to support them. Along with demonstrating their abilities to conduct top-level planning and carry out day-to-day operations, successful managers should also be able to show that they can plan and carry out effective executive retreats.

Retreats can be expensive in terms of out-of-pocket expenses, but they are even more costly in terms of committed management time and energy. For this reason alone, it is essential that any such meeting a company holds be widely perceived as having a successful outcome. This article explores some of the ways that companies can maximize the value of their executive retreats. It discusses how to select an appropriate facility for such meetings, and suggests a framework for planning and conducting successful executive retreats.

Profiling Executive Retreats

Every executive retreat is a unique event. Nevertheless, company leaders can find it helpful to profile each retreat according to a set of common characteristics. Profiling retreats according to traits such as their attendees, desired outcomes, and level of urgency helps focus the attention of planners so that each event can be designed to ensure success. Taking time each year to profile all of the executive retreats that a company expects to hold is an important part of retreat planning

When profiling upcoming retreats, company planners should endeavor to look into the future at least two or three years. Such advance thinking is an important part of retreat planning. The earlier that a company is able to plan its retreats, the more likely it will be to find the right types of facilities available, to save on the cost of travel and facilities, and to gain access to important attendees from within and outside the company. In addition, earlier planning can provide the time needed to ensure that participants in the event are well prepared.

Virtual Retreats on the Rise

In recent years, the development of videoconferencing and Webcasting technologies has made the use of "virtual" team meetings a practical alternative to the traditional forms of executive retreats. The events of September 11 gave a solid, but perhaps temporary, boost to this alternative, with an increasing number of companies seeking to take advantage of the ready availability of remote conferencing technologies.

Taking the time to profile a retreat in advance can help company planners determine whether a virtual event is appropriate. Clearly, there are times when a virtual meeting can be an effective means of saving time, money, and travel aggravation. For instance, a virtual meeting might be perfect for urgent, tactical decision making—particularly when participants are geographically disparate. While not replacing on-site events, such virtual retreats definitely add another option that can be worth considering.

However, when the goals of an event include team building, strong group buy-in to key decisions, creative brainstorming, customer relationship–building, or tackling complex or significant decisions, on-site retreats will likely continue to be the method of choice.

In many cases, the decision of whether to host a virtual or on-site meeting is no longer mutually exclusive. Many retreat facilities are increasingly integrating virtual meeting technologies into their site offerings. In such facilities, on-site retreat planning can now include the option of incorporating videoconferencing as a component of the retreat. Using this method, on-site retreats can include important participants who would otherwise be unable to attend, or hear from additional presenters whose views are essential for a specific but limited topic.

When planning and facilitating a virtual retreat, the same considerations apply as for on-site retreats. The major difference is that the challenge of coordinating on-site and travel logistics is replaced by the challenge of coordinating technology logistics.

Management Commitment 

Tangible benefits of executive retreats typically include answers to specific problems or questions, stakeholder consensus on critical decisions, generation of valuable new business ideas, or development of tactics for securing key customer contracts or partnering arrangements. Speed of decision making is yet another benefit of effective executive retreats. A well planned and executed team discussion that lasts several days can often lead to quicker answers and group consensus than weeks' worth of shorter day-to-day meetings. The equally important intangible benefits of such meetings can include building teams, sharing information, and motivating participants.

However, companies can waste both time and money on executive retreats unless senior management takes a major interest in ensuring their success. A commitment from the top is critical to ensure that the following key requirements are met.

Executive retreats are more than just extended management meetings. An effective retreat is a business tool that requires senior leadership, business-minded attention to detail, and total team dedication at every step along the way. With proper support and planning, an executive retreat is one of the best ways for a company to create winning strategies by capitalizing on its internal intellectual talent as well as the advice of outside experts. Such success is best ensured when company leaders embrace the notion that a powerful retreat is a key weapon in their strategic arsenal.

It is harder than one might imagine for company leaders to accept and act on this notion. However excited they may become over the idea of holding a retreat, senior managers can readily underestimate the complexity of such events and the time required to plan and execute them effectively. A common result is that too much of the detailed planning is handed off to administrative staff or event planners who are not attuned to the company's key requirements for a successful retreat.

Even more damaging are those managers who consider their roles in handling crisis situations and even day-to-day operations too important to be neglected by attending a retreat. As part of their commitment to holding a retreat, company leaders must ensure that all levels of management acknowledge and accept the value of such meetings. Without the committed involvement of all levels of company management, retreat planners will have great difficulty in getting their event to accomplish its assigned goals.

The following sections offer a detailed roadmap to help medtech executives ensure that their company gains the greatest possible benefit from holding an executive retreat. Following this five-point plan will help focus attention on key details and minimize the risks involved in planning and holding an executive retreat.

Purpose

The first and most critical decision to be made about a proposed executive retreat is its purpose. While such advice sounds obvious, it is often either neglected from the beginning, or forgotten in the flurry of attending to the many details of executing the final event.

For any retreat, there should be a primary purpose, and there may also be one or more secondary purposes. Defining the purpose of the retreat up front makes it easier for event planners to determine all of the details that must follow: planning, place, people, and process.

Planning

Companies would be well advised to assign the planning of a retreat to a single individual. This person, who should be a senior member of the management team, should have total and final responsibility for every aspect of the event, from concept through completion. While parts of the planning may be delegated to others, this individual must understand and be able to coordinate all of the details that must be attended to. This person should also be the keeper and controller of the event's master timeline, which should include scheduled completion dates for each of the key activities leading up to the retreat.

Senior managers are good choices for retreat leaders because they are often well positioned to generate enthusiasm among attendees. Such motivation does not come automatically; developing it often requires event leaders who understand how to convince each member of the retreat audience to commit time and thought to the event well in advance. In this respect, senior managers are much more likely to have success than are administrative assistants or event planners.

As part of the planning of an executive retreat, research plays a critical role. Such research is generally intended to answer one of two needs: information to determine the retreat's location, facility, and related recreational activities; and background data and information to set the stage for the retreat's business discussions. The former research must be conducted during the very early stages of planning, in order to secure dates and a committed contract. Business-related research needs may differ according to the profile and purpose of the event, and may include the following.

Once the business research has been gathered, it must be summarized, packaged, and provided to the attendees in advance so that they will be able to come prepared. Along with this research summary and the proposed agenda, it is also a good idea to give the attendees a list of questions that they should prepare to address. If there are to be breakout groups or presentations conducted by one or more of the attendees, this needs to be communicated to these individuals so that they have ample time to prepare.

As part of the planning process, a special name or theme can be selected for the retreat. This device is sometimes also incorporated into take-away materials given to participants, so that they remember the event when they return home.

Place

When it comes to selecting a site for an executive retreat, a wide range of variables can contribute to a company's level of satisfaction. Among the basic considerations that can make or break a company's experience are ease of travel, weather at the desired time of year, the quality of the meeting and guest rooms, and the level of the site's audiovisual support. With so much to consider, it is no wonder that this decision is frequently the most time-consuming of all.

This is an area in which event planners from both within and outside the company can be especially helpful. Although many retreat facilities have Web sites that provide a wealth of information—including photos—nothing can replace the experience of staying at a facility and working with its staff. In fact, many companies select the same familiar facilities year after year, simply to avoid risking a disappointing experience with a new facility. In the end, great customer service can overcome almost any other drawbacks that a site might have, so it is critical that company planners feel good about the facility's service level and the staff assigned to its retreat.

When narrowing down the list of prospective retreat facilities, company planners should refer back to the profile and purpose of the retreat they have already prepared. To a very great extent, these planning documents will determine, for example, how important it is to find a facility in a particular city or region, near an airport, near golf courses or beaches, near a particular company plant or office, or even near to key customer attendees.

There are many such properties in every area of the country. To get help sorting through suitable properties, company planners should consider working through an organization such as Relais & Châteaux (New York City), an exclusive international organization that counts among its members some of the most special privately owned resort properties in the world.

Medtech companies based in the United States rarely host retreats outside the country—even when they have substantial sales abroad. However, there are many desirable retreat properties outside the United States, and the current costs of airfare and lodging can make such overseas sites just as attractive—if not more so. Hosting a retreat at an international site can send a powerful statement about the global positioning of a company—to both domestic and overseas stakeholders—and is an option that U.S. companies should keep in mind.

People

Although a great deal of attention must be paid to selecting a facility, planning logistics, and preparing for social events, company planners should not forget that the most important elements of any retreat are its participants. Attendees determine the culture and atmosphere of the retreat and, ultimately, its level of success. To ensure a truly successful retreat, the "people part" of the event must be considered a priority from day one. Doing so requires event planners to consider a number of options.

Numbers. The best advice here is that smaller is better. While expanding the group may be appropriate for some portions of the retreat, a core group larger than 15 people will make success much harder to achieve.

Outsiders. Depending on the duration and purpose of the retreat, inviting customers or outside industry experts can be of great value. Especially during the early phases of a retreat, outside experts can sometimes add valuable intelligence that serves as a backdrop for later sessions. The key to success with this practice is to ensure that such outsiders are well prepared and that their roles are narrowly defined and controlled.

Enhancing Participation. One of the most critical factors in the success of any retreat is its ability to fully engage all attendees. One way to ensure that this occurs is to design the agenda so that all participants have some portion in which they play an important part, for instance as a presenter or facilitator of a breakout session. Retreat planners should therefore make certain that all attendees receive their briefing materials in advance, so that they can come prepared to participate fully.

Spouses and Significant Others. The decision of whether to include spouses or partners depends largely on the purpose, timing, and location of the retreat. Because the experience of such additional attendees can color the judgment of the primary participants, event planners will have double the work if they are to ensure that all attendees have a memorable and successful experience. Moreover, this is a more difficult task today than it was in the past, because the group of significant others can include both men and women, working and not, and often with wide age differences. If the participation of such attendees is desirable, company planners should consider conducting a brief written survey in advance to ensure that they understand the diverse interests of this group.

Facilitator. Whether to use an outside facilitator is a key question. The answer often depends on whether the retreat is expected to address extremely critical issues, and whether the participants are known to hold diverse opinions on the key matters under discussion.

Other issues include the availability of in-house talent to facilitate the group's discussions. The ability to effectively plan, manage, and facilitate the meeting of a group of high-level executives is a special skill that is not always cultivated in corporate America. Executives sometimes believe that they come by this talent naturally, but fail to understand that it takes years of experience to refine the skills necessary to facilitate such a high-level meeting.

In addition, there is often great value in having an outsider with an unbiased view to lead the group. Such an outside facilitator should be capable of challenging the group's thinking, while also ensuring that every attendee's thoughts and ideas are included.

Process

The process for ensuring a successful retreat includes four critical components: format and logistics, on-site management, retreat conclusions, and measurement and follow-up.

Format and Logistics. Company planners can choose from a wide variety of options when designing the format of a retreat. At the outset, they may need to determine how much time will be devoted to the business aspects of the retreat versus its social aspects. Then, within the business sections, they may consider whether to incorporate breakout sessions in which small groups can focus on answering specified questions. Such breakout sessions can be valuable for ensuring that all attendees are fully engaged and feel that their input is a key part of the retreat.

Retreat logistics involve all of the detailed background activities, from coordinating and scheduling transportation to planning meals and recreational activities. While such issues can seem trivial, they are actually critical to the success of the retreat because they involve the all-important issue of time management for senior executives.

On-Site Management. The executive leader plays a key role in managing the on-site activities of a retreat. It is this executive's role to ensure that the overall experience is positive and that the original intended purpose is achieved. However, the role of the executive leader must stop short of involvement in on-site operational aspects of the retreat.

No matter how great a company's up-front planning, when the company arrives on-site there are always arrangements that need to be changed and service issues that need to be handled. The most-successful retreats are those that have a dedicated administrative person assigned to handle the details of all attendee communications, logistics, and on-site management. This person effectively serves as the central customer-service representative—the person to whom everyone can turn with questions, complaints, or suggestions.

Retreat Conclusions. Taking the time to draw out the key conclusions of a retreat is a task that is all too often lost in the shuffle of details being handled at the end of the meeting. Nevertheless, it is important to do this while everyone is still at the retreat and while all of the issues are still fresh in everyone's minds. The key conclusions should be documented for follow-up distribution. In addition, they should be compared with the original purpose of the retreat to ensure that the meeting has achieved its intended purpose.

Measurement and Follow-Up. No retreat should be considered complete until its success has been measured. To accomplish this task, retreat organizers can conduct written or telephone surveys among the retreat participants.

Also critical is the documented follow-up, which should include a detailed summary of the key conclusions reached at the retreat, plus agreed-upon follow-up steps. Often one of the follow-up items is the date of another meeting, where participants intend to focus on some of the key questions raised at the retreat.

In compiling the retreat follow-up, company organizers should make sure to inform attendees about what will happen differently as a result of their taking the time to participate in the retreat. This is often a key question on the minds of retreat participants. By taking the time to show that the retreat will have specific effects, organizers will help to maintain the involvement of attendees in furthering the goals of the retreat.

Conclusion

For the leaders of today's medtech companies, executive retreats are an integral part of doing business. Such events can be a powerful business tool with wide-ranging effects on a company's business strategies, communications, and abilities to respond to changing economic and market conditions. But to ensure that a company's investment in such events is returned in terms of positive outcomes and team building, it is essential that senior managers take the lead.

Careful up-front planning and attention to detail are critical to the success of such events. When in doubt, companies should make sure that their retreats are led by those with experience who can anticipate every step along the way.

Teri Louden is president of The Louden Network (San Diego). She can be reached via e-mail at connect@louden.net.