The Strategic Retreat


Five keys to a successful management retreat.

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                                                                                                                             Teri Louden

 We have all been there at one time or another—sitting through a management retreat of questionable value. When this feeling starts on day one of a 3-day ordeal, our mind wanders and we lose interest in the discussion altogether. However, with proper planning and forethought, retreats can provide exceptional returns in both the short and long term. Here are a few things you should do to ensure a memorable retreat.


 I.          The planning is in the details

Time spent during the all-important planning phase can save major crisis headaches, allow for effective background research and attendee preparation, and ensure that all of the many details are addressed. During this phase, answer these questions:

• Who should attend—both insiders and outsiders—and what is their role?

• What are the retreat goals and objectives?

• When should it be held, given up-front time requirements for research and planning?

• Where are the perfect location and site?

• How should the agenda be set? The process managed? (Should business and social time be mixed? Can it be made unique/special/different?)


 II.            Intelligence Gathering and Research

For the retreat to be truly meaningful and productive, sufficient data and information need to be collected and effectively documented beforehand. Without this critical step, the retreat can become a ping-pong match of opinions. Research needs will vary depending on the nature of the retreat and the attendees. Consider the following types of research:

1) Confidential, internal company interviews with attendees, middle and upper management, and board members

2) Company financial profile and market positioning realities

3) Market and competitive intelligence

4) Customer analysis and interviews

5) Interviews with industry analysts and leaders

Once gathered, this research must be effectively packaged for presentation to attendees. These findings and conclusions form the basis for key assumptions behind any strategic discussions. By having them in writing, the stage is set for the group to either accept or challenge key assumptions.


III.            Selecting the Perfect Location and Supportive Events

There are as many possible retreat sites as there are types of retreats. The key point is to not underestimate the importance of site selection and management. No matter how great the content and discussion may be, a less-than-effective environment can destroy an otherwise high-potential retreat. Once again, it is the attention to detail that sets apart retreat locations and supporting events as even conference rooms at very expensive retreat sites vary in quality. Likewise, a more modest location often can prove very effective, particularly if interesting on-site or off-site special events are well planned.


IV.            Maximize the On-Site Retreat Process and Results

The most effective retreats occur when everyone feels totally comfortable participating, new ideas are openly generated and discussed, and there is final group buy-in of key conclusions, strategies, and next steps. To ensure this is your end result, there should be solid up-front communication with the attendees before the retreat:

• Define retreat goals and objectives

• Furnish any required background reading materials

• Provide a specific agenda

• Include attendees as presenters throughout the process

In addition, the retreat facilitator’s role is a critical one. Facilitation is a very specific skill set, and it is important to work with someone who:

1) Understands their role is to facilitate, not pontificate

2) Has sufficient expertise and knowledge to be able to challenge group thinking and bring new ideas and insights

3) Can help bring the right research to the retreat and provide on-site and final documentation of retreat conclusions

Finally, do not limit the group to only insiders. Bringing industry analysts, experts, or even customers to present and participate in portions of the retreat adds great third-party value.

 V.        Make Sure There is Sufficient Follow-Up
So often we hear managers complain that “the retreat itself was productive, but nothing happened as a result.” Attention to follow-up detail is critical. Not only is written documentation of key retreat conclusions required, but so is assignment of follow-up tasks, responsibilities, and timelines to execute agreed-upon tactics and strategies. A good idea at the end of a retreat is to set a follow-up date for the group to reconvene, even if it is only for a half day or day. Each attendee should have a responsibility to return to the group to report on their follow-up and the group should discuss whether any key assumptions or conclusions have changed. N

Teri Louden is president of Louden Network, Chicago. Founded in 1983, the firm specializes in assisting all types of health care clients in thinking strategically, including planning and facilitating management, board, and key customer retreats.

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