Guest Column

How Many Annual Retreats Will It Take?


The annual retreat. How many have you attended? You go to some nice resort--off-site, overnight, good food, golf, talking late into the night. A highly paid consultant quotes other people’s work, probably Peter Senge, Stephen Covey, Tom Peters and some phenoms in the business world.

You put your problems on the table--we need teamwork, a common mission, child-focused goals. You make commitments--we’ll work together, we’ll communicate better, we'll add regular follow-up meetings to these three days.

And then you put it all away until next year. How many annual retreats will it take?

Natural Gravitation
The administrative staff of the Fairview City Schools (not its real name) had their annual retreat recently at a local ski resort. They started the morning right with flavored coffee, muffins and fresh fruit. The weather was fine.

The facilitator, an expert on adult learning, was one of the best they’d had in many years. She talked about the importance not just of team building, but also of team learning. People nodded their heads and then filled sheet after sheet of their flip charts with well-worn statements espousing the need to work together.

Yet something was amiss, and it started the minute people arrived. They moved to tables automatically, as if there were place markers that did not give them a choice. All the central- office staff sat together. The high school principal had several assistants, so they needed a table all their own. All the elementary principals filled another table. The business manager arrived late and politely asked if he could have an empty chair from the middle school principals’ table so that he could sit with the treasurer and her staff.

At the facilitator’s first attempt to mix the groups, several moans were audible. And when she asked if the school district had a common vision, the first response was an innocent, "Oh yes! Everyone in our department agrees on where we’re headed."

After four hours the facilitator left abruptly, having had no conversation about what should happen next. It didn’t seem to matter, though. This was the annual retreat, and although no one would say it aloud, they all knew what would happen next--fun and games--and then they would put it away until the next annual retreat.

Competitive Nature
After lunch, the participants went out into the final days of summer for a scavenger hunt. In the spirit of teamwork, they counted off so the groups would be mixed. In the spirit of competition, however, the teams were exhorted to be the first to find their objects--a Coke can, the letter V and a knothole on a tree--to win the grand prize. Off they went--flip charts, Senge and the facilitator so soon forgotten.

As the hour drew to a close, teams began wandering back toward the lodge, teasing one another about spying and trading secrets. Suddenly, Fred, a young new employee, excitedly suggested, "Let’s all win! If we all share what we found and turn it in as one team, we can all win! Isn’t that what we talked about, working together? Come on guys!"

A few people responded enthusiastically and began calling others around. But the old model of competition and mistrust was hard to overcome. Some were suspicious of Fred. "Sure. You’ll get our things and then not share yours." Others were bent on winning. "We worked hard to find everything. Think we’re going to share it now?"

For 10 minutes they haggled, and Fred began to get discouraged. "I’m quitting," he quietly said to his boss Martha.

"Is this something you’d be willing to be fired for?" she asked him jokingly.

"You don’t have to fire me. I said I’m quitting," Fred replied, only half in jest.

Finally, however, all the competing groups joined as one. "I can’t believe we’re doing this," one elementary principal laughed to a high school principal kneeling beside her on the ground. Then someone crawled up on the lodge balcony and took a photo--winners all! Maybe there was hope for the next annual retreat after all.

Missed Message
The groups moved into the lodge where the organizers of the event anxiously waited to see who would receive the prize they had chosen. When they heard what happened, however, they were disturbed.

"But we only have a prize for one team," they insisted. "Well, Dan and Martha told us to do it," someone said defensively. Dan and Martha, both mid-level bosses, stood stunned. They thought the sharing of scavenger items was a great idea, but they couldn’t take the credit for it (although the credit was subtly becoming the blame).

As people moved to their seats, Martha approached one of the game organizers. "We need to talk about what just happened here," she began, ready to explain the significance of what had happened outside.

"We only have one prize" was the curt response from the lead organizer. Martha, with her face burning, knew she’d better not say any more until she gathered her composure. Before that could happen, however, the superintendent drew the activity to a close.

"Why don’t you tell us what you did?" he pointedly asked Dan and Martha. Both sat silently until Fred, the newcomer who was quick to size up what was happening, spoke. "We tried to work as a team, but I’m not so sure now that it worked," he said. The superintendent went on to explain that everyone was a winner. "Although I don’t think the coach of the Rams would tell his team that at the end of a season," he said. "Tomorrow bring your business cards and we’ll have a drawing for the prize."

In the end, these school district employees didn’t need the annual retreat. They didn’t need a nice resort--off-site, overnight, good food, golf and talking late into the night. They didn’t need a highly paid consultant to quote other people’s work. What they needed was inside themselves, but they put it all away until the next annual retreat. How many annual retreats will it take?

Gay Fawcett is executive director of the Center for the Impact of Technology on Education, Kent State University, 412 White Hall, Kent, OH 44242. E-mail: