Tips for a Successful Leadership Retreat

by John Jay Bonstingl

Next time you plan a retreat for your board, leadership team, or community and business partners, you can greatly enhance your results by incorporating these tips.

Plan your retreat with a clear purpose in mind. Communicate your purpose to all participants well ahead of time. Make sure your stated purpose is explicitly tied to your understood vision, mission and core values. Publish an agenda and bullet-point overview prior to the retreat. Plan strategies to stick to your announced time frames.

Make your retreat relevant. Build essential buy-in. Give every participant one or more retreat-related tasks to do before, during and after the retreat. If they view their tasks as reasonable, relevant and contributory, participants will know they are co-creating the retreat and you will get fuller involvement and commitment.

Apply the basic principle of constructivism: People learn and grow based on what they already know and care about. Apply new skills and information based upon participants’ interests and knowledge base.

Build on current and past successes. Consider starting the retreat with a carefully crafted, short PowerPoint presentation elaborating on your published agenda and overview. Focus on current strengths rather than a litany of problems. Invite participants to explore essential competencies in areas you and they identify as crucial for improvement.

Have your participants consider four basic questions: What’s getting better? How do we know? What needs improvement? How do we know?

Make sure the right people are invited and focus on results. As Jim Collins suggests in his useful book Good to Great, the first step is to “get the right people on the bus, in the right seats.” Are all key stakeholder groups represented? Are key opinion leaders present or at least represented? Inadvertently omitting key players from your invitation list can result in hard feelings that will endure long after the retreat.

Choose a conducive environment. Everyone likes to get away for a while, so off-site locations are often best. Choose a site far enough from the office to make it difficult for participants to run away to an “urgent” last-minute meeting. Select an attractive place that reflects the nature and purpose of your retreat. For example, I often take my quality-focused clients to a Baldrige Award-winning Ritz-Carlton hotel where we observe how this world-class organization creates systems and protocols that result in consistently high levels of performance.

Establish a cell-free zone. Ideally, all cell phones and beepers should be banned from meeting rooms. If this is absolutely impossible, ask everyone to turn them off at the start of every session. Consider establishing, by consensus, a protocol for violations (a $5 contribution to a local charity whenever a cell phone rings, for example.) Cell phones and beepers have a way of creating false urgencies. Even the anticipation of their ringing (or vibrating) can be a distraction.

Focus on policies and processes, not personalities. A fundamental ground rule: Make sure everyone avoids the temptation to make issues personal. Most problems are directly related to the way an organization’s systems and protocols are set up. The blame game is seductive but always counterproductive in the long run. Every person, without exception, wants to be known for competence. Use your retreat to create systems and protocols that will optimize the greatest potential of all your people.

Make relevant data the basis of your work. Put your improvement processes on solid ground by focusing on the collection, analysis and application of relevant data. A colleague of mine is fond of saying, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” People at all levels of your organization must feel free to challenge unsupported assumptions, using relevant data.

Along with “effect” data such as test scores, be sure to collect and analyze “causal” data—information about the possible reasons for the results you are getting. Why do some students perform below their capabilities? Do we need more data on whether they are getting enough uninterrupted sleep at night, whether they are coming to school hungry and whether they are getting enough water and exercise throughout the day? Causal data sets such as these are too often missing in our deliberations.

Provide objective facilitation. To avoid unnecessary conflict and to keep everyone on track, your retreat facilitator should be someone who is objective and perceived by all as impartial. For this reason, most successful retreats are not conducted by superintendents or board presidents, or even by internal staff developers, but rather by an experienced, respected outside consultant who is a specialist in guiding participants through the often-tricky terrain of interpersonal relationships and personal agendas.

Also, an outside facilitator can afford to say things that insiders may not be able to say, leading to more positive, lasting results.

Allow for food, fun and fellowship. Your retreat should provide good nutrition, especially in the morning. The usual fare of donuts, bagels, OJ and coffee, high in sugars and caffeine, often results in caffeine crashes and sugar slumps by mid-morning and a “dead zone” after lunch when many struggle to stay awake. Provide a protein-rich breakfast (egg and cheese croissant, for example) before the first session and protein snacks (cheese sticks, mixed nuts, shelled sunflower seeds) at their tables to munch on.

Build in time for everyone to network and enjoy each other’s company away from the business at hand. Taking them away for a sports outing, cookout or concert will allow them to get to know each other on a personal level in a relaxed setting. Bonding opportunities are often the most valuable, long-lasting benefits of a good leadership retreat.

John Jay Bonstingl is president of Bonstingl Leadership Development and director of The Center for Schools of Quality, P.O. Box 810, Columbia, MD 21044. E-mail: Phone: 410-218-1776. He is the author of Schools of Quality. Article copyright © by John Jay Bonstingl.