6 Key Pieces of Advice to Help You Plan Your Firm Retreat

As a partner in your firm, you are not just an tax professional or accountant; you are the leader of your business. Effective business leaders take the initiative to plan for the longevity and growth of their business. There are many ways to take that initiative, including setting SMART goals, moving to value pricing and identifying niche markets.

Holding a retreat for your tax and accounting firm is also an effective way to plan for longevity and growth.

Why should you plan a firm retreat?

Simply put: retreats work. That’s why corporations have used them for years. Unfortunately, few accounting firms take advantage of this effective method for team building, debriefing, planning and vision casting. Just like the clients we serve, we need to take time to step away from our own day-to-day operations, dream about and plan for the future, and help all of our team members see the bigger picture and what success at our firms look like.

With some thoughtful planning, you can put together a retreat that takes your accounting firm to the next level.

What should you do first?

Identify the purpose of the firm retreat. Ask yourself what you want to be different about your firm the Monday after the retreat:

  • Do you want your team to be more unified?

  • Do you want to have a written vision for the firm?

  • Do you want to improve on the processes that you currently use to serve clients?

  • Do you want to have specific measurable goals created so you can reach the vision you already have, or do you need to create a new one?

Once you have decided what you want the retreat to accomplish, the rest of the decision making will fall into place.  Throughout the planning, think: will this activity, location or idea accomplish the purpose of the retreat?

Who should attend the firm retreat?

When determining who should attend the retreat, be sure to include the members of your accounting firm who have direct responsibility in achieving the purpose of the retreat. This may literally mean every person in the firm, from the receptionist to the IT person to the partners. The positive momentum of deeper interpersonal relationships can be worth the little bit of money it costs to shut down the office for a day or two of planning and team building. 

Plus, everyone in the firm can benefit from each person’s unique perspective. For example, if you are working on developing a strategy to offer advisory services to clients, you may not think that an IT Director could have anything to offer since he isn't they directly working with clients; however, an IT Director may be able to think from a client point of view since he is outside the day-to-day client relationship, as well as provide insight on how the tools affect the client experience.  

You will also want to line up a facilitator for the retreat. A facilitator has experience with retreats and knows how to run one well. Having a facilitator means that you can participate in the retreat instead of running it. Facilitators can also diffuse power struggles if they arise, and offer suggestions as you implement the plan after the retreat is over.

Where should you hold your firm retreat?

Be sure to select an off-site location for the retreat.  Having a change in scenery helps to get the creative ideas flowing and cuts a bit of the “cord” to the office. If the location is new for everyone, it’s more relaxing and puts everyone on a level playing field. At a retreat, you want everyone’s voice to be heard.

And, don’t just pick a place that has a conference room with four white walls. Pick a beautiful place that encourages inspiration, and has some smaller rooms or spaces for collaborating and small groups to meet to discuss various topics. Think outside the norm for the place, such as a ski lodge in off season or a little off the beaten path outside the city. Just make sure the location you choose can handle the technology you will need and has food there or close by!

What will you actually do at the firm retreat?

Once you have decided the purpose for the firm retreat, work with the facilitator to create the schedule or agenda.  

  • First, you’ll need to decide on the length of the retreat. Depending on the size of the team and the purpose of the retreat, it may be as short as one day or as long as a 2-3 days. If you back it up to a weekend, you can have team-building before or after as well.

  • Second, plan for a balance of large group time and small group discussion. Some will not participate in large group discussions, especially with leaders in the room. Having a smaller group discussion will allow some people to be more comfortable to share their ideas and feedback.

  • Finally, be sure to schedule downtime. Some of your introverted team members will need a break between sessions to process all the conversations. And, for your extroverted team members, they want to talk through the sessions and have time to “hang out.”

A couple other tips for the firm retreat:

  • Check your tech at the door. We all know that smartphones can be distracting. Some retreats benefit from having a phone basket or a no phones/tablet/computer policy when there is deep thinking to do.  

  • Help everyone be part of the discussion instead of letting the quick talkers take over. Give time for people to write down answers to questions, first, so that everyone has something to share when discussion time comes.

  • Make sure that the leadership mingles with everyone. This is a great opportunity to hear from the “front lines” what is going on and for the leadership to identify rising stars.

How do I prepare my team for the retreat?

Be sure to give your team plenty of notice once the dates are set. Babysitters, dog-watchers and other plans need to be made by team members, so give them time to plan - and to build the excitement. Let them know the purpose, but do it in an exciting way that helps them see how they will be a part of the future success of the firm. Make it sound like something they want to be a part of! The most important thing to communicate is the purpose of the firm retreat so that everyone has realistic expectations. You cannot over-communicate the purpose of the retreat.

As it gets closer to the retreat, you may also want to give participants a few questions to think about ahead of time or even a quick survey so that people have ideas ready and their thoughts gathered for the first discussion time.

It takes a lot of time and energy to plan a retreat well, but the benefits will be worth it as you align your team around a common vision, build momentum and start to take your firm to the next level!