Four Things to Consider When Planning a Firm Retreat

Great retreats don’t just happen; they are planned – yet, where do you start? Here are four questions you should consider in order to plan a really effective firm retreat.

#1: Clarification: Are you conducting a retreat or a planning session?

The two terms are often used interchangeably when, in fact, they are quite different. Unfortunately, the confusion over these two types of gatherings often leads to frustration for participants due to the lack of clarity of purpose.

A retreat, by definition, is a time to withdraw from day-to-day stress and demands by establishing a designated time and place for contemplation, either alone or with others. Your firm retreat should resemble this. It should include activities that facilitate a closer bond with your partners and your team, and a time for reflection.

Most importantly, a firm retreat is focused on the present state of the firm: relationships, alignment with core values, overall vision and mission, and cultural temperature taking. A retreat should be focused on, “How are we doing and feeling?,” compared to a planning session that focuses on the future, “Where are we going and how will we get there?” Remember, too, that if you have negative responses to the retreat questions, you will never be able to answer the planning session questions with any level of conviction.

Every firm needs to have both types of events, but not at the same time. Firms have a tendency to try to kill two birds with one stone. Being efficient makes sense when it comes to routine processes. However, when it comes to strengthening the core of your firm, being effective is far more important.

#2: Purpose: Why are we doing this? What is the purpose of the retreat?

Is it to bring existing team members closer, integrate new team members into the firm’s culture and/or reward the team for a job well done? The answers to these questions are important when it’s time to create an agenda for the retreat.

#3: Ideal Outcome: What do you want to accomplish?

Are we looking for something tangible, such as a list of issues to be addressed at a planning session, or is the retreat fully dedicated to strengthening the team?

#4: Agenda: What is the most effective way to tackle your issues?

Your agenda is the key to achieving your purpose and reaching your ideal outcome. Below you will find five key elements for an effective agenda. Please note that important action items may come to the surface as a result of the activities on this agenda, such as a post retreat work or planning session, but those items should be put aside to be dealt with at a later date.

  • State of the Union – this will serve as an update on the overall health of the firm. Review key performance metrics and trends, major accomplishments and setbacks, and progress toward the overall vision.
  • Alignment – The session can be strengthened even more with some advance prep work. Sending out an annual Firm Health survey (to the entire firm) prior to the retreat can provide very relevant feedback. This survey is different from individual employee and satisfaction surveys. It asks bigger picture (non-technically focused) questions, including:
    • Are we living up to our Mission (include mission statement)?
    • If you could run the firm for a day, what one thing would change/implement immediately?
    • Is the firm devoting enough resources in each of these non-technical areas: team building, personal development, conflict resolution, communication skills, diversity training, management skills, succession planning, and/or leadership development?
  • Communication Skills – this area is the most underserved, and yet provides the greatest bang for the firm’s buck. Any time you can help individuals become more self-aware of their own behavior tendencies, they are more likely to have a positive interaction with those around them. There are a number of tools firms are using to improve communication. One particular tool that is having a major impact on the health and well being of firms is focused on measuring the Emotional IQ of the organization. It has been shown that partners with a higher EQ are more profitable to the firm.*
  • Bonding Activity – This is code for “fun.” As the nursery rhyme goes … “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It also makes Jack a loner at a time when collaboration and teamwork is essential to the well being of the firm. So what is the ideal activity? I know that golf is the default favorite when it comes to retreat activities, but keep in mind not everyone likes golf or feels confident about their abilities. Variations like shot gun, best ball, and other skill evening techniques can make for a fun outing for everyone. However, consider alternative activities that provide for more direct team work, such as a cooking class (often offered at culinary schools) where a master chef teaches the group new skills as they prepare the evening meal. In addition, there are actual “team building” workshops with a Guide who facilitates opportunities for problem solving, shift in authority and leadership roles, and thoughtful discussions around the value of teamwork and the most common obstacles that get in the way.
  • Closure – this opportunity for group sharing is a critical outcome of any retreat. It is also a time for self reflection/correction. Have each person write a letter to themselves dated one year from the date. The letter should be congratulatory in tone, recapping the most meaningful lessons learned from the retreat and what they are going to apply in their life.

Examples: I learned about conflict management. I will work hard to utilize the specific skills (detail them) I learned when I interface with the team. I learned the team doesn’t think we are performing well in the area of leadership development. I will personally meet with my “up and comers” each quarter for a special lunch or activity to reinforce the vision we have for them.

Have everyone read aloud their top reflections and corrections in their letter (have the letter set aside for the next retreat). When the group gathers in a year, the letter becomes a great opener in the Alignment section of the retreat. Consider sending each participant a copy of their letter mid-year as a reminder of commitments made at the retreat.

Retreats are the fuel that keeps the culture of the firm on track throughout the year. For that reason, retreats should not be limited to partners only. If taking the entire team away for a couple of days (as the above agenda would imply) is not fiscally feasible, then break the retreat down into 2-3 hour sessions each afternoon over the course of a week. If you do this in your office, turn off the phones, lock the doors and include everyone, including  the administrative staff. A few hours a year dedicated to working ON the firm will make a huge impact when everyone is working IN the firm.

*ROI on Increased Emotional Quotient for experienced partners in multi-national consulting firm

EQ Competency Increase in Profit Incremental Gain
Self-regulation $1.46 million 390% per partner
Social Skills $931,000 110% per partner
Overall EQ $1.2 million 139% per partner

Source: Richard Boyatzis, PH.D. 1999