What does it take to run a successful and effective board retreat in today’s wired, overworked world? I recommend the following:
Consider the environment. If possible, schedule your retreats offsite. The change of venue (and pace) is a subtle signal to participants: we’re here to work. Getting participants away from the office helps focus them and prevents staff from stepping away to handle “just one thing.” If it is not possible to meet offsite, create a comfortable environment with plenty of snacks and consider a different room set-up than usual if you have the flexibility to do so.
Outside facilitation. It is important for senior staff and everyone on the board to be able to fully participate in the retreat—something that is not possible if one is assigned to facilitate. If funds aren’t available for a professional facilitator, check your local college or university to see if any professors facilitate for a reasonable fee. Or, consider asking an association colleague to handle the responsibility—and offer to the do same in return.
When I ask clients what didn’t work well at their last retreat, I often hear, “We made the mistake of having someone internally lead the retreat.” It is very hard to do—and even harder to do well when participants know you as a staff or board member.
Keep it small. Though it is possible to lead a retreat with dozens of participants, it’s difficult to do it well. The more people in the room, the less engaged each will be and the longer it will take to complete the work. If you need input from a wide variety of representatives, consider surveying before the retreat and sharing the results prior to the event.
Make it interactive. The best retreats feature high participation and engagement. Small group work is an easy way to achieve this as is any activity that challenges thinking or asks attendees to do something (drawing, list making, discussing, etc.).
Mary Byers, CAE, is the author of Road to Relevance: 5 Strategies for Competitive Associations and the founder of Association Strategy Circles. She also will facilitate the upcoming CEO/CAE Bootcamp & Retreat October 8–9.