Truth is a powerful weapon. The truth about executive offsites is that they’re not the waste of time many executive believe them to be.
I have run executive offsites for over 30 years, and I know they don’t have to be a waste of time. The secret, I have learned, is to make the offsite relevant by taking on a key strategy, obstacle, or new business disruption that everyone is talking about and is required of the business.
After the offsite it is essential to meticulously follow through on the decisions made and with milestones and measures to track progress.
Here are seven tips for running game-changing offsites:
- Be clear about the purpose and objectives. Many times executives know they have a problem from their operational metrics such as a significant problem with manufacturing quality or poor customer service. Or they have become aware that a disruptive competitor is about to enter their market, or that a well-known competitor is about to release a cutting-edge product. But they don’t know what to do. Spending one or two days with colleagues to determine the correct strategy and course of action can be pivotal for the business.
Start by understanding the purpose of the offsite.
As you determine the purpose and objectives of your meeting, it’s critical to have the facilitator speak with the key stakeholders to gather their understanding of the issue at hand. Views of the problem may vary wildly from engineering to sales and finance to marketing. I find it helpful to ask the participants this question: If the offsite is to be successful, what understanding and direction will we have as a common ground after the offsite?
If the offsite is to be successful, what understanding and direction will we have as a common ground after the offsite?
Finally, the communications to the group about the purpose and expectations of the meeting are essential to having the participants show up with the appropriate mindset and energy level.
- Who should attend? Many times too many participants attend an offsite, and it becomes hard to have a meaningful discussion and to set clear direction after the meeting. In addition, when people from multiple levels of an organization gather together, politics and personal agendas may get in the way and stifle participation.
I find it helpful to start with the top level of the organization and when key information is required from internal or external experts to invite them in during critical times on the agenda.
Besides, technical experts or lower-level managers may be involved later after the leadership team has reached a consensus on what needs to be done.
Be sure that those who are attending are 100% focused on the purpose of the meeting and are not distracted by the day’s critical problems. Have everyone put away their gadgets.
- What is the group’s chemistry? Empirical evidence shows that teams with equal participation, empathy, and trust reach better decisions, particularly when the business is facing new existential threats and opportunities or when new thinking and innovation is required.
So what is the chemistry of the group? Dominance from one or more members of the team can stifle critically needed information or ideas. Are there some participants that prefer to stick in their safe, functional areas and don’t participate, yet have valuable information to contribute?
Having the meeting facilitated by an experienced facilitator who can stimulate equal participation and keep the group moving forward on common interests is extremely helpful.
The facilitator will need to meet with the stakeholders and set up the expectations of the meeting to establish ground rules.
Dominance from one or more members of the team can stifle critically needed information or ideas.
I find it helpful to involve external resources in strategic offsites when the business is facing new threats. External experts can help the group guard against groupthink and can provide keenly needed insights.
- Determine a detailed agenda, required information, and meeting process. Many executives support the need for an agenda but don’t spend enough time preparing one. An excellent facilitator will help with this work. For example, each item on the agenda should clarify the presenter, time needed, and the purpose of the item. Is it a presentation of critical data? Is it a question and answer session? Open discussion? Brainstorming? Time for a decision by the leader, vote, or consensus?
For each item, how much time will be required? Will the whole group be together, or is it an item for small groups?
Also what group information or templates will be required? SWOT analysis? KPI templates? Anonymous digital voting tools? What information can be distributed to the group ahead of time to assure all participants have the same necessary information?
Preparing a detailed agenda may be tedious. I find, however, that the more time put into the meeting’s agenda, the better the informed discussion of the meeting and outcomes.
- Roles of those attending. As I mentioned earlier, it is critical to have a facilitator lead the meeting. And if you do use a facilitator, make sure the leader and facilitator are clear on their roles.
Having a facilitator frees up the executive leader to participate in the meeting without having to worry about keeping the meeting on the agenda.
Make sure stakeholders are clear about how decisions will be made in the meeting and by whom. The leader? Group vote? Group consensus? In addition, the facilitator will also want to speak to the leader and stakeholders about the facilitator’s role for keeping the meeting going, everyone’s full participation, and avoiding dominance.
Other key roles for meetings include a scribe who can track the key issues of the discussion, record questions that can’t be answered in the meeting, and note conclusions of the group, actions, and follow up items. The facilitator and scribe need to work well together to keep the meeting moving forward and on task. Finally, having a timekeeper, usually an executive participant, will help keep the meeting on time.
- Break the Kool-Aid pitcher. The trouble that many executive teams have at strategic offsites is that it is too easy to say, “We already tried that” or “It didn’t work before”. They shoot down new ideas without giving them the consideration they deserve. Many times, unconscious biases also enter the picture.
The real focus needs to be on the new information, threat, or opportunity. It may be that the idea that was once tried and failed may now work because of new technology. Or it may be that our understanding has improved. Either way, established senior teams need to avoid drinking from the Kool-Aid of implied group understanding and openly consider all, creative ideas to win in the marketplace. Change is a constant.
With one offsite, I actually had Kool-Aid pitchers on the conference room table. Whenever someone shot down an idea before the group could consider it, I asked them to drink from the Kool-Aid pitcher.
I actually had Kool-Aid pitchers on the conference room table.
It became a norm from the offsite, and the Kool-Aid pitchers became a fixture at other meetings.
- Close strong! Now that you have had a satisfying one- or two-day offsite, it is important to review the outcomes of the meeting, reflect on them, and put in place the governance of the group’s decisions. This is when most offsites fail. Leaders simply don’t follow up adequately.
At the end of the session, it is critical to review the group’s the open items that require follow up, the decision that have been made, and future decisions to be made.
I find it very helpful to walk through each of these items in a closing session for the meeting that may take an hour. This includes taking time to set up teams to implement the offsite’s decisions.
This is when most offsites fail. Leaders simply don’t follow up adequately.
Each will need an executive sponsor from the offsite who will charter and shepherd the group, a team leader, and also the team’s purpose. Scheduling the first meeting is also important. From there, the sponsor will need to work with the team leader to attract members, establish budget, actions, resources, milestones and measures.
Often at this stage, someone asks, “Is all of this follow up necessary? Our managers and employees are already busy!” I always welcome this question. It leads to a vital group discussion on the value of the effort and what other initiative may need to be delayed or cancelled to free up resources. This is a tough discussion but is necessary to give the organization the direction it needs on priorities.
Offsites — when they are managed well — are an essential tool to get the leadership team and organization’s focus on critical changes that need to be made.
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults and provides hands-on support to improve recruiting and retention, cultures of innovation, and train agile leaders and teams.
Do you need help with an offsite, text Victor at 707-331-6740.
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