Off-site meetings are usually touted as a great way to break free from the daily grind and inspire your team to think big. But sometimes, you find yourself leaving the resort, conference center, or, heaven forbid, airport Hilton feeling like you've just lost two days you can never get back.
Done well or done poorly, off-sites can resonate for years. "People will keep buzzing about 'the meeting in the snowstorm' or 'the meeting at the Ritz,' " says Bob Frisch, managing partner of Strategic Offsites Group in Boston. Whether they're tempted to insert an obscenity when describing that meeting depends on how much thought you put into it.
Set realistic goals. "Often people are too ambitious in terms of what they expect to get out of a two- or three-day meeting," Frisch says. "The CEO should determine in advance what the meeting is meant to discover or develop," and then create an agenda or program that drives toward the desired outcome.
One way to do that is to make sure you have the right people in the room for each conversation. That means some people may attend only a portion of the off-site. Be certain that even those who take part in just a single session have a "fact book" of relevant data that they've reviewed ahead of time, says Logan Chandler, a partner at Stamford, Connecticut--based Schaffer Consulting, which helps companies develop and execute strategic plans: "Off-sites can go sideways because half the people attending don't have enough information to make an intelligent contribution."
Set ground rules. Many companies specify breaks during which participants can check their smartphones and tablets; the rest of the time, all use of such devices is forbidden. Others focus on ways to keep the conversation on track. Wendy Lieber, president of Athena Marketing in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is a fan of an analog approach she calls the "parking lot"--a large sheet of paper or a whiteboard onto which great off-topic ideas that pop up can be "parked" for later discussion. Another technique is to have people write down answers to important questions--for example, what's not working at the company?--and then have them read aloud. It ensures that even the shyest people are heard.
Since eliciting everyone's input is often the entire reason for holding an off-site, Chandler counsels CEOs to ask open-ended questions and be the last to weigh in. That encourages more participation, and often leads to better group decision making.
Frisch uses the "poker-chip game," in which each participant places chips on a tabletop diagram depicting the company's competing priorities. Seeing how people allocate their chips is, he says, a great way to get all present to explain their points of view.
How you follow up is as important as how you prepare for and run the event. "End with a plan of action," Frisch says. Danna-Gracey, an insurance agency in Delray Beach, Florida, capped its last off-site by assigning a "champion" to each goal identified at the meeting; every champion provides a monthly progress report.
Jack Lynch, CEO of Renaissance Learning, a software company in Wisconsin with a thousand employees, applied a similar approach by initiating what he calls "weekly standups," in which each senior exec provides a quick update. In his company's case, he says, an off-site was invaluable, because "our team is relatively new to one another, and that opportunity to focus on improving communication has really made a difference." Now start planning for next year!