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Corporate Retreats Don't Have to Be a Waste of Time

After the Democrats lost their House majority in November 2010, Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and potential presidential candidate, suggested that President Barack Obama take some time off to reflect on what he should do next. The President did take some time to reflect and then worked in a bipartisan fashion to pass an aggressive agenda of legislation, far more than it typically handled in a lame duck session.

Not only should Presidents make time to think, so too should corporate executives. When Bill Gates was CEO of Microsoft, he typically took a "Think Week," a week or so retreat by himself to a secluded location to think about issues facing his company, catch up on his reading and reflect on next steps.

The idea of taking time away to reflect on current situations is something that many management cultures seem to discourage it. Many companies pride themselves on being "action-oriented," and that has produced great achievements. But sometimes the urge for action pushes aside the need for thought both in planning and in reflection.

So you want to try an off-site retreat? Great, but before you do, do some advance planning so you take full advantage of the time.

  • Figure out your agenda. Assess where you and your company stands, and what issues you want to focus on during the retreat. Just as it is necessary to consider what you want to accomplish, it is important for you to examine the future of the organization. Does the company vision still resonate? Is the mission still applicable? What opportunities are you overlooking?
  • Consider including top execs. Retreats need not be solo efforts; a close-knit team can make the time even more productive.
  • Invite outsiders. Sometimes it is effective to bring in guests to speak to your senior team. These folks may specialize in issues facing the organization, such as leadership or strategy. They might also be from academia or the world of the arts. The expertise the outsider brings is seasoning for the stew. It encourages people to think about something other than the business at hand as a means of gaining perspective on the current situation.
  • Encourage honest debate during the retreat. Develop a forum where the issues can be discussed openly and honestly. Assign executives questions and invite them to work with a colleague or two to develop specific solutions.Then present the solutions to the entire group and ask for feedback. Respect the rights of those who propose as well as those who disagree.
  • Follow up. After the retreat, write down what you learned. Everyone who participated in the session can be asked to do the same. Share reflections. Such ideas may lay the foundation new ways of thinking that can influence how the company approaches problems.

The purpose of a retreat is not to resolve all the issues. It is to think about them. Executives short the thinking process by having to come up with solutions. For significant challenges, overnight fixes are not feasible, or if they were you would have tried them already.

Reflection is a discipline. And the good news is that most successful executives are disciplined in their decisions and in their actions. Adding reflection to the repertoire of management approaches is sound practice and one that will not only help them lead more effectively but will benefit the organizations they lead.

Have you ever gone on a retreat that changed your thinking? What made the retreat productive?


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John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2011 Leadership Gurus International ranked John no. 11 on its list of the world's top leadership experts. John is the author of nine books on leadership including his Lead By Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results and Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up. Follow him on Twitter.

image courtesy of flickr user, stefg74

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