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Your Corporate Retreat Always Sucks: Eight Ways to Make it Better

The good news is that the economy is recovering, and corporate retreat dollars are flowing again. The bad news is that the vast majority of corporate retreats should be canceled. They hurt morale, confuse people, or worse, convince people that the out-of-touch are running the place. That said, a few are important events, and have marked positive turning points for careers, divisions, and companies. Here's a guide to make your retreat great.

First, a disclosure. In the past two years, I've spoken at 22 corporate retreats, and I firmly believe they are sound investments when done well.

1. Involve people in decisions instead of talking at them.
Follow this one rule and your retreat satisfaction rate will double: take all of the information in canned presentations, and turn it into videos that people can watch on the plane. Then use that time in meetings for discussions about the content, rather than making sure they understand through Q&A sessions after they've all been put to sleep.

Talking at people rather than with people produces zombie retreats.

Corporate retreats should be working sessions, not an opportunity for your key decision makers to prove what a great year it's been under their able leadership.

The only exception to this "give it to them in advance" rule is when you have information that you don't want to leak out. But even in executive sessions, 95% of the material covered isn't confidential. Move everything you can to pre-work.

Really want to set a tone that you've had a good year, and that this retreat is important? Record all those videos in advance and give them out on iPads that are people's to keep prior to the retreat. Want to know how to afford it? Cut out the expensive canned keynote speaker.

2. Make speakers earn their money.
Here's the dirty little secret from the world of keynote speakers: heaven is when your speaker's bureau calls and says company X wants a 45 minutes standard speech that you could give drunk and jetlagged. Why would a company waste its money like this, when most good speakers have TED Talks or other material that's free? Having an expensive headliner is proof that the company is on the cutting edge of thought leadership. It's also a section of the retreat that's all but guaranteed to get positive satisfaction scores.

Here's how to use a keynote speaker. Tell them you want them to talk to 10% of the people attending the retreat prior to their speech, and then to summarize their findings as the top three ideas or action items that would benefit this company. If the speaker isn't excited by this process, pass - no matter how many best-selling books they have or how good your friend said they are.

3. Splurge on fine things, not on trinkets, or Jimmy Buffet.
Here are things that all seem good in planning meetings that make your company look cheap, not smart, and very uncool:

  • Distribute Hawaiian shirts with your company's logo on it.
  • Serve private label bottles of wine with the motto of the conference on it. Most of the time, you're giving out swill with a sticker on it.
  • Give out really cheap golf balls.
  • Hand out copies of books that can be read in under 10 minutes or while intoxicated. Read my blog post on what makes most business books suck. Don't give those away.
Entertainment is great, but make it relevant to the younger people. Too many corporate retreats offer entertainment right out of the CEO's IPod playlist. It doesn't matter how much the senior executives think the Eagles or Jimmy Buffet would be fun to meet. Related to common mistakes:
  • Serving overly healthy food, or overly sugary food. Give people a choice. They're adults.
  • Including retreat time by the pool. You don't want those visual memories of your coworkers.
The bottom line here is that you want the retreat to highlight what your company stands for. Unless your company values stale entertainment and cheapness, then please take these suggestions to heart.

4. Have your own ship in order.
The people organizing the event must be thrilled about their prospects in this company. If they're not, the downer mood is more contagious than the flu. Take some time to do some career planning yourself. You, and the people attending the retreat, will be glad you did.

Likewise, your CEO (or top executives) should do serious soul-searching before the retreat. The best retreats I've ever attended started with a senior executive, speaking without notes, saying that he'd made some real mistakes, and is here to learn how to be a better leader, along with everyone else in the company. Take a look at the 7 things we wish we could tell the boss. Do any of these apply to the person at the helm? If so, spending some with him or her prior to the event will go a long way to making your retreat, and your company, more vibrant.

5. Make part of the event educational.
The true meaning of education is kindling a fire, not layering more information on what people already know. Real education is a journey in which people test and possibly discard, old assumptions. It is not a list of 20 bullets on a PowerPoint slide.

With this definition of education in mind, have part of the retreat focus on learning some cutting edge ideas. Have people work on case studies, business school style, that may not seem to have anything to do with your company. Talk about companies that are the best in world at what they do - GE on governance, Zappos on culture, and Google at innovation. Look also at companies that were great, and disappeared. Then ask what your company can learn from these discussions.

Learning principles are far more valuable than learning tactics or tips.

5. Use the retreat to develop and defeat your perfect competitor.
Here's a single idea that will make your next retreat one people talk about for years (in a positive sense). Break people up into groups and have them come up a description of a competitor that could put your company out of business within 24 months. How is the company run? Where is it located? Who works there? What makes them so devastating?

Then shuffle the groups and ask people to come up with an action plan to thrive in the face of this fictional competitor. If run well, people will leave the activity with a sense of the competitive landscape and an idea of how to do better in serving the customer.

6. Shred your values and start over.
Even if you have values that you think your workforce embraces, set them off to the side and rediscover them. If people leave your retreat with a renewed sense of what the company stands for, you will have done more good than by showing people the details of the latest financial strategy.

The best retreats I've ever attended had a values discovery session, followed by a "develop and defeat your perfect competitor" segment.
7. Avoid the desire to tell people about new HR policies.
As a keynoter, the ideal time to speak is right after the HR policy update. No matter how bad you are as a speaker, you'll seem like Tony Robbins compared to that content.

HR updates are important - and make ideal material to send out in advance. Under no circumstances should you take part of the retreat to go through mandatory training of any kind, such as sexual harassment avoidance or ethical compliance.

8. Most vital: Don't mess up on the alcohol.
The biggest set of gripes I hear at retreats involves alcohol, and it may not be what you think.

The biggest is that the wait time to get a drink during open bar sessions was too long because someone decided to save a few pennies of staff costs. Have more bartenders than you need, and people will spend their time mingling, not waiting in line.

The second biggest gripe I hear is after the retreat, when something bad happened. I don't find these events humorous in the slightest, even though most other people do. These events often end marriages, employment, or start lawsuits. The rule is: do serve alcohol, and don't be stupid about it. Don't encourage people to drink - some don't want to for religious or personal reasons. Don't laugh about how much people drink - doing so makes "drunk" a bag of honor. The bartenders need to tell people they've had enough, without fear that the crowd will turn on them.

And most important: if you're going to be liberal in serving alcohol, make sure no one is driving home.

My secret trick (up until now) is that when too much alcohol is flowing, I slip the bartender a $100 to make my drinks mostly water. That martini in my hand? 80% water, only a splash of Grey Goose.

Have you been to horrible retreats? If so, I hope you'll add a comment about what made them so bad.

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo courtesy homesbythomas, CC 2.0.

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