When times get tough, many organizations get budget-conscious by reducing the number of staff and leadership-related meetings that they hold off-site. This year, says Bob Frisch, managing partner of The Strategic Offsites Group, Boston, more organizations are looking at their calendar of meetings for the year and re-thinking aspects such as the sequence of events, who comes to each meeting, and the agenda items, rather than just cutting certain meetings.

“People are starting to look at meetings in the context of the entire organization and make changes to who meets when or the objectives of each meeting, rather than just cutting an entire meeting,” Frisch says. More organizations also are holding their executive retreats closer to home. One thing that hasn't changed, he says, is the importance of developing objectives ahead of time.

“Until you know what the objective of the meeting is, it will be impossible to succeed,” he says. That means asking, “What do I want the team to have discussed and explored by the end of this meeting?” Focusing on that means leaving any topics that can be handled in other forums, such as staff meetings, off the agenda. It's also, he says, about minimizing the amount of time spent sitting through PowerPoint presentations and maximizing the time spent engaging in conversation and strategy.

There are a couple of rules Frisch likes to live by when running an off-site.

  1. Think about the size of the group that will be in attendance. If the goal of the meeting is idea sharing and brainstorming, a group of 25 to 30 people might make sense. But if you are using this meeting to make key decisions, 25 to 30 people in the room is going to be a disaster. “You need to have a smaller group of people in the room when it comes time to make those decisions.”

  2. Balance the time. It's important to be realistic about how much time the leadership group will spend watching a PowerPoint presentation or enjoying fellowship together, and how much time they will spend actually discussing new strategic directions, he says.

    “If you look at the number of hours spent on those strategic topics, and only four or five hours out of a three-day meeting are spent in these discussions, then it's not really a strategic off-site,” explains Frisch. It becomes “a conversation wrapped into a whole bunch of other activities.”

    That doesn't mean that your board members, who may be from around the country or even around the world, shouldn't spend time interacting with each other socially — that, too, has an important place in many leadership retreats. “You don't want to miss that opportunity for socializing and networking, but it has to be the right balance,” Frisch says.

  3. Make it stick. One thing that commonly gets in the way of getting effective results from a leadership retreat is that organizations often don't adequately plan for what is going to happen when the leaders return to the office. Before everyone leaves, it's important to decide on next steps and be very clear on these.

    Collect those action items that were decided upon during the meeting and recap what was agreed on and who is going to do what by when. “It sounds trivial, but it's actually very important, because you usually end up making some modifications at that point,” he says.

  4. Communicate the conclusions. “We like to ask attendees what they are going to tell to their subordinates about what happened here when they return to headquarters. It's important that everyone agree on the common themes of the meeting and what came out of being away for two or three days,” says Frisch. “It's not about scripting responses, but rather about being clear on the outcome and having a set of agreed-upon communication points for discussion after the strategic off-site.”

A lot of momentum is created at the end of a well-designed off-site. It's not just about what happens during the time away from the office, but about the planning and execution of those decisions afterward that make the meeting truly effective.