Feb 27, 2018 | Leadership

Are you a member of this club? The one where you spend 2-3 mind-numbing days in an over air-conditioned conference room with no natural light trying to creatively solve your organization’s most challenging problems?

By the end of the last day, your brain is fried from wading through your corporate muck. You have nothing to show for your collective effort but 18 flip chart pages covered in mostly illegible scrawl. You walk out of the room blinking against the late afternoon sunlight as someone collects and folds the flip chart pages that you know may never be unfolded again.

Leadership retreats like these are not only exhausting for the participants. They can also be frustrating for the team that holds down the fort while you’re away. Leadership coach Paul Batz noted, “A mid-level employee recently told me, “There must be a big vault somewhere that holds all of the flip charts from fancy leadership retreats because we never see any change when the big shots come back from Florida.”

When my firm started offering retreats to help our clients work on their leadership and culture issues, we resolved to change the game. We’ve distilled some best practices from our experience that help our clients make the most of their leadership retreats.

1.    Send mixed signals. In the seminal book Frames of Mind, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner proposed that people possess not one but several varieties of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Unfortunately, most meeting facilitators use only two or three learning modalities that connect with less than half of the room. Don’t limit your material to lecture, read, and discuss. Instead, share the key lessons through a variety of delivery methods such as simulations, illustrations, and small group discussions. Want to know which learning styles suit you best? Take this short assessment.

2.    Get mixed messages. Thinking creatively in real time is hard. If the senior leader in the room shares his or her thoughts first, creative thinking usually grinds to a halt. No one wants to challenge or embarrass the leader. The group silently watches their opportunity for real change meet death by HiPPO (highest paid person in the office). Instead, break the room into small groups and challenge each group to work on the same problem. Then, ask each small group to present their results to the larger group. The group with the HiPPO goes neither first nor last. This creates space for divergence of thought, and a safe space for people to challenge the leader’s perspective.

3.    Be pushy.  Don’t let your retreat wrap without pushing for insights and breakthroughs. Listen for openings to challenge assumptions and hidden questions in what people are saying. If it’s not obvious which idea is ripe for dissection, look to the whiteboard or clusters of sticky notes posted. Is there a root-level assumption that could be challenged? Or if not challenged, clarified? Asking “How do we know that?” or “What if it weren’t that way?” will do one of two things: crack open more space for new ideas, or confirm and deepen the group’s understanding of the idea in question. Either way, you’ve gained something much more valuable than a collection of folded flipchart pages.

If your leadership team spends three days a year rafting down rivers together, you’ll eventually get good at rafting down rivers. Instead, spend three days a year working from well-designed material that offers each person a voice and guides the team toward shared growth. Your mid-level managers will gladly hold down the fort.

 Question: What tips have you learned to help your team advance from a retreat?

Our team enjoys creating an environment where leadership development meets strategy execution. Allow one of our skilled facilitators to lead your team on a culture refresh: https://execexcellence.wpengine.com/corporate-retreats-and-workshops

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