A day to get away

While the notion of a corporate retreat used to mean a day out on the golf course, today’s corporate retreats often have a much more strategic agenda, according to Karen Vernal, president of Milwaukee-based Vernal Management Consultants, LLC.

From helping companies fortify internal relationships to helping teams strengthen their capacity for change, corporate retreats offer employees an opportunity to step outside their daily routines, mute distractions and focus intentionally on strategic initiatives.

Vernal, who has designed and facilitated corporate retreats for more than 20 years, says that a corporate retreat is much more than a corporate meeting, with deeper objectives and a balance between reflection and focus on the future.

Part of Vernal’s role in coordinating corporate retreats requires that she “help clients appreciate the value around the ‘how’ we do business as much as ‘what’ we’re doing.”

In approaching the planning process behind a corporate retreat, leaders should first evaluate their exact outcome objective, Vernal said.

Do they want to gain momentum in rolling out change in their organization? Do they want to enhance team member relationships with more focus on individual and collective strengths? Do they want to plot out steps to accomplish two or three large-scale goals in the coming year?

At the American Society for Quality, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization that shares ideas and tools to improve the effectiveness of workplaces and communities, members of the leadership team – about 22 – take regular corporate retreats at an off-site location for team building and bonding as well as skill building, problem solving and strategic analysis.

Typically, with the help of Vernal, the organization’s upper management takes one annual retreat lasting a day and a half and three half-day retreats off-site throughout the year. According to Vernal, corporate retreats tend to cater to company managers and leaders, rather than entire staffs, with an underlying emphasis on leadership development.

During ASQ’s annual retreat, held at the Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva in January, much of attendees’ attention and discussion circled around the retirement of ASQ Chief Executive Officer Paul Borawski, who will exit the company in May or June. The transition in leadership that will follow is one the organization hasn’t experienced in 27 years.

As ASQ collectively prepares for that change, its continuing leaders must reflect on the kind of organization they want the new CEO to find upon arrival, ways they can help the new CEO work most effectively, and where their corporate culture stands, said Jennifer Janzen, director of global human resources at ASQ.

“So (we’re) really kind of getting ourselves prepared so that it mitigates some of the fear and consternation around that kind of large-scale change,” Janzen said.

Making time for self-reflection

Along with giving companies the capacity to evaluate collectively, corporate retreats provide employees the time and space to reflect individually.

“I think that it isn’t just important for the retreat, but it’s a practice that we encourage in corporate retreats that we hope people will continue on a regular basis beyond the retreat because it really helps us to be grounded in the present,” Vernal said.

With the fast-forward pace so many people cycle through each day, it becomes critical that company leaders stop and ask themselves: How do I want to engage in this work moving forward? How do I assess the way I have been working in the last day or two? What are the lessons that I can learn from that?

At ASQ’s corporate retreat at the start of the year, attendees took time to share some of their reflections. They gathered in a circle and revealed personal and professional lessons gleaned from 2013, as well as personal and professional objectives set for 2014.

The exercise helped ASQ leaders learn more about how their co-workers think and what they’re focused on, as well as who they are as people, Janzen said.

These kinds of exercises facilitated during corporate retreats equally serve leadership teams by helping their members get to know one another on a much more personal level, which translates back into the day-to-day office dynamics.

“We’re kinder to each other,” Janzen said. “We’re more able to make positive assumptions about each other when things might not be going the way we want. I think it’s a lot harder to be unnecessarily critical of somebody when you know them well.”

Breaking down relationship barriers

To optimize the bonding power of corporate retreats and the potential for a meaningful experience for all involved, Vernal recommends companies commit to an overnight retreat off-site under the guidance of an outside facilitator.

“There’s a very strong value to the overnight aspect of a corporate retreat because the engagement of people with one another between work sessions is as significant in terms of developing and deepening relationships as any formal activity during the retreat is,” Vernal said.

And if you can strengthen the relationships, trust and communication among individual leaders and managers, “you have a higher possibility of really accomplishing the vision and the mission of an organization,” she said.

It’s also important to weave a sense of fun into a corporate retreat, not only for the sake of team bonding but also to stimulate creativity, according to Vernal.

Incorporating an activity that is completely unrelated to the fundamentals of the business, such as a Ping-Pong match or a volunteer initiative, can be particularly useful in helping managers think differently about the way they work together.

“Oftentimes, utilizing an activity that has nothing to do with our business helps to illuminate strategies that we might want to bring into our work moving forward,” Vernal said.

Investing in employee development

At ASQ, the custom of taking corporate retreats and the practice of following up with post-retreat surveys and monthly leadership meetings has made a noticeable difference in the organization’s in-house approach to collaboration, problem solving and employee relations, Janzen said.

Retreats have also contributed to the retention of organization leaders and the individual sense of value they feel they bring to the office, Janzen said.

“I do think that it is really important for employees at any level in the organization to feel like their company is investing in their development, and that is certainly one thing we think is very important,” she said. “These retreats are a way for us to reinforce with our leadership team (the idea that) ‘You’re important. You’re a critical part of the organization and … we are very interested in investing in you as a leader and making sure you’re as successful as possible in the organization.'”

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