Reboot your creativity with a retreat

In the April edition of the Harvard Business Review, authors Heike Bruch and Jochen I. Menges offer the results of a nine-year study which identifies the increasing phenomenon of organizational burnout.

They suggest that more organizations are falling into what they describe as the “Acceleration Trap.”

The process begins when leaders ask organizations to rally around a particular initiative. Employees work extended hours, the pace of the project accelerates, goals are achieved and success is realized. Rather than appreciating that this pace works as an exception, the “Acceleration Trap” becomes institutionalized when this “exceptional burst of achievement” becomes the new normal.

The consequence of this new normal is the gradual erosion of employee morale and motivation, poor performance and reduction in employee retention.

Organizational behavior mirrors the behavior of its leaders. When leaders are burning out, organizations burn out. This disease has become an epidemic within our culture.

Twenty years ago, we were promised by futurists that by the year 2000, our work days would be shorter and we would have more leisure time with family and friends. Instead, we are working longer hours and experiencing greater demands on our time. We often hear executives say that they work 12- to 14-hour days with a high cost to marriage and family relationships.

During a coaching session last week, an executive expressed his frustration with the lack of spontaneity and creativity in his life. He reported that he goes through each day, one appointment after another, electronically scheduled by his assistant. Rarely does he determine how he will spend his work day. He described the experience as robotic. He is considering an experiment. He will re-claim his time, schedule his own appointments, and determine what will be energizing and strategic for his company for a period of two weeks. He suspects that his personal symptoms of burnout may subside.

Does this age of technology have something to teach us about reclaiming our creative energy? We know that when our computers are on overload, they crash. They need to reboot. They need a time out. They need to be unplugged.

The authors of the Harvard article suggest that organizations need to create a similar experience when they are on overload. For example, they suggest that after a year of organizational restructuring, leaders may need to agree that there will be a six-month reprieve from any further major change initiatives.

In order for organizations to unplug, leaders must demonstrate their capacity to step back and slow down.

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come more effective action.” – Peter F. Drucker.


Leaders are expected to make difficult, innovative, strategic decisions and to do effective work every day. Leaders are charged with the responsibility of guiding, inspiring, and leading organizations into a successful future. Leaders are expected to hold out the “light” and carry the vision through the darkness of economic decline. Yet, the discipline of reflection, critical for effective leadership, is often neglected.

We recommend that leaders “unplug” each morning for 10 minutes. We ask them to turn off phones and computers, to engage in “quiet reflection.” During those 10 minutes, we encourage leaders to: Review the events of the day before and ask: What went well? What would I do differently? Was I present and fully engaged? If not, why not? How will I respond to the challenges of today? What can I do to ensure that I will be fully present and responsive to the needs of individuals and the organization?

There are noticeable signs when a leader invests in the time to “unplug” and “reboot.” The signs include energy and optimism, focus, presence, creativity and responsiveness.

There are also noticeable signs when a leader fails to invest in the time for reflection. The signs are the preamble to the “crash” or burn out. Signs may include irritability, impatience, lack of focus, fatigue, depression, nervousness, fractured relationships, and poor decision making.

John Shea, an author and master storyteller, coined the phrase that Americans are “experience rich and wisdom poor.” Shea proposes that reflection is the path to wisdom. Without reflection, leaders miss the most important lessons that can influence their future decision making.


Once a year, our team enjoys an overnight retreat at a spa. This has been our practice for 11 years. We encourage our clients to do the same. In the last few years, we have added an additional mid-year, full day to reflect and plan together.

Many of our client organizations invest in annual retreats. Paul Borawski, executive director and chief strategic officer for the American Society for Quality, offers the following: “Leadership today is fast-paced and complex. The pace is certain to create gaps in relationships among members of a leadership team. Effective retreats provide the time and environment where these gaps can be closed and leadership balance restored. Leadership retreats provide essential time to nourish the spirits of leaders and to focus on the work of the future.”

From the time that Dr. Mary Meehan assumed the role as president for Alverno College, she instituted an annual overnight retreat for her board of trustees. “Board meetings are designed to be productive and action-oriented, yet rarely afford the opportunity for reflection, in-depth analysis and the kind of strategic planning and engagement necessary for long-term results. A fringe benefit of our retreats is the provision of time and space for trustees to socialize and to get to know each other in ways that make coming to routine meetings more enjoyable and more effective. An annual retreat is a best practice for all boards.”

What are the ingredients for an effective retreat?

Retreats are designed with the intention for leaders/managers to: reflect, re-focus, re-energize, re-engage, renew, and restore relationships in order to strengthen their effectiveness for the sake of their organizations. Retreats allow leaders to “unplug” from the daily responsibilities in order to focus on the strategic needs of the organizations.

Retreats are most effective when there is structured time for reflection, strategic conversation, and future visioning. Leadership retreats focus on the relationship among leaders. There is an opportunity to explore and bridge the gaps within relationships through facilitated conversation.

In planning a retreat leaders consider:

  • What is the desired outcome of the retreat?
  • What space will best support meaningful conversation and reflection?
  • What are the necessary skills in the facilitator who will lead us to our desired outcome?

As you consider the months ahead, we are confident that “unplugging,” reflection and retreat will allow you to advance more effectively. Enjoy the process!

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Karen Vernal is executive vice president and chief dreamer for Vernal, LLC (, a Milwaukee based leadership and human resource firm, dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” As an executive coach/consultant, she was recognized by the Green Bay Packers for her guidance in their organizational planning process. She was also the recipient of the 2011 Marquette University Leadership Excellence Award.

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