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What Really Happens at a Management Retreat

February 20, 2018


When Michelle took over as VP of operations for a major retail company, within the first few weeks of her appointment she announced to her 10-person management team they needed to save a date in two months’ time for an off-site management retreat. She was taken aback when many members of her team voiced their displeasure. She and her new team were working well together, tackling several difficult challenges and making significant progress. The pushback she heard the most was that people didn’t have the time and they questioned the value of spending the two days away from their demanding roles.


Off-site management retreats can be an extremely effective management tool. Eileen Broer, President, The Human Dimension, in an article published in the early 2000’s said it well when she wrote “a good management retreat usually results in a clearer, more coordinated plan and more energy for the work”


Those of you who have enjoyed getting away from the orderly mayhem of a busy workplace with your colleagues to focus on what the future ought to be, understand only too well the perspective that comes with being off-site and the creativity that often ensues. If nothing else, off-site retreats offer an unparalleled opportunity for us all to see beyond our silos and create shared ownership as a management group ultimately responsible for the entirety of the operation, not just our piece of the puzzle.


Some successful off-site management retreats produce clear and detailed action plans while others do not. Some are primarily focused on strengthening the team while others allow themselves to tackle very specific problems or questions. Some are focused on reducing differences or busting operational silos while others are used as a forum to prepare for a significant event like budget preparation, the beginning of a planning exercise or a significant organizational change. Some are strictly focused on strengthening relationships, fostering trust and getting on the same page. Most are a combination of the above with a bit of fun and competition thrown in.


Here are a few of my favorite conditions for success in planning and executing the kind of off-site management retreat that people see as effective, worthwhile and something they look forward to once or twice a year.


  1. Having the right people in attendance and managing expectations of invitees and non-invitees.

  2. Clarity of purpose, stated objectives and well understood roles.

  3. Pre-retreat preparation/homework that urges (not to say forces) participants to engage with their direct reports for input and insight.

  4. Capable facilitation with serious consideration to using a 3rd party to ensure leaders can participate rather than attempt to facilitate and participate.

  5. An agenda, loosely or tightly defined.

  6. Activities to allow participants to eat and relax together.

  7. Scheduled usage of smart devices while severely restricting their use while in session. After all, being present is what the event is all about.


The afore-mentioned tips can help make the retreat productive, energizing and hopefully something people look forward to.  Regrettably it does not guarantee success, but it does reduce the risk of the retreat falling far short of expectations. 


A sure way to derail such work is to ignore the fact that a code of conduct must still be in play. Long gone are the days when such retreats were boondoggles where adult beverages flowed and people’s behaviour and conduct were not in keeping with their best deportment. In these times and given that colleagues will most often stay overnight in a relaxed and informal setting, all the safeguards must be in place to remember the retreat is a workplace where only our most appropriate and respectful conduct will do.


Michelle was able to convince her team to attend the initial offsite despite some being quite skeptical.  A few years have passed since the first retreat and now her management team tells anyone who will listen how much they look forward to and appreciate the modest yet comfortable biannual day and a half event. It has been described as fun, relaxed and an uber-productive way for her management team to re-unite, re-focus and re-energize.


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