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A lot of businesses I’ve spoken to over the years simply don't have a budget for bringing a facilitator or coach in to run an offsite, retreat or strategy session. But that shouldn’t deter you from having one at all; don't be afraid to run it yourself.
I believe that these events are massively underrated as they are a magnificent opportunity to build trust, get aligned, have some fun, and let off some steam. If you don't have them in your annual calendar, you ought to put them in. Right now, your executive leadership team might have been working remotely for some time, so it's more important than ever that you get everybody together to talk about vision, strategy, roles, metrics, purpose, values, your rituals, traditions, and in general how to be a high-performing team.
I've sat through and led a lot of very, very challenging executive sessions in my time, so here's 10 things that I have found work best for running an effective strategic offsite.
1. Start with the purpose
What are the objectives that you want to achieve at an offsite? That might be vision, purpose, strategy. Or it's just getting to know each other better. You've got to start with an understanding of the problem you need to solve. What goes hand-in-hand with that is some sort of diagnostic on the team, which should tell you what to focus on when you go away. Do a survey of your people, ask them 10 to 20 questions so you can get right into the most important topics.
2. Have a crystal clear agenda
This is crucial because then everyone knows what's going to be covered and they can prepare mentally for it. But as the conversation flows, you and everyone in the room need to be prepared to leave the agenda if necessary, particularly if there's an elephant in the room. Have the courage to talk about it; create a judgement-free circle of trust or a safe space for things to be spoken about that aren’t comfortable.
3. Have some great templates
If you're doing strategy work, make sure you've got the best templates you can possibly get. If you're trying to tease out a vision, have a great vision process test. If you're trying to establish your operating rhythm, get a framework for that. Make sure you've got everything you need because it makes the sessions run a lot smoother and allows you to get a lot out of peoples’ heads.
4. Share session facilitation
If it makes sense, get everybody to run a session. I find that people love it as they get involved more, especially if it’s a topic they love, but it also helps share the workload and reduce the monotony of a single voice facilitating the entire offsite. Ideally those people should get lots of notice that they are running that particular session, so that they can do the necessary pre-work.
5. Go off the grid
Get away from the city, as far away as is practically possible from your place of work. The distance and connecting to the land or the sea just makes a difference to the quality of person that turns up. So get in your car or get on a plane and travel and stay in a hotel or BnB together if you need to.
6. Serve one another
Cook for each other, clean together, take turns in organising tasks, activities or meals. It just has an amazing effect on the group and makes people feel involved. You might also discover things about others you never knew such as hobbies, travel stories, mutual connections.
7. Ensure everybody knows the rules of the game
At the very beginning of the retreat, make sure everybody understands some of the basic rules around phones, leaving the room and staying present. You should also consider the language you use, the respect for each other, and reinforcing the company values. You might feel like it's a bit silly to do this, but I've found over the years that you want the best version of people in the room and nothing less is acceptable.
8. Find time to tell a story
Encourage people to tell stories around the campfire or the dinner table about other parts of their life. Ask everybody to tell a story about their family, about something they did that really defined them, perhaps their three favourite songs and movies. It's a wonderful way of humanising and building trust.
9. Make sure you hear from everyone
Keep an eye out for the people that don't speak up as much. Say you're brainstorming some strategic priorities. It's really powerful to get everybody to sit down for a minute first and write down their ideas. That allows some of the more introverted people in the room to just play to their normal everyday preference of thinking quietly, forming an idea, feeling comfortable about it and then being allowed to share it, either verbally or it could even be through post-it notes on a wall.
10. Wrap it up
Be really clear on all the tasks, actions, and who is going to lead those things. Make sure everybody knows what's happened at the offsite, and that it will get taken back to the office and brought to life. Hold people accountable, and then automate the execution of tasks through your operating rhythm.
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