Friday, March 30, 2007

The Off-Site Retreat

How many of you have attended a management off-site held by your firm? Perhaps you anticipated the opportunity to get away from the daily grind at the office, and you looked forward to getting some important work done with your colleagues. All too often, however, managers come away from these off-site retreats incredibly frustrated. Why do so many off-sites yield few tangible results?

In my experience, there are three types of problematic off-sites. First, we have "Off-Site Lite" - the expensive gathering at a plush resort, filled with golf outings, cocktail parties ... and very little real work. People come away tanned and rested, yet they have done little to address the tough challenges facing the business. Second, we have "The Powerpoint Parade" - an agenda packed with an endless series of presentations by senior managers... with very little time for open-ended dialogue and candid debate. Managers come away with thick binders that will gather dust on their bookshelves, yet few strategic decisions have been made. Finally, we have "Deep Thoughts" - a rambling, unstructured discussion of big ideas and profound insights... with no action items assigned, no decisions made, and no dialouge about what to do next.

How does one avoid these rather expensive fiascoes? First, before planning all the social activities and "networking opportunities," ask yourself a simple question: What would shareholders think if they observed us at this off-site meeting? Would they think we were using their money wisely? Second, be very clear on the goals of the off-site. What types of outcomes do you wish to achieve? What type of tangible action items will emerge from the meetings? Third, keep in mind a simple mantra: Focus on dialogue, not documents. Ask presenters to keep the Powerpoint decks slim and trim. Keep everyone focused on the discussion and the dialogue among the participants, as opposed to reams of slides and spreadsheets. Ensure that managers have ample opportunity to engage vigorous debate about the key challenges and opportunities facing the business. Finally, assign a moderator/facilitator to keep the team on track - to ensure that sufficient debate takes place, but that the conflict remains constructive. Ask that person to help the group establish a set of norms and ground rules for the discussions, and then empower that person to ensure that the group adheres to these guidelines. With these simple principles in mind, I think you come away from your next off-site a bit less tanned and relaxed, but much more ready to tackle the business challenges that lie ahead.


Welcome to Musings about Leadership and Competitive Strategy, a blog in which I will discuss the challenges managers face as they try to lead teams and organizations, make tough decisions, and formulate efffective competitive strategies. The blog will offer thoughts and insights based on my teaching, research, and consulting with many companies in a wide variety of industries. For more than a decade, I have been studying companies, as well as their leaders at all levels of the organizations. My work began as a doctoral student at Harvard Business School and continued as a faculty member there for six years after completion of my dissertation. Today, I teach at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island - where I continue my research and teaching. As a scholar at HBS, I learned how to conduct research with practical relevance for managers. I became a clinical researcher, meaning that I spent a great deal of time in the field - conducting interviews, administering surveys, and most importantly, observing managers in action. From there, I began drawing on that research, including many case studies, to help companies create and deliver leadership development programs that would have an impact on their top leaders as well as their rising stars. The best part of my job is the learning that I engage in every day. In all the time that I spend with managers as a researcher and consultant, I'm convinced that I learn a great deal from them every day. I've met many accomplished managers - most of whom are not widely recognized or celebrated - and garnered many insights into what makes for effective vs. ineffective leadership. I hope to share what I have learned in this blog, and to generate a lively dialogue with all of you, the readers of this blog. Thank you for your participation.