Two years ago, I wrote an article for Accounting Today titled "Partner retreats that produce results."

In it, I discussed the concept of "impact retreats," retreat topics you should not discuss, and the real purpose of annual retreats. In this follow-up article, I want to explore ways to manage the agenda, structure the retreat and implement follow up activities.

Manage the agenda

This is quite simple. The retreat agenda needs to show the topic, the amount of time devoted to it, the facilitator for the topic and the desired outcome (e.g., develop the plan, vote on a resolution, etc.). Remember to distribute the agenda and other retreat information well before the meeting.

Provide structure

Retreats need to follow rules. If you need a brush-up on how business is conducted in deliberative assemblies, read Gen. Henry M. Robert's Robert's Rules of Order. In addition, make sure that you set your own ground rules up front and hand them out with the retreat material.

Here are 12 key rules to running an effective retreat:

1. Stick to the agenda. Many retreats fail because the agenda was not followed.

2. Keep the agenda items to a manageable number.

3. Make sure that every one arrives on time.

4. Take care that all sessions start and end on time.

5. Don't allow for side conversations.

6. Make certain that all participants come prepared.

7. Don't discuss issues that are not pertinent to the entire group.

8. Don't allow hidden agendas.

9. Keep the meeting positive in tone. Don't attack the speaker; rather, differ with the idea being presented. No snide comments.

10. No interruptions. Don't let the meeting be interrupted by outside calls/messages or people coming and going.

11. Participants should know that their input matters.

12. Allow for sufficient time for breaks and socializing.

Facilitator versus outside speaker

Know the difference between a retreat facilitator and an outside speaker. An outside speaker makes a formal presentation (on the state of the accounting profession, the future of the industry, how to handle stress, etc.). She may be very entertaining, and sometimes you want someone who will accomplish this at your retreat. But remember that the real purpose of your retreat is to move the firm further toward its strategic vision. Many times, outside speakers have little or no long-term impact on the future success of the firm.

A retreat facilitator plays a completely different role. The facilitator's main goal is to open the firm to future possibilities. A facilitator's key role is to move beyond just being a facilitator and to help the firm move beyond the present. He opens the firm to change and is action-oriented. The facilitator stimulates discussion but does not dominate it.

Finally, she guides the discussion to a conclusion and helps create action steps. A good facilitator acts as if she is part of the firm, and behaves in the firm's, not any one individual owner's, best interest.

Impact retreat structure

Here is a proposed five-step approach to structuring your next retreat:

1. Know your business priorities/objectives. What are the two or three key goals that the firm needs to achieve in the current year? Goals usually evolve around clients, service delivery, employees and growth.

2. What problem are you really trying to solve? This is a critical. If you don't know what the problem is, you won't get to the right answer. It's very important to get specific about the problem. A vague problem merely creates a lot of discussion and a lot of data, without ever being resolved.

3. Start with facts. Too often, firms make decisions on rumors and not facts. Start with the facts and then brainstorm.

There are a lot of ways to develop alternative courses of action. One tool you may find helpful is mind mapping. It was developed by Tony Buzan in the 1970s. It uses pictures and word phrases to organize and develop thoughts in a non-linear fashion. It helps you see a problem and its solution.

The key to generating ideas and solving problems is not necessarily to think logically. If one idea triggers another, don't try and analyze it, just mark it down on the mind map - the crazier the association, the better! If you want to read about creating thinking, pick up a copy of Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono.

4. Formulate and prioritize solutions. You can't do everything at once, so make sure that you have some mechanism to screen and prioritize your solutions.

5. Develop and communicate recommendations. The ultimate success of the retreat lies in the execution of your solutions. This step takes place the day after the retreat ends.

Implement post-retreat activities

Communicate your conclusions to the other members of the firm. One way to do this is to list all the conclusions that were made at the retreat on one side of a sheet of paper and the supporting reasons and data for the conclusion on the other side.

Once this is done, there are three specific activities that you can engage in:

1. Hold monthly/quarterly updates. Set up a meeting calendar. This will avoid the constant problem of clearing individual calendars.

2. Follow up with a firm-wide retreat to share retreat goals, strengthen employee commitment, and improve partner/staff relationships.

3. Begin implementation. Start right at the end of the firm-wide retreat. Firms often make the mistake of assigning responsibilities to non-management partners. The only people who should walk away with tasks are management partners and other key management personnel who have management responsibilities, e.g., the director of human resources or the director of marketing.

Make your next retreat more productive by following these guidelines. Both you and your partners will get the most out of your annual retreat.

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