[IMGCAP(1)]Times have changed! It is impossible to focus on every danger and every opportunity. Also, it is not enough to identify issues, which is often all that happens at traditional partner retreats; you must also address those issues if you expect to grow. Some of the top issues in firms today are succession, workflow, lack of integrated technology, lack of accountability, and lack of growth.

A Summit, Not a Retreat

"Retreat" implies that you are looking to the past and moving backwards. A firm "summit," on the other hand, implies a more ambitious approach - one that incorporates a broader participation base that will distinguish your firm from its competition. The purpose of a firm summit is to bring leaders and members to initiate strategies for significant growth.

Most firms spend too little time working on the firm and too much time working in the firm, especially where governance is less defined. In those firms everyone believes that they are in charge but are too busy to lead - so little growth happens.

Too often, firms put the same people in a room year after year, hold a retreat and call it good. But you can't expect exciting and revolutionary results using this same old formula. Accountability is the key to success. Who holds the partners accountable in your firm after the retreat? It takes a process, not a slogan, to ensure accountability and success.

Break out of the CPA Mold

It's time to change your format. Make these meetings fun and create some excitement. If you don't know how, ask your spouse! The following suggestions will improve your firm summit's results, as well as making it a much more enjoyable experience.

Select a relaxing venue away from the office. Get people out of their daily routine. Meetings at the office don't work. There are too many interruptions and distractions. Choose an out-of-town location - preferably one where leisure activities are available. One firm recently conducted its firm summit on an overnight sailing trip. If you're afraid to sail, try a ski lodge or even a sports arena.

Encourage everyone to participate. Be inclusive, rather than exclusive - fresh ideas and "new blood" should be welcomed. Management's participation is also a must. While transportation and lodging expenses are always a consideration, off-season rates at many venues make them easily affordable.

Utilize a professional facilitator as your leader. Use an experienced facilitator to keep participants focused and on the agenda. It is difficult, if not impossible, to facilitate your own firm summit. Most firms have partners who can easily become tactical, rather than strategic. A good facilitator will keep them from going off on tangents and diluting the focus of the meeting. You might be surprised at how focused participants become when an outsider is involved.

Start your firm summit with a positive focus. Take time to celebrate and be grateful for your successes. This exercise requires mere minutes but is often overlooked. Take a little time to reflect on the most positive events during the past year, why they were important and if any follow-up is needed. Better decisions result when participants feel confident and positive.

Work from an agenda and stay on time. Don't surprise participants. Solicit agenda items in advance and distribute an agenda with meeting materials. Do your homework prior to the meeting. Keep each item strategic and stay on time.

Avoid numbers; stick to the concepts. Force participants to think in terms of the big picture. The tendency is to focus on tactical, rather than strategic, issues. Tell participants up front to avoid restraints such as budget and time. It pays to dream. You will find the time and budget for great ideas and strategies. The chances of identifying great ideas and strategies are diminished greatly if you start with the premise, "We can't afford that." Think in terms of who can "pull this off" or "Whom do we know that can help us?"

Keep minutes of the firm summit and share them with the entire firm. Document the "who" and "what." Accountability is essential, and minutes help you avoid conflicts later on, while keeping participants focused. They also can become very valuable as a resource in years to come.

Think strategically, rather than tactically. Utilize your agenda to avoid tactical discussions. Also, highlight the benefits of strategic thinking when you announce the firm summit date, as well as at the beginning of your session. An experienced external facilitator is especially helpful in maintaining focus on the "big picture" and providing references to best practices by leading firms and companies.

Take breaks of 10-15 minutes every hour. People need time to move around and interact. Strategic thinking is hard work. Most people and organizations avoid it simply for that reason. A good rule is to work for 45 minutes and break for 15.

Mix the sessions in with activities such as golf, tennis or boating. Plan for social activities and make a special effort to include those who are more introverted. We recommend an audience response system to engage all participants during the meeting. Team activities such as a scramble in golf are fun and allow those with less skill to participate and still enjoy the event. Every firm outing needs a driver for the "beer cart."

Invite outsiders such as experts or even clients. Outsiders bring a fresh perspective and generally command respect. Don't expect them to provide answers to all of your problems. You should expect them to have opinions and ask penetrating questions.

Name task forces for follow-up, with a responsible person and due date. Each person must be held accountable for their part. Allow those responsible an opportunity to agree upon due dates, which will ensure the chance of each project being completed on time.

Conclude the firm summit with a brief statement from all participants. Take a few minutes at the end to allow all participants an opportunity to voice their perspectives. What did they find to be the most valuable aspects of the meeting, and what changes would they like to see in the future?

Firm summits should be both productive and fun! Thoughtful planning, facilitation and location contribute to their value. Delegate the planning if it's not your unique ability.

Every firm has or should have a social chairperson. Give that person a reasonable budget. Don't wait - schedule your firm summit today!

Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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