Leading Dynamic Board Retreats

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

Do you have a New Year Retreat coming up soon?  Unfortunately, many attendees leave retreats feeling that their time was not well used and that the retreat did not work. That’s terrible. Experienced facilitation can solve that issue. More about that further on.

Here are the most common types of retreats:

  • Board Retreats involve an organization’s directors and executive staff, and should focus on development of governance mandates and initiatives.
  • Executive Staff Retreats give EDs the opportunity to catalyze discussion among senior   officers on objectives for the organization.
  • Staff and Board Retreats are broader, involve the entire staff, and should focus on macro-level goals.
  • Planning Retreats deal with long-term, strategic, and operational planning.
  • Retreat as Intervention

Understanding the different purposes of these various retreats is important to assure the best organizational intervention—yes a retreat is a type of intervention! Why? Because you’re seeking a new dimension on performance, and to get new performance requires new information, new perspectives and new behavior. Make sense?

But wait, there’s more! Consider these aspects:

  1. Implementation Strategy: Often, organizations conduct retreats without giving forethought to the implementation strategy to be used after the plan is completed. If you build in such a strategy from the beginning, then the plan will be more likely to make the change you seek. For example, the approach of going into a retreat with a list of recommendations for action, and having Board or staff members react to the recommendations, is much more action-oriented than simply hoping that something will happen. Unless you prime the pump, implementation may never occur. Further, an implementation plan should be calendared and each part should be assigned to specific people.
  2.  Gender and Racial Parity: We believe in gender parity for the retreat facilitators, and in having multicultural and multi-racial facilitation when it makes sense. Gender balance, in particular, often helps to create greater sensitivity to personality differences among your participants (see #3 below). In our experience with one organization, we found that having a native Spanish-speaker translate retreat presentations for a diverse Board of Directors greatly enhanced the experience for several individuals, and also prompted better discussion. The organization had not previously considered translation a necessity.
  3. Personality Differences: We structure our approach with attention to personality differences, based on the Myers-Briggs inventory. The various MBTI types are good indicators of how participants absorb information differently.

Understanding personality differences means more than alternating use of oral presentation, visual material, and facilitated discussion. It also involves encouraging better participation. For example, when one group member remains quiet throughout most of a retreat, it may reflect a preference for analyzing and synthesizing data before speaking. The group benefits tremendously if a facilitator knows when to turn to such a person for his/her depth of knowledge.

Experienced Facilitation is Key

I mentioned at the start that having an experienced facilitator usually makes all the difference. Such a person can avoid problems before they occur and can make the experience dynamic and even fun. The Danish adage, “They know the water best who has waded through it,” applies.

Lastly, it’s in your best interest to dispel the idea that retreats are a waste of time and to make these events into springboards for action. LAPA can provide additional resources on retreat planning by request. Give me a call.

We welcome your comments about this post on the LAPA blog.

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