Essentials of a Good Board Retreat
Feb 19, 2023
A board retreat can be a way to harness the board’s passion and expertise and align board members on strategy and goals. When the retreat’s been well planned and executed, directors leave feeling energized, and more engaged than ever in the future of the organization they serve.
The big advantage of a board retreat is that it differs from a regular board meeting in format, content, and tone. A typical board meeting is tightly scripted to get through a packed agenda in a limited time frame. They tend to be light on opportunities for discussion, with few chances to get into details, ask background questions, or make innovative suggestions. They tend to be more about making decisions and providing approval.
A good board retreat sets up the opposite dynamic. It isn’t rushed. It offers a chance to really engage in wide-ranging discussions and deep thought. It provides the space and time for asking “dumb questions” – the sort that often end up being the most critical questions of all.
But let’s face it, some board retreats are a waste of time and money. So, what makes for a successful board retreat?
A good board retreat isn’t just thrown together. It requires planning and preparation. The key success factors are:
- Know the purpose.
- Consider logistics.
- Plan a purposeful agenda.
- Incorporate social time.
Know the Purpose
A good retreat starts with a clear purpose. After all, we’re all too busy to be trapped in useless meetings for no reason. Part of obtaining clarity about the purpose is to hear from directors about what they want to achieve and the gaps they’re hoping to fill.
Some common reasons for holding a board retreat include:
- Governance. If a board lacks functioning committees or struggles with board engagement, a retreat can help determine structure and articulate director expectations.
- Succession Planning. A retreat can offer the opportunity to discuss succession planning at either the board or management level, including plans for recruitment, selection, and onboarding.
- Strategic Planning. Developing a new strategic plan usually involves a retreat, and it’s also common to discuss progress on the current strategy. If progress has been slow, results are poor, or the external environment is changing, an in-depth strategy review might be needed.
- Board Evaluation. After a board assessment, a retreat is a useful way to review the gaps between the board’s current status and where it wants to be in terms of governance, oversight, culture, and engagement. From there the board can decide on action plans for improvement.
- Board Orientation. When a board is new, an orientation retreat gathers all board members together for the very first time and helps align them on responsibilities and expectations. The same can happen when a board has experienced a lot of turnover – an orientation retreat that includes all board members can provide new directors with a strong start to their onboarding program.
- Fundraising. A non-profit board, charity, or foundation might use a retreat to align directors on the strategy for an upcoming capital campaign or educate them on fundraising methods.
- Training and Development. Retreats are a great way to share knowledge with directors and provide them with specific training in areas where gaps have been identified. The range of potential topics for this kind of training is all over the map.
Address the obvious questions like Where? How much? When? How long? and Who?
- Where? Retreats are held offsite, but the location doesn’t have to be upscale. It just has to provide adequate space and good services for the available budget. A local golf course might serve just as well as a fancy hotel. A retreat held away from home encourages directors to focus on the task at hand, but travel can be frustrating, time-consuming, and expensive. Many boards find that a location that’s offsite but close-to-home is less hassle, yet still supports focus and team building.
- How much? There’s no question that a board retreat represents an expense to the organization. Developing and sticking to a budget is important. So is knowing where the expenses should be allocated.
- When? In the non-profit world, board retreats are often scheduled on weekends. Keep in mind that directors may have worked at their day jobs from Monday to Friday, so starting at 7 am on Saturday may not be a popular move. And since some people might arrive late or slip away early, it’s important to schedule the most important agenda items when everyone is available.
- How long? In theory, a retreat can last anywhere from half a day to a few days, but a full day or a day-and-a-half are common. Shorter meetings are easier to schedule and save money on food and accommodations. On the other hand, sharing an evening offers a better opportunity for directors to get to know one another. In the end, the duration of a retreat should depend on its purpose and objectives, not the other way around.
- Who? The board of directors, the CEO, and the executive team should all attend. In many cases, including other members of the leadership team for all or part of the retreat really pays off, depending on the retreat’s purpose and objectives. Outside experts might also attend, but usually only for specific portions of the retreat.
Plan a Purposeful Agenda
The agenda should make the best use of directors’ time and mental space.
- Keynote speech. A large, more formal retreat can benefit from a keynote event that provides context for the work ahead. Even smaller, more casual retreats can benefit from a kickoff presentation or a speech from an expert source that sets the stage.
- Presentations. Presentations are a necessary part of any board retreat, but a full day of endless presentations just leads to boredom and fatigue. Short, succinct, focused presentations have a greater impact and make better use of directors’ valuable time.
- Discussion time. I can’t emphasize this enough – it’s vital for participants to have the time to discuss what they’ve heard - allow 20 minutes to half an hour between sessions. Many attendees don’t come up with their questions until much later, so try ending the retreat with a wrap-up session where they can bring up their final concerns.
- Small groups. It can be hard for a large group of people to really talk to each other, so the best retreats counteract that by moving in and out of small groups.
- Training sessions. If training and development is one of the retreat’s objectives, then specific training sessions should be on the agenda.
- Participation. If there’s a company project that could benefit from the board’s input, schedule time on the agenda for directors to tackle it in-depth.
Incorporate Social Time
Even though time is at a premium, there should still be room for socializing, networking, and relaxing throughout the retreat. These little brain breaks help directors form personal connections and foster board cohesion. But keep them brief so they don’t extend the retreat timeline.
- Icebreakers. Start with an icebreaker to help everyone get to know each other. (Just don’t call it an icebreaker – everybody hates those!)
- Meals. Leave time for lunch, coffee breaks, snacks, and, if there’s an evening agenda, cocktails and dinner.
- Breaks. Even if it’s not time to eat, people will still benefit form a short break for personal comfort, to stretch their legs, or get fresh air.
- Activities. Planned activities (such as games, contests, or sports) can be enjoyable in the case of a lengthy retreat, but for shorter retreats they’re usually too time-consuming.
Whether to Use a Facilitator
Experts almost always advise using an outside facilitator. For one thing, this approach frees up everyone to participate in the discussions. Instead of asking the board chair or CEO to facilitate, a third party can keep the group on track, challenge conventional thinking, synthesize the conversation, and break logjams.
Expert facilitators know what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to group dynamics, offering advice and guidance and keeping the conversation moving forward. They bring an unbiased, third-party perspective to help assess and consolidate a wide range of opinions and ideas into a concrete action plan.
If necessary, you can hire an event facilitator to help manage details like catering, transportation, and accommodations, but in most cases that’s not what’s needed. Instead, you want a facilitator to focus on organizing and running the actual content.
When choosing a facilitator, it’s important to understand their approach because it has an impact on the tone and quality of your retreat. Select someone who understands your type of organization, cares about your issues, and knows how to communicate at the board level. Ultimately, you want to find a consultant with whom board members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.
What’s Essential for an Individual Director
Even though, as individual directors, we’re often not involved in planning a board retreat, we do have a part to play in making it a success.
- Provide input. Chances are you’ll be asked for your ideas and suggestions ahead of time. This is your chance to influence the logistics and the content. If you have an idea for a guest speaker, a presentation topic, or a training opportunity, be sure to share it.
- Do your homework. Make sure you’re ready to participate by reading the material and doing any required pre-work.
- Be curious. Bring an open mind and park your assumptions and biases at the door. Be ready to ask challenging questions.
- Take advantage of experts. Subject matter experts make frequent appearances at board retreats. This is your chance to ask that question you’ve always wondered about!
- Mingle. Instead of using breaks to check your messages, spend time with your fellow directors. It may help you resolve a tough issue in the future.
- Get to know the broader leadership team. You can interact with senior executives at regular board meetings, but the retreat is your opportunity to meet the up-and-comers who are a little lower in the organizational hierarchy.
- Provide feedback. After the fact, let the organizers know what you liked and disliked about the board retreat, and what you’d like to see next time.
- A good board retreat offers a chance to engage in wide-ranging discussions, ask “dumb questions,” build a culture of trust, and establish positive group dynamics.
- Start with a clear purpose and objectives.
- Develop a firm budget and stick to it.
- Allow time for socializing, networking, and relaxing to help directors form personal connections and foster board cohesion.
- Use an external facilitator to free up everyone to participate fully, keep the group on track, challenge conventional thinking, and break logjams.
- Help make your board retreat a success by providing input, doing your homework, being curious, taking advantage of experts, mingling with fellow directors, getting to know the broader leadership team, and providing feedback after the event.
Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help directors prepare for their board role.
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