The employee field trip

What executive retreats can do for your team

Todd Brown knows the challenges of promoting teamwork among a group of professionals. When he worked for computer giant Hewlett-Packard’s national professional services and medical products group a decade ago, the lack of cohesive effort put multimillion-dollar accounts at risk. Brown recalls those pressure-cooker days: “When the team had a hard time ramping up and working in a collegial, positive way, it would make for a longer startup period. As a result, the client might not trust us as much, and credibility could be an issue.”

Brown, formerly a southeast regional vice president for MTV and BET, spent quite a bit of time infusing esprit de corps among members of his troop. To foster camaraderie within his team, Brown and his staff participated in a two-and-a-half-day executive retreat at Colorado’s Black Mountain Ranch. At the rustic location, his staff rode horses on precarious mountain trails and practiced cattle wrangling. The exercises, Brown asserts, forced individuals to bond and develop lasting relationships.

Whether confined to a hotel conference room or part of a physically demanding outdoor adventure, Brown found such activities provided his company with more than just another employee outing. The retreat served as strategic and operational planning sessions that had a transformative effect.

An effective retreat is designed to identify internal and external challenges and also promote an environment that encourages candid dialogue, trust, and commitment. As a result, managers develop a focused, close-knit team, and, in turn, the company realizes significant productivity gains.

But there are distinct elements that every manager should include in his or her retreat. Aside from the location, the selection of a facilitator — someone to help produce the agenda and lead discussions — is critical. Success will be determined by the content and organization of the retreat, how well employees are engaged, and the ability to cultivate an honest and meaningful discourse. Department managers can prove to be effective facilitators, particularly for end-of-year evaluation meetings or incentive trips. But many experts believe hired facilitators tend to be more objective and more effective in engaging employees. “[Experienced facilitators] bring an external perspective to how to accomplish what you need to during a meeting,” says Barbara Scofidio, editor of Corporate Meetings & Incentives, a meeting-planning publication. Scofidio cites the need for unbiased and neutral direction to get to the nitty-gritty of strategic planning, problem solving, and teambuilding. “Hired facilitators allow the executive to focus on the solutions rather than the process.”

Employees often find it easier to express concerns to an outside facilitator than to their boss. Mary Tomlinson, president of On-Purpose Partners, a Florida-based strategic business consulting and communications firm, says she finds that employees enthusiastically respond to her pre-retreat surveys. She maintains: “They will tell me anything because they are so happy to have someone to ask for feedback in a safe environment where it’s going to be confidential.”

Companies should also consider conducting postmortems, says Scofidio. To determine a retreat’s impact on a department, she suggests reviewing sales leads or productivity levels for six months to a year. “Companies

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