Qualities of Successful Board Retreats

Business people playing a game

Dr. Josh Packard
August 23, 2017

Raise your hand if you’ve been on a board retreat.  Keep it raised if it was a less than ideal experience.  I’m willing to be that most of you still have your hands up. 

In the SRL, we work with lots of organizations and have seen, up close and personal, some really great retreats, and some really awful ones where everyone involved felt like they were wasting their time.  Unfortunately, most of what we see falls into that second category. In fact, we’re often brought in after an ineffective board retreat where board members spent a lot of time, and got nothing done!

Ineffective retreats are organization killers.  People donate substantial amounts of time and energy to these boards and when those resources are not used effectively, the hangover can last for months or even longer. 

However, an effective, focused and productive retreat can be energizing and life-giving for the entire organization.  Here are some tips to make sure your next retreat goes smoothly:

1.       Be Realistic.  Boards often overestimate the amount of actual work they can get done in a retreat.  The retreat becomes the “black box” for all of the organizational loose ends.  People fall into the habit of thinking that with an entire day or more to work, nearly anything can be accomplished.  How often have you heard “Just add it to agenda for the retreat”?  Make sure you have a focused goal for the retreat.  Every item of business that doesn’t serve that goal gets pushed to another meeting. 

2.       Decision Making is the Priority.  A lot of retreats fail because boards neglect to do their prep work.  We frequently hear of board meetings where the board realizes very early on that they don’t have the information they need to do the work at hand.  For example, last year an organization we work with now scheduled a two-day board retreat to come up with a strategic plan.  After just a couple of hours, they realized that they had more questions than answers and no way to get the information they needed.  Board retreats should be all about making decisions, but the right information is needed ahead of time so that board members can be informed. 

3.       Plan. Plan. Plan. Rarely do board members need to have every single thing run perfectly, but they do want to know that you take their time seriously and are not wasting it.  Make sure that in the months leading up to the retreat that you or your staff have planned out everything from the logistics to the technology to the agenda. 

4.       Hire an outside facilitator.  As the CEO, you need to be as involved as anyone else in the actual conversations and decisions being made.  An outside facilitator can not only keep the retreat focused and on track, but can actually enhance the experience by asking the right questions at the right time.  We play this role frequently at the SRL, and we couple our facilitation experience with as much data collection as possible before the retreat to make sure that everyone is pointed toward the same goal.  For example, earlier this year we did a comprehensive organizational analysis (think, SWOT) for a local philanthropic group that included collecting survey data, organizational trend data and interviews with staff and board members.  All of this information fed into the development of the 3 and 5 year plans at the retreat we facilitated.  Not only were we able to provide insight and focus to the retreat, but we were able to answer board member questions on the spot which meant they could focus on making the decisions that mattered for the organization.

Retreats are a powerful tool at the disposal of any organization.  If they’re used effectively, they create team cohesion and energize your staff and volunteers.  But if they’re messy, disorganized and unplanned, they can set an organization back.  In other words, the stakes are high.  Make sure you do what it takes to get it right.