Retreat to Advance

'Tis the season, apparently. I've been facilitating a bunch of board retreats lately, and it has been wonderful to see the varied effects on both staff and board. Oh, by the way, there are some people who have been calling their retreat an "advance." As in, advancing the work and mission of the organization. I'm really not a fan of this nomenclature, though I do appreciate the sentiment.

A retreat is defined as "a time to withdraw for the purpose of meditation or study."  I view retreats as an opportunity to be away from the usual so you can focus on the questions and issues that you don't have time for otherwise. It's a time for consideration of and rumination on the important things that you and your staff are facing.

So what are the essential elements for a successful retreat?

  • It must be a shared investment of time and energy. Everyone needs to participate in the planning and execution of the retreat. I always ask each participant to complete this sentence for me while I'm planning the agenda: "This retreat will be successful for me if ____."
  • Find a space that allows you all to feel comfortable and separate from the day-to-day experience. Not the office. Preferably not a conference room.
  • Hire a facilitator. Someone who can listen, synthesize, rephrase, clarify and strategically guide your conversation. Someone who can be direct and honest with everyone, including the CEO and board chair.
  • Don't overload the agenda. Allow your people to focus on the big picture by spotlighting it instead of burying it. Allow for socializing and relaxing by scheduling blocks of discussion time separated by breaks for everyone.
  • Require that the retreat be device-free. Schedule breaks that allow people to check in as needed, but not during discussion time.
  • Debrief as soon as possible afterwards. Your facilitator should be able to summarize the proceedings for you and provide a set of recommendations for followup on what was discussed and decided at the retreat.


Happy retreating (and advancing)! Good luck!

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