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The HR Doctor Is
Turning a Retreat Into a Great Step
Dear HR Doctor:
A management retreat is being
planned in my county. Do you have any advice on whether this is a good
idea and, if so, what should I expect in the form of outcomes and a
"return on investment?"
Retreating County Official
County governments are
bureaucracies. There is nothing inherently wrong with that phrase. It
refers to a particular method of organizing that involves the
administration of rules and procedures, chain of command, and business
conducted in a formal and legal manner.
However, in most public bureaucracies, there is a danger that daily
activities become routine and workloads grow in the face of unfunded
mandates and case load-driven demands. In this environment, managers and
employees are in danger of losing perspective about the larger strategic
issues that they face.
Instead, over time, there is such an emphasis on things which are
"tactical" (i.e., the issue of the moment) that ideas, like long range
organization, can get lost. It is extremely important for managers to
periodically find a way to restate basic principles and show leadership in
pointing the way to the future.
A management retreat is one technique which can be very helpful in
breaking the cycle of chronic "organizational nearsightedness." In
planning a retreat, it is important for a manager to understand that the
retreat, its agenda and location will be subject to scrutiny within the
organization and, perhaps, from outside by the press or by the various
"watchdog" groups with which each of us interacts.
It is possible to organize an exciting, thought-provoking and memorable
retreat that invigorates staff members with a positive sense of the future
without spending a lot of money and in a very defensible way. Here are
some tips from the HR Doctor:
1. Ask yourself whether a retreat is really necessary. Are there other
techniques that are being used to engage in long-range planning and focus
on strategic goals?
If the organization is not already using other approaches, such as
needs assessments or a strategic planning process or if significant
changes to an organization are on the horizon based on funding, changes to
the law, or reorganization, a stage-setting strategic retreat could be
"just what the doctor ordered" (the HR Doctor, that is).
2. A retreat needs to be defined as a very special event, out of the
ordinary and therefore, relatively rare.
3. Select an unusual venue - not the normal office building setting.
Examples from the HR Doctor's experience have included a museum, a
hospital, a high school, an aircraft carrier, a planetarium, an athletic
complex, a performing arts center and a nature center.
4. Select a general theme, perhaps using the venue as a source of
For example, a retreat at a performing arts center could focus on how
to turn a group of expert soloists into a coordinated group which is
"singing from the same music."
Another example could be a hospital setting with the theme of the
emergency room as a metaphor for the constant stream of acute cases which
face many county agencies. The HR Doctor's aircraft carrier setting was
used to highlight the importance of teamwork and a common understanding of
the mission in order for an organization to be successful.
In each of the examples cited above, there was no cost for the use of
the facility and highly experienced speakers were also obtained at no
5. The retreat should have a variety of unexpected activities to help
reinforce the central theme.
For example, one retreat with the theme of responding to administrative
emergencies and teamwork was highlighted by the unexpected visit of the
sheriff department's SWAT team to put on a demonstration and then later
engage in a discussion about the critical importance of each team member,
knowing his or her job and trusting one another to function effectively
and on time for the sake of the whole team.
An event like that or a visit to an aircraft carrier off shore will
create a memorable experience that will reinforce the theme of the
meeting. When planning such activities, however, take steps to ensure that
they can be well explained and justified in relation to a "public purpose"
served by the retreat.
Events which cost excessive taxpayer dollars or involve controversial
techniques may not be well understood by the press or by others in the
organization or the community and could lead to problems which detract
from the positive idea behind the retreat.
6. Every retreat should have a specific and focused outcome - a product
- to bring back to work and to create a momentum for further positive
If the retreat is focusing on an immediate challenge to the
organization such as the major effect of a new law, one outcome can be a
plan of action with follow-up responsibilities to be carried out to make
the new law work.
If the purpose of the retreat is to improve communication and teamwork,
one outcome could be assignments to complete a task for people who rarely
work together in the organization. An outcome example could be the
development of a community service concept, such as the "adoption" of an
elementary or middle school by the county agency to provide mentors,
"career day" speakers, help with rehabilitation of the facility or other
ideas to help improve staff morale and contribute to the community at the
The retreat can also be an opportunity for employees at all levels of
the organization to share ideas in small group sessions where elements of
a problem can be broken down to manageable elements and solutions
7. Someone once said "fun is the most important discipline of all."
Take time during the retreat for the staff members to get to know one
another better by sharing a meal and recognizing one another's
accomplishments. Some organizations make available shirts, caps, mugs,
etc., with the county logo which may be purchased by employees and taken
back to the workplace.
A meeting such as a retreat can be a wonderful opportunity to recognize
professional accomplishments, present service awards and announce
A periodic staff retreat for half a day or a full day can be done with
reasonable cost and with significant positive results. That's a great
combination. The more stress employees are under from work pressures, the
more important it is for managers to seek out ways to focus on the future
and on "the view from 40,000 feet" rather than the view from four
Providing such a vantage point for the staff is a very important job
for managers - perhaps the most important component of "leadership."
The HR Doctor
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