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The HR Doctor Is In

Turning a Retreat Into a Great Step Forward

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?"

Thank you.

Retreating County Official

Dear Retreating:
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 inspiration.

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 cost.

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 results.

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 same time.

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 proposed.

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 promotions.

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 inches.

Providing such a vantage point for the staff is a very important job for managers - perhaps the most important component of "leadership."

Best Wishes,

The HR Doctor


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