Retreat to advance

Corporate retreats are a proven way to remove key personnel from everyday work and focus on improving your business.

There are many ways to plan and execute a successful corporate retreat, but it starts by realizing what a retreat truly is — a chance to get away from day-to-day operations and prepare to advance your division, department, or company.

To ensure that you don’t get bogged down in day-to-day stuff, retreats also entail off-site activity, usually at a distant resort that lends itself to a combination of strategic and team-building activities. Before that takes place, however, a fair amount of pre-planning, budgeting, agenda-building, and sometimes transportation arrangements are involved.

To get an end-user point of view of corporate retreats, we interviewed Patrick Flesch, president of Gordon Flesch Co., a Madison-based office technology, managed print, and managed information technology provider; and Hayley Peterson, chief operating officer for Northwestern Mutual Southern Wisconsin. Both organizations have held multiple retreats in recent years and have fairly buttoned-down processes for pre-planning, the retreat itself, and post-retreat follow up and evaluation.

Rustic retreats

Gordon Flesch Co. was established in 1956 and has held retreats for more than 30 years. The company has grown to more than 200 Dane County employees and through the merger-and-acquisition process, it has been adding strategic partners from South Dakota to Ohio — which has added more layers to retreat planning.

Every August, the company holds an off-site, 2 1/2-day Wisconsin retreat that also is known as the annual manager’s meeting. Among the venues it typically uses are the Grand Geneva Resort, The Ridge, and The Abbey (all in Lake Geneva), but last year the venue site was the Red Crowne Resort on Trout Lake between Minocqua and Boulder Junction in northern Wisconsin. The company wanted an idyllic setting in 2021 because it did not hold a retreat during the pandemic year of 2020 and because, like many businesses, it has been through a great deal over the past couple of years.

“It’s just a beautiful property, so we really got to mix in things like golf and pontoon rides and shooting trap and other team-building stuff, more than we typically do when we spend the majority of time working on the business,” Flesch says.

Don’t let all that fun fool you. It’s really a sales-centric program in which Gordon Flesch Co. works on sharpening the axe of its sales function. In attendance are all branch managers, all sales managers, and the entire senior sales leadership team, including the vice president of sales, regional sales directors, and ownership.

Attendance has grown over the years, especially as the company has grown through the M&A process. “It has really become a pretty big event,” Flesch notes. “Obviously, it’s a more expensive event, but we see great value in pulling everyone together because we’ve grown geographically, so we have different markets that present different challenges with different sales cultures within each branch. We get a lot of value out of sharing best practices.”

The purpose of each retreat, which should be established early on in the planning process, usually is both strategy and project focused. The VP of sales and the two sales directors (the designated retreat organizers) typically get together and work on the agenda, select the venue and room size, organize what will be served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day, determine what the group will do in the evenings, and arrange transportation to and from the resort.

“There is a ton of coordination,” notes Flesch, who before his promotion to president was an organizer of the event. “We like to do rounds so that we can do small-group breakout sessions where that table just works on a topic, and we come back 15 minutes later, and everyone reports on it. And so, they [organizers] crunch through all the details of the logistics, and then they also design the agenda. So, what topics are we going to cover? How many breakouts will we have? Will we have an external presentation on something applicable to our industry? They work through all of that, and … it really is hours and hours of work to get ready.”

Needless to say, with a multiple-day event and a growing company, the planning for the next retreat begins shortly after the current year’s retreat ends. There is post-event evaluation to complete first, but organizers have to give themselves ample time and devote a little bit of each day or week to pre-planning the next retreat. With higher inflation impacting the cost of everything from food and beverage to lodging, the current economic situation adds another layer of complexity.

As the retreat sponsors, Patrick and brother Mark Flesch, the company’s chief operating officer, provide the final review of the agenda, perhaps adding or removing a topic, but the organizers do the bulk of the planning. They begin the process of sharpening their own sales skills by selling Patrick and Mark on the program.

The purpose of the retreat and the agenda will then play a role in selecting a venue. Since August is the peak summer month, Gordon Flesch Co. looks for a venue with a variety of indoor and outdoor possibilities. “We typically kick off the week with a golf outing,” Patrick notes. “Everyone gets into town on, say, a Monday at noon, and we go play golf as a group. That has become sort of a tradition, and so golf has to be nearby or attached to the resort itself.”

In Wisconsin, there are a number of great recreational options, so attendees also have been treated to a boat cruise (weather permitting) or a night around the campfire. Ideation can still get done at each activity and during meals and networking sessions, but that naturally happens when businesspeople get together.

“We try to just reserve those activities for ‘let’s have fun’ and just build rapport with each other, get to know each other’s families and hobbies, and build relationships,” notes Patrick Flesch. “But ideation certainly does happen there. Let’s say after Monday, we have the golf outing, and we go to dinner, and then Tuesday, we get right into the thick of it. We wrap by 5 p.m. when we’re at cocktail hour that night, and the conversations just naturally continue about the business. Sometimes, those are beneficial conversations as well.”

With an expanding geographic reach, arranging transportation was quite a chore for people from Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Columbus, Ohio. “Those folks coming from Columbus, Ohio, we put them on a plane because it’s just too long of a drive,” notes Patrick Flesch. “Sioux Falls is too long as well, so as we’ve expanded geographically, the travel costs have picked up for an event like this. We wanted to make it convenient for people to get there, but everyone from Chicago and Iowa and everywhere in Wisconsin, they all drive.”

What did they think of lumberjack country? “I tell you what, they were blown away,” Flesch states. “It’s just so beautiful and there is something about getting a little bit north in this state. It feels like everyone’s blood pressure just drops a little bit. It’s just a very relaxed venue and I thought it brought out a lot of really good dialogue among our team.”

Over the course of 2 1/2 days, it can be a constant battle to keep the program focused on the established purpose of the retreat because people naturally want to check their phones, their email, or return voicemails. Business doesn’t stop just because the sales staff is retreating. Some free time has to be worked in for salespeople who are in urgent situations, so organizers try to build enough breaks into the program so people can take care of business, and so that when the group returns to the conference room, they can refocus on the real purpose of the retreat instead of being distracted by the possibility of lost business development opportunities.

Ideally, there is a proper mix of presentations and breakouts that keep everyone engaged. “You’ve always got to keep an eye on the group as well, and you can sense when we need to take a break and stretch the legs,” Flesch notes. “I’ll see some eyes that are getting heavy or something like that, so we mix it up and take plenty of breaks and try to go from 8 to 4:30 or so, and then allow people to have another couple of hours before we meet for dinner or happy hour.”

Asked if it’s important to define what success looks like beforehand, which some meeting planners believe is fundamental to a successful retreat, Flesch acknowledged that it’s something Gordon Flesch Co. must think more about. “We probably get too wrapped up in the weeds of just putting all the topics together that we don’t talk about or think about what a great end goal is,” he states. “But I will say that I drive away from this meeting every year and my wheels are turning. I’ve always looked back on every one that I have attended and thought that was just a good use of time. It brought us closer together as a group, as people, and we also do so much good work on the business.

“In our world, it’s so fast paced, and you’re always in go-go-go mode that you rarely take a step back and really work on the business because we’re in the business so much,” Flesch adds. “So, I think that’s really the end goal. Did we take enough time to really look at working on the business and really take ourselves out of it from a day-to-day standpoint, and really try to improve at a higher level?”

Among the key recommendations to come out of the annual retreat, one that helped improve business performance, involves the Gordon Flesch corporate presentation. In 2015, the lack of uniformity in that presentation was a recurring theme of the retreat. “We all told the Gordon Flesch story differently to clients and prospects in a presentation format,” Flesch recalls. “While some of them were good for different reasons, it was not very consistent. So, we really went to work on this concept of a corporate presentation.”

Once it was developed, it had to become ingrained. How to ingrain it was kicked around with managers, and they came up with the idea of a contest. Every sale representative presented the corporate presentation to their managers, and the managers scored their presentations and named a winner from each branch. The branch winners were then taken to Chicago for a final tournament, where they competed by presenting to ownership. “That has gotten tons of traction within our sales force,” Flesch notes, “and we’re so much better at telling our story. The presentation is extremely professional, and we’ve continued to tweak that year after year. That has propelled us into larger opportunities and being able to tell our story better to larger accounts.”

Before planning begins for next year’s retreat, a post-event evaluation must be completed, and that process begins with a debriefing. Throughout the 2 1/2-day retreat, organizers are working constantly to fill up easels of paper, notes, ideas, concepts, suggestions, and challenges, and so when they get in a room, they put all of those up on a wall and consolidate the items, assign takeaways to certain individuals, and prioritize what they think are the “hot” items. As Flesch explains: “What are the long-term items? What are things we’re just going to ignore? And so, once we get through all of that, then we have go-forward assignments, and we start trying to pick those off one by one. We continue to update each other along the way on how we’re doing on a progress standpoint.”

Attendees must understand that it’s unrealistic to expect all of the recommendations to be adopted, so much so that the company tees up the retreat every year by encouraging people to share and by candidly noting that management isn’t going to make many final decisions during the retreat. “We’re very upfront with them about not making any final calls at the retreat, and we’ll just consider all the content you share with us as a suggestion,” Flesch says. “Whether or not we move forward with it is up to us.”

In terms of evaluating each retreat, Flesch notes that the company has been holding retreats since before he joined the organization, and it has a framework it really likes. “Our people enjoy that we take them out of the field for 2 1/2 days, and while they are away from their families for a couple of nights, they get a couple nice meals and just some good time away from the office, and usually at a really nice place to stay. We’ve really got it down pretty good, and there are just minor things that we tweak year after year.”

The feeling is mutual

When it comes to corporate retreats, Hayley Peterson’s main focus is the autumn retreat the company sponsors for female advisors. Now coming up on the fifth iteration of this retreat, it’s usually held in October and usually at a resort in Lake Geneva or Wisconsin Dells, or an Airbnb if planners can find one large enough for the eight to 15 women who attend what is usually a two- or three-day program.

“It’s primarily used as relationship-building event where we bring in all of our women advisors from the different offices,” Peterson explains. “It might be the first time they are meeting, getting to know each other, or working on different areas for the upcoming year. Last year’s retreat was focused on reworking our vision and mission for the group as well as how we wanted to structure monthly meetings for the group.”

The forthcoming retreat will focus on industry training and helping the advisors grow their business in an economy that has met the technical definition of a slowdown. Over the years, the retreats have been more strategically focused, which is basically the reason to hold a retreat unless attendees are tackling a project so large that it fits the definition of significant change management.

“If it’s a smaller project that doesn’t represent as big a change, we wouldn’t use a retreat for that,” Peterson notes, “but if we’re going to do something that’s really a change-management project, then we would leverage a retreat for that.”

They also consider how much time is going to be needed to accomplish what they need to accomplish. If it’s going to be a full blown, eight-hour day where everybody needs to focus, they probably would leverage a retreat for that as well just to keep everybody focused. “We find that if we’re in the office or in the conference room doing long-term, project-focused planning, people do get distracted, get interrupted, so we really try to figure out what the balance is and how focused we need to be.”

Most of Northwestern Mutual Southern Wisconsin’s forthcoming retreats are discussed during its annual planning meeting in December, so that is the start of planning for the fall retreat. Depending on how large the retreat is going to be, that will dictate how many people are involved in the planning. “Most of our retreats are smaller, so I am the main planner for them,” Peterson states. “I might leverage outside resources if we need to figure out travel, or if it is a retreat outside the U.S., but usually once we figure out what retreat is needed, a date is locked in, and from that time until the retreat, I can’t even guesstimate the hours involved or the timeframe.”

She can, however, state that pre-planning for most of retreats starts almost a year in advance and planning is done either a little bit each week or each month as far as contacting the hotel or securing an Airbnb. Six- to eight-months out, she contacts any outside experts, trainers, or coaches she wants to invite, so a fair amount of the programming is determined early on.

As is the case with Gordon Flesch Co., the purpose of the retreat plays a significant role in the venue. “Oh, that plays a big part,” Peterson states. “If we’re looking at more of a business retreat that is solely leadership focused, we would look at a resort that has a conference room. This retreat I’m talking about in October, that is less leadership and more of a connecting and bonding retreat, so we want that to be a little bit more relaxed. We wouldn’t be looking to rent a conference room for that. We would look for something a little bit more relaxed and casual. So, depending on what kind of retreat it is, the venue is definitely considered so that it fits the feel or the expectations of that retreat.”

To keep the program on track during the retreat, Peterson says it’s vital to have a timekeeper and someone in the meeting that draws the group back if the discussion gets off course. It also helps to build in breaks to keep attendees’ eyes from glazing over. “So, we definitely have that solid agenda with breaks built in and recognizing that people cannot go eight hours straight, so it’s about where the meals fit in, where the breaks are, and being very strategic about that agenda,” she says. “And then, make sure someone is designated in that meeting who does have a stronger voice and can keep everything on track so that the agenda is followed.

“But we also build time in the agenda for what we call ‘parking lot’ items — things that come up during conversation that we don’t necessarily want to discuss at that point but are vital,” she adds. “We usually will build time in the agenda to have conversations about those topics.”

Based on experience, other “agenda buffers” also become necessary. Peterson tries to allow some buffer time due to adjustments in the start time, especially after attendees got stuck in traffic. On occasion, organizers might have to cut short a lunch or table a topic for another date if things get too far off balance.

For Peterson, defining success beforehand is part of the deal. “Typically, going into those retreats we know what we want to accomplish or what our end goal is, so that’s what we would define as success if we’ve reached that end goal or the solution that we wanted,” Peterson notes. “So, the meeting I talked about last year, the whole thing was about the vision and mission of the group. Going into that meeting, our definition of success was that we come out of that meeting with the vision and mission of the group.”

That’s not a trivial exercise because the vision and mission statement is the guiding star for many organizations. The retreat was able to accomplish that in four hours rather than a full day or several days because “we already had a mission vision for the group, so we already had a base to begin with,” Peterson says, “and it was just looking at whether this is relevant at this point and time with this group. That mission and vision was created six years ago, but we’ve had other retreats to build the mission and vision where it takes eight hours to get everybody to agree. There will be conversations on what words to use … so there could be long conversations when creating a new mission, vision, or purpose.”

When you make time for social activities and networking, that’s a good time to continue the discussion, although it’s not something overtly encouraged. “We don’t vocalize it, but in general it does happen, and we have found it to be beneficial because a lot of times somebody was thinking about something during the meeting and either didn’t vocalize it or didn’t 100% process it,” Peterson explains. “And during the social times, that’s where they might have a conversation with somebody else about what they were thinking, and a lot of times we find that the next day, when everybody comes to the table, it’s brought up … A lot of times, those social networking times will spark bigger ideas or different thoughts that will be brought up at a later time during the retreat. We find that very beneficial.”

Post event, organizers usually follow up with notes highlighting the retreat, discussions that were had, and any decisions that were made. The biggest task is the follow-up action items and who is responsible for them. By that time, organizers have dates set for when the follow up needs to happen and they move forward with in-house meetings, making sure those action items are being completed.

For Northwestern Mutual Southern Wisconsin, there are also retreat process adjustments. “I would say things we always change involve looking at start and end times and looking at the length of time that is needed,” Peterson says. “This retreat coming up, we’re looking at starting the retreat earlier than normal. During each retreat, we figure out what worked well, and where the speed bumps were, so there are times we’ve looked at the venue. It just wasn’t the venue that worked for that retreat, or food selection just wasn’t a hit, so we adjust for the next retreat. We’ll take notes and see what worked on the agenda, and what we need to change to make it a more effective retreat the next time around.”

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