Company retreats must offer new, useful data for workers to benefit


Second of two parts

Richard Cook runs a company known as For A Change, which specializes in training employees and volunteers at grass-roots nonprofit organizations. Over the years, he has learned that a number of factors make for a successful retreat.

Last week I described some, such as the need to conduct the retreat away from the workplace, the need for advance preparation, the need to encourage interpersonal communication and teamwork, and the need to break with conventional group norms in order to encourage creativity among participants. But there are others that Mr. Cook says are essential.

Retreats need to provide "new, useful information, insights and perspectives," Mr. Cook says. While this seems obvious, too many workshops rehash the same materials. Sure, it's important to revisit the basics from time to time, but even the basics should be covered by adding value.

I've seen elementary teachers participate in diversity training by approaching the topic from a new angle. In this case, rather than the typical lecture and workbooks they'd received years before, they had to act out scenarios under the tutelage of a professional acting troupe. Nearly everyone felt the experience added value by helping them internalize how discriminatory practices feel to the one on the receiving end.

Another critical factor is sensitivity on the part of the facilitator. Again, Mr. Cook gives us the benefit of his experience: "A good facilitator listens to participants' real concerns, appreciates and welcomes their thoughts and contributions, insures the participation of everyone and the domination of none, and keeps everything moving and on track."

In today's performance-oriented world, a retreat should result in products or outcomes that are directly tied to the original retreat objectives. Participants should be helped to understand that connection and given an opportunity to understand how their involvement in the retreat helped to accomplish those objectives.

Which brings us to another point. Retreats should leave enough time for the group to reflect on what was done, to celebrate success, and to take a peek at what might lie ahead for the organization. Retreat wrap-ups are an ideal moment in time to encourage employees to take ownership of organizational challenges.

When retreats are viewed as isolated events, simply points in time that result in a product, half their value is lost. A retreat is only a tool, an effective way to achieve an objective in helping an organization accomplish its mission. It helps an agency move its agenda forward toward its vision of the future. To that end, the workshop or retreat needs follow-up. Lessons learned via the retreat should be kept alive and applied to everyday situations that emerge within the workplace, Mr. Cook says.

If team building was a by-product of the retreat, for example, then its mechanisms should be applied to common workplace challenges. The best way to do this is to leave the retreat with an idea of tasks that can be dealt with using tools, techniques and positive attitudes generated through the retreat process.

As Mr. Cook says in summing up: Retreats offer "an opportunity for renewal, for learning more, for moving ahead with new knowledge and vigor." However, successful retreats are the byproduct of meticulous planning, solid execution and deliberate follow-up.

Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202; (410) 783-5100

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