Karma Bass, CEO and Managing Principal, Via Healthcare Consulting
Having participated and led hundreds of board retreats over my 25 years in the field, I’ve developed a few “go-to” practices that help ensure the retreats I’m part of stand out in the minds of participants and leaders. Nothing makes me happier that getting comments on our evaluation forms that say: “This was the best retreat I’ve ever been to,” and I’m happy to say we do see this comment regularly.
So, here are my secrets to delivering an impactful retreat with your board of directors.
Know what you’re trying to achieve. Set objectives and keep them reasonable. Make sure everyone attending knows what those objectives are and have a meeting evaluation at the conclusion that asks participants whether the objectives were accomplished. As the Cheshire cat told Alice, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any direction will do.”
Focus on who will be in the room. Make sure it’s the people who need to be there and no one else. I suggest board members and the CEO only, with perhaps a trusted facilitator or executive assistant. Good governance is not a spectator sport and having extra people in the room may stifle much-needed frank and open conversation.
Create space for the conversation. People want to talk to each other and to build the connections that help establish trust. A foundation of trust is essential to effective leadership so make sure your retreat has time and the structure for meaningful conversation.
Know what matters. Don’t overload the meeting with speakers and content. Be thoughtful about what goes on the agenda, make sure it’s the most important issues, and take the time to connect how the topics are related to the board’s responsibilities. We humans don’t do well when we’re overloaded, so do yourself a favor and create an agenda that avoids swamping your participants with information.
Beware the trap of building routine board business into a retreat. The transactional mode of the typical board business item is antithetical to visioning, creative problem-solving, and the generative mode of governance. Good retreats intentionally build their environment to enable innovation and free-flowing discussion. Routine business kills the generative energy that’s created, potentially cutting off some of your retreat’s greatest value. Schedule a board conference call for the day after the retreat, if you must, but keep the retreat time sacrosanct and separate from the usual board matters.
And, one for the road: A bonus tip. Bring in a professional facilitator. Anyone who’s ever tried knows it’s impossible to fully engage as a participant and run a meeting at the same time. CEOs and board chairs may think they should facilitate their board’s retreat, but this doesn’t produce the best meetings. You’re depriving the rest of the board of your full insights and engagement, which lessens the richness of the discussion and, potentially, the outcomes. Many large healthcare organizations have organizational development professionals on their staff who can be tapped for this role. And, of course, there many skilled consultants, like our team at Via, who would be happy to be engaged for the role.