Keeping Off-sites on Target

It may cost up to six figures, but that executive retreat can pay off — if you do it right.
Lori CalabroApril 1, 2007

When Experian Interactive Group’s 12-member executive team jetted off to a Napa Valley, California, resort last May, no one expected to have a miserable time. After all, as CFO Laura Conrad says, “Everyone here likes wine.”

But there was far more to the off-site strategy session than a tour of the winery — although the team did manage to squeeze that in. Having acquired four companies in six months, Experian, a division of Experian Group Ltd., needed a chance to “get all those minds together,” says Conrad. That was particularly important, she adds, because some of the acquisitions (which included and featured strong founding entrepreneurs who were staying on. By assembling everyone off-site for nearly two days of planning sessions, Experian fostered a free-flowing exchange of ideas that was so productive that, Conrad says, “the most frustrating part was deciding what not to do.”

The notion that fresh surroundings can inspire fresh ideas is so ingrained in corporate culture that “it is the rare management team that doesn’t have some type of off-site,” says Logan Chandler, a partner at The Strategic Offsites Group LLC, a Boston-based firm that organized 49 such events last year. Away from phones, E-mail, and other interruptions, there is “inevitably some learning around an opportunity that wasn’t readily apparent,” says Jim Deuschle, CFO of Buffalo-based Rich’s. Deuschle has organized more than 10 meetings and says that it’s only logical that a CFO would be at the center of those efforts. “There is such a close tie between strategic planning and finance,” he says, that regardless of the aim, style, or duration of the off-site, the CFO is bound to be involved.

A Metric for Meetings

Off-sites are unlikely to escape the attention of a CFO for another reason: the price tag. A one- to two-day meeting for 10 or so senior executives can run anywhere from $30,000 to $90,000. At that price, a solid return on investment is essential. Strategic off-sites sound simple enough: choose a venue, develop an agenda, and book the travel. But too often, “companies throw the kitchen sink onto the agenda,” says Bob Frisch, managing partner of Strategic Offsites. Even worse than a lack of clear objectives, experts say, is a complete lack of follow-up.

Frisch says a useful metric is “four days of preparation for every day in the room.” Goals should be set, materials prepared, and expectations managed. Frisch and his team interview all participants in advance to make sure everyone is on the same page. Bill McCarthy, an executive coach with LeaderSource, says that it’s important to let participants know up front that the meeting will entail real work. That will galvanize them, he says, because “people are not interested in going out in the woods and singing around a campfire.”

Deuschle recommends having event champions — a staff member and an outside consultant — who not only facilitate the discussions but “become owners of the meeting, responsible for the outcome and staying in tune with the original objective.” Having an independent facilitator helps, says Experian’s Conrad: “People can express their views in a nonthreatening way.”

Frisch says that it can be helpful to exclude a dominating CEO from breakout sessions, and to use infrared voting systems to solicit anonymous feedback. Deuschle also recommends capping attendance at no more than 12 people, because anything larger makes the meeting “more presentation than discussion.”

Good results often hinge on a mixture of camaraderie and candor. On the one hand, most veteran attendees agree that pleasant surroundings and shared meals facilitate honest communication, which often leads to great ideas. On the other hand, some firms find that simulations or experiential exercises bring about what McCarthy calls “constructive conflict.”

GeoStructures puts a premium on the latter. At the construction-services firm’s biannual off-site, says CFO Richard Ross, CEO Michael Cowell makes the five top leaders “write down what we like and dislike about each other.” Based on theories outlined in Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the idea is to break down interpersonal barriers, says Ross. “If someone has a fear of conflict, then there is a fear of trust and that leads to a lack of accountability,” he explains. And while Ross admits that he first found the process excruciating, he now finds it an effective way to give constructive criticism.

Determining whether off-sites are constructive isn’t easy. Frisch says that “a good result is a set of initiatives.”

Of course it’s what companies do with that list that makes all the difference. At Elbit Systems of America, the U.S.-based subsidiary of an Israeli defense electronics manufacturer, CFO Bill Augat meets quarterly with each business function to review progress on the action items developed at a strategic-planning off-site.

Off-sites can do more than generate new ideas. At Elbit’s most recent one, Augat and his colleagues introduced ESA University, a quick course in strategic management in which Augat schooled his peers on finance while the general counsel held a session on mergers and acquisitions and the CEO offered insight into how to close deals.

The meeting cost about $100,000, but Augat says it was well worth it. “Sometimes you have to look at what’s necessary to push an organization to the next level,” he says. “As the CFO you may be happy if you saved the $100,000, but you’ll cost yourself a lot more in the long run.”

Lori Calabro is deputy editor of CFO.

Meeting Magic

While “strategic meeting” may sound like an oxymoron, it doesn’t have to be that way if you keep a few simple concepts in mind:

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare. A facilitator should devote four days in advance for every day the off-site is expected to last.
  • To foster true give-and-take, keep attendance to a maximum of 12.
  • Don’t overload the agenda. Know what outcomes you want to achieve.
  • Match the style and activities of the off-site to your company’s culture, but don’t shy away from a little “constructive conflict.” — L.C.

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