Four Things They Don’t Want You To Know About Leadership Retreats

Perhaps you’ve already been on a team retreat for your work, or perhaps you’re about to go on one. Either way, there’s a host of things related to such retreats that the people organizing them would often prefer you not to know about. Here are four.

One. There’s almost always a dogma.

Retreats are hardly ever about you or your needs. Mostly there’s a dogma – an agenda – that the organizers intended to deliver. They want to teach you their methodology, to do it their way, to subscribe to their beliefs and to their worldview; not only during the retreat itself but frequently, far into the future. Their methodology is supposedly superior to all others, and you are pressed to accept and use it without question. That crushing feeling in your spirits is because no room is left for the human being, for your own ingenuity, for your own needs or for recognizing all of you at the retreat as equals, rather than as a group of pupils who know nothing with one instructor who knows everything. Your own expertise is hardly ever genuinely included in the methodology, and if you have an issue with the methodology, it’s generally glossed over.

Two. It’s almost always a formula.

The first thing you’ll receive at the retreat, in most cases, is an agenda. There’s nothing wrong with agendas – they supply structure and give people some idea of what to expect – but retreat agendas are typically a rigid order of operations with prescribed activities. Often these also include prescribed and enforced fun. This is hardly ever going to be fun for you. We all have different ideas of what fun and enjoyment is, especially with most workplaces as culturally and personally diverse as they are. What’s fun for some is probably a drag for many. It would be better to leave people to innovate on breaks, and to let these breaks be true breaks and not further imposed activity, but retreat organizers can hardly ever bring themselves to do that. They want you to behave in a certain way, as a group or as participants rather than as individual human beings, so your time will mostly be prescribed – often even at mealtimes – and you’ll long for that moment when the day ends and you can get back to your room. That’s if they don’t require you for the evenings as well. Sticking to a set formula and agenda is easier for retreat presenters, because they don’t have to innovate and adjust to meet the unique needs of each and every client. It’s understandable.

Three. Same schtick, different day

Almost every retreat offered to the corporate world is represented as something unique. Perhaps the biggest secret is that most are not. If I were to say classroom sessions, PowerPoint presentations, team building sessions, group meals, a certain amount of enforced fun, and a talk from the management on the bright new future, that’s a formula which covers 99.9% of the corporate retreats you’re ever likely to experience. It’s like the famous Henry Ford in 1908, saying that you could have any color car you wanted, as long as it was black. The truth is that the retreat you’re about to experience, or the retreat you just went on, probably had exactly the same look and feel as almost every other corporate retreat you have ever done or ever will do. The irony is that your own management actually wants your organization and your work team to be unique and different. They’ve just never seen a retreat design that can achieve that. Retreat presenters typically have a script, and they present the script, and that’s that. The attraction for the presenters is that almost any reasonably smart person can be trained to follow the script – so it’s easy to deliver their retreats profitably and in quantity.

Four. It’s all about the alcohol

Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself. You’re deep into the retreat, maybe it’s night one or night two. And that’s when someone drapes a moist and heavy arm around your shoulders at the bar and slurringly burps into your ear that really, it’s all about the alcohol. “Thish is when the real team building happensh”, they slobber into your earlobe. “Thash the best part of the day, you make friends you have some drinksh.” And as a young intelligence officer I used to think exactly that. I really thought that getting assets drunk was a great idea, because then they’d agree to anything. The problem was that in the morning they didn’t remember what they’d agreed, or even that any agreements had been made. We all have some pain at work, and the attraction of alcohol is that it instantly makes the pain disappear in a way that is under our control. But think about it. If the retreat gives you so much pain, or if it does so little for the pain you might bring with you, if PowerPoints and lectures and being told and being treated like a student and an attendee, and longingly looking out of the window in a nice location and wishing you were anywhere, everywhere except in that classroom addresses is your pain so poorly that the only cure for it is a lot of alcohol at night, then where is the value in the retreat?

So do you just give up?

In some cases, maybe. If you are considering spending a lot of time and money on yet another corporate retreat which has delivered little or no benefit to the organization in the past, in the blithe hope that perhaps this time will be different, then you might well be better off saving your money or giving staff a bonus if you can. If on the other hand if you still retain some belief in the value of a retreat, in the idea that there is valence in getting people away from the busywork and the distractions of the office, and in the hope that there might be some way to do it that does not invoke the usual barriers which prevent much value being delivered, then there are some things you can do.

The downside is that you’ll need to do something a bit unusual. And although it’s often a dirty word in the corporate and government world, you might need to take a bit of a risk. Really effective team and leadership retreats are pretty much only run by visionary leaders willing to stick their necks out for at least a short distance.

You can run your own retreat, but the main downsides are that running your retreat does involve some specialist skills, and also that if you’re running the retreat it’s almost impossible for you to participate. That being the case, you probably do need a partner.

Look above all else for an organization with an approach that is original. You have no chance of driving innovation, creation or originality if you take a mundane approach for the retreat that is supposed to drive it. Look also for credibility. Insist on a client list, look for relevance to your own special needs, and talk at length to at least a couple of clients. Ask those clients specifically how the organization benefited from the retreat and how it was worth the money spent. As well, look for results. This can certainly be helped by talking to the would-be supplier’s previous clients and getting anecdotal evidence, but also look for measurable results and demonstrated reported outcomes that you think could apply to you. It is a myth that the benefit of team and leadership retreats cannot be measured simply because many of the issues dealt with are related to human beings and the behaviors of teams. If the results can’t be measured, then there are probably no results, and in any case they can’t be managed – so you have no reason to spend money.

If behavioral change is the goal, know also that the only known method of achieving behavioral change in teams is practice and rehearsal. There’s no benefit whatsoever from PowerPoints, lectures, team building games and enforced fun that translates into changed business behaviors to any useful degree. That’s why surgeons, special forces, astronauts, pilots, senior managers and critical work teams are all trained using simulation in environments where the results really matter. Seriously consider using a professionally run simulation which includes ownership, flexibility, human energy, real behavioral change and provable results as a way to run your next retreat.

If it doesn’t work, don’t do it again. But I’d suggest that after one trial with a really professional provider, you might be hooked.

About the author

John Kolm runs Team Results USA, a team and leadership specialist which uses simulation to obtain behavioral change with leadership and work teams. Typical programs last two days offsite and involve custom designing a problem for the client to solve, validating the unique skill sets and needs of everyone involved and treating all participants as equals.

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