Annual meetings are a tremendous opportunity to align your team on its priorities, deepen relationships, and strengthen a healthy and effective team culture. So, it’s a shame just how often leaders don’t take full advantage of the opportunity that their team retreat presents.

The main problem is that when leaders are planning for these meetings, they usually only ask themselves one question: What should we do with our time?

It’s not a bad question, but it’s certainly not the best question. Thinking only about this one dimension, simply dropping in content and topics to fill the time between the beginning and end of the days, is a recipe for a forgettable and largely unproductive experience.

A team meeting is not an event to be planned—it’s a tool to be used. Instead of thinking about how to use the time, leaders need to think about what impact they want the time to have!

So, when I’m partnering with a client to design a truly meaningful annual retreat, I’ve ask 4 key questions to help define what true success looks like. Those four questions are:

    1.    What do we want people to know?

    2.    What do we want people to believe?

    3.    How do we people to feel?

    4.    What do we want people to do?

Question 1: What do we want people to know?

I’ve been to more than one team retreat that had at least one full day’s agenda made up of nothing but department heads sharing department updates with lots of department slides leaving a little time left over for lunch, bathroom breaks, and frequent trips to the coffee station to keep everyone awake.

What do we want people to know? is not the same as What is all the information that we could possibly share?

Focus presentations on information that actually matters right now. If you want to include department updates, make sure presenters are aware of the broader goals for the retreat and help them find ways to connect their updates to those themes. Prioritize the information that matters most right now and save the rest for some other venue or medium down the road. Make sure presenters are thinking like teachers imparting knowledge, not presenters listing data and factoids.

Being clear from the outset on what you want your team to know by the time you leave will help prevent your top priorities from being washed away in a flood of information.

Question 2: What do you want people to believe?

A while back, I was at an annual company meeting during which the CEO unveiled the company’s new 5 Core Values that he and the rest of the leadership team had spent the last 6 months hammering out with another consultant. The 5 Pillars were nicely laid out on well-designed slides with all sorts of poster-worthy copy underneath. When I looked around the room I could see that although everyone now knew what the new Core Values were—nobody believed any of it.

Knowledge and belief are not the same thing. Question 2 asks that we get real about what doubts our team might have. What experiences from the past might inhibit engagement in the future? What information might require a more robust argument or some candid discussion? How can we give our teams’ some time to kick the tires and build confidence in these new ideas?

All the information in the world is meaningless if our people don’t believe it. The CEO above would have been much more effective if he had taken the time to make a case as to why these new values deserved belief.

Question 3: How do we want people to feel?

The let’s-keep-things-professional-and-avoid-the-touchy-feely-leaders will skip over this question at their own peril. Even the leaders that get it are often preoccupied with only 2 emotions when they plan their retreats: fun and boredom. (As in, let’s plan a fun icebreaker after lunch so that we don’t induce too much boredom.) 

A successful retreat requires more than a happy hour and a couple icebreakers to get the real emotional impact you need to build trust and engage people in real change. If you’re worried your content is going to bore the team, it’s worth asking why it’s there in the first place. If it truly is important, there is likely an emotional aspect of the conversation to harness—don’t avoid it, embrace it!

 Here’s a short list of emotions that might be relevant at your next meeting:

  • Optimism

  • Discomfort

  • Confidence

  • Excitement

  • Calm

  • Connection

  • Challenge

  • Frustration

  • Competitiveness

  • Responsibility

  • Joy

  • Accomplishment

We humans do our best work when we are both intellectually and emotionally engaged. Thinking through our emotional goals for the retreat get you even clearer on the core purpose of your meeting and get your people actively involved.

Question 4: What do you want people to do?

I’ve been on lots of annual meetings filled with interesting information and vibrant discussion. Happy hours were well-attended and jolly. Participants seemed relatively satisfied with the time together! And when everyone gets back to the office they go right back to business as usual.

Nothing. Changes.

What’s the point?! These meetings cost good time and money—they should have a real impact. They should move things forward. They should make a difference. So be clear about what the difference is that you’re trying to create from the outset.

Whether it’s clarifying your priorities, making key decisions that drive execution, implementing more effective work practices, or deepening relationships to increase actual collaboration—be clear on the behavioral changes you’re hoping to generate and share them with the team right from the start.

These 4 simple questions will help squeeze more juice out of just about any meeting. In most of my retreat and meeting plans, I include a simple 4-box table like the one below. to anchor me in the essential purpose of our time together.

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Leaders who plan meetings with these 4 questions in mind are creating something much more powerful than an event—they’re creating an experience. An event happens. An experience changes the way we think, interact, connect, and behave moving forward. And moving forward is what a great retreat is all about.



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Andy Zimney is a Senior Advisor and Team Performance Coach at Employee Strategies, Inc., a boutique firm that partners with leaders to develop highly effective cultures that drive outstanding results. Contact ESInc to learn more about how they can assess your current culture and design customized and effective development experiences for your team. Or reach out to Andy directly.