Over my thirty years of work with public transit CEOs and their boards, I’ve seen a number of transit authorities bring off board-CEO-executive team retreats that have made a real difference in their authorities’ affairs: developing board governing capacity; strengthening the board-CEO working relationship; updating values, vision, and strategic goals; energizing board and staff members; etc. By the way, a real retreat (as opposed to just a long meeting) lasts at least a full day and often 1 ½ days.
Experience has taught me that the key to a productive and energizing retreat is a systematic retreat design process that involves selected board members (perhaps your board’s planning and development committee, the governance [or board operations] committee, or an ad hoc design committee) and the CEO in thinking through all of the key elements of the retreat, often with the assistance of a professional facilitator:
- The objectives to be tackled: for example, to update values and vision; to identify and discuss governance issues, and to brainstorm possible governance improvement initiatives.
- The structure of the session: for example, that it will last a full day; that all executive team members will join the board; that key stakeholder representatives will be invited to participate; that the retreat will be professionally facilitated.
- And the blow-by-blow agenda to guide participants through the process
In addition to these three basic components of your transportation authority’s retreat design, the following factors have helped to ensure the success of hundreds of retreats that I have facilitated or participated in over the years:
- The retreat design (objectives; structure; agenda) is described in detail in a memorandum from the retreat design committee that is transmitted to all invited participants at least a couple of weeks before the retreat.
- Breakout groups led by board members are employed to generate substantial content and foster active participation.
- The breakout group process is defined in enough detail that everyone knows what they are expected to do.
- The board members who have agreed to serve as breakout group leaders are provided with sufficient orientation and training to ensure success at doing their very visible job.
- No formal decision-making is attempted during the retreat, in order to prevent premature, “seat of the pants” judgments that will be regretted later, as new knowledge and more in-depth deliberations lead to different conclusions than those reached in only a day or two together.
- The follow-through process is thought through before the retreat takes place – for example, that a detailed action report will be generated after the retreat.
- Professional facilitation is employed to keep deliberations on track and to make sure that the objectives are fully achieved. Experience has taught that neither the CEO nor a board member can carry out the facilitation role successfully.
Paying attention to these critical retreat details will virtually guarantee that your authority realizes a powerful return on the investment of time, energy, and money in your retreat, in terms not only of the content generated, but also energized and satisfied participants. And if you take your eye off the details in putting your retreat together, there’s a clear and present danger the session will fall apart, leaving participants frustrated and irritated rather than energized and satisfied. Who will pay the price of an unsuccessful retreat? The CEO, of course!