Away days don’t have to be woeful

4 Sep 2017 By Ian P Buckingham

Putting a little thought into your next leadership team day can go a long way

Her face was a picture when she walked in from her 10-mile team hill hike through the winter rain. Well, if it were really a picture, it would be a very, very runny watercolour in shades of mottled pink, icy blue and muddy brown.

Even the steaming bath and glass of mulled wine didn't lift her spirits. For she, like far too many executives, had just fallen victim to the annual management away day or team retreat. After getting up at 5am to be marched through mud with no stated purpose, goal or debrief, and then having to buy her own lunch (thanks to austerity measures), she had murder in mind.

I know the feeling well.

Despite working at the heart of the L&D industry and supposedly knowing a bit about good practice, I too have been ambushed by ironically named leadership retreats, on occasion. As many of us know, so-called ‘development opportunities’ or ‘team away days’ sometimes entail being thrown into the abyss of the unknown, often by a mischief-making PA who has had the organising role dumped on them.

I can recall being subjected to paintballing massacres; rock-climbing adventures for the fearful; talking drum strategic interventions; group yoga and hugging workshops; haka pitch enhancement scrum-downs; and even opera strategy un-conferences (love that pukey paradox). They have perhaps been useful about 12 per cent of the time. For the most part they've been an endurance test for the left brain, starvation for the right brain and torture for the soul. This is largely because they have been badly organised with scant thought given to purpose or context.

Let's face it folks, most people in leadership positions are bloody busy and very stressed. The concept of an away day, with a time and a place suited to exploring team challenges, is a lovely one – in theory. But too often the reality is very different.

If the day job is backing up to the point of exploding in the absence of the top team, it is not unreasonable to expect some compensatory added value from the time away, and at least a soupçon of enjoyment as the entree with a large dollop of pragmatic take-away at the end. Amazingly, there's too often surprisingly little of the latter in particular, which doesn't add up to much of a business case, does it?

In these days of cost obsession, I am expected to help prove the cost-benefit of an organisational development intervention, whatever it may be. I usually have to jump through all sorts of procurement hoops if I suggest an L&D initiative with a cost implication. So if you intend to take an entire leadership team out of the office for the day, and plan to DIY the process rather than employing a professional facilitator, the very least that should be expected is that: (a) you've thought through the outcomes required and shared them; and (b) you are following some simple engagement principles.

Think through the outcomes: It is always useful to consider the estimated cost per head per day to arrive at a cost estimate per group, before you factor in actual costs of the activity. If in doubt, work on £1,000 per head. Be clear about the purpose of the session and try to be a bit more specific than ‘improving teamwork’. What data can you reference (customer, employee, culture etc), and how can you turn this into a simple but clear objective for the session? It is surprising how seldom this step is taken, leaving everyone in the dark or, worse still, making assumptions about the common challenges that colleagues may either simply not realise or not share.

Follow engagement principles: Engagement is maximised when people feel consulted, involved, focused and empowered. Once you have an objective – especially if it involves improvements to teamwork or other core values – it makes sense to share the perceived development goal and to ask participants what they would like to do, ideally involving them in the planning. They are far more likely to own the process and outcomes and to support the leader if they feel empowered.

Alternatively, if you find yourself tempted to organise an away day and you can't commit to following engagement principles, and the outcomes are not obvious, then may I politely suggest that the perceived challenge may be a leadership rather than a team working issue? A private conversation with a coach or mentor may be a more effective solution, in the first instance.

If the issue is actually one of leadership as well as team working, then a poorly thought through, punitive session is only going to intensify and entrench the root cause of the team problem. Regardless of how far you go from the office, the problem will surely follow you and sadly no amount of ‘boot camping’ is going to fix that.

Ian P Buckingham is a business transformation executive and coach, and is the author of Brand Engagement and Brand Champions

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