How to hold a board retreat

I was in Myanmar recently to conduct a strategic planning “retreat” for the board of the trade association of garment manufacturers in the country, which has over 400 members.

A board retreat is a meeting designed and organized to facilitate the ability of the group to step back from day-to-day work for a session of reflection, concentrated discussion and strategic thinking about the organization’s future.

There are many reasons for a board to go to a retreat. These include orienting new members, team building, problem solving, strategic planning and discussing specific issues or challenges facing the association. In this case, in Myanmar, it was to prepare a new strategic plan.

It is ideal that a retreat is conducted away from the normal place of work. Being “away on a retreat” makes the board less likely to be disturbed by phone calls, etc. It also creates an environment conducive to teamwork, creative thinking and consensus building. The two-day board retreat was held in a mountain resort some four hours drive from the capital city Yangon.

Being the facilitator of the board retreat was a daunting task, not only because I was a “foreigner,” but I also needed to blend in quickly and be sensitive to the dynamics and the culture of the association.

However, it helped that I am part of a team undertaking an Eureopean Union grant project for the garments industry in Myanmar for my association, ADFIAP, and had interactions with the trade association board in the past. It also helped that I have conducted similar strategic planning sessions as part of my work with the Philippine Council of Associations and Association Executives.

In hindsight, I wish to share an article by Ann Gallagher published by the American Society of Association Executives  on eight essential steps to a retreat’s success:

Start smart. Choose a savvy facilitator equipped to lead the process. The wrong facilitator can be disastrous. The right one will be an inspiration.

Get your game plan on. The board should focus on strategic discussions and leave tactical and work plan development to the staff in a subsequent session. The venue is important, too. Going offsite gives special attention to the process, minimizes interruptions and inspires conversation.

Get up close and personal. The facilitator needs to conduct personal and confidential interviews with participants in advance of the retreat to help identify issues that need to be addressed and provide a forum for the participants to forge a relationship with the facilitator.

Keep calm and follow the rules. Establish ground rules at the start of the retreat, and make sure that all participants understand and agree to them. Emphasize an open, collaborative environment.

Invite the elephant in. If no one brings up the tough issues, the facilitator must introduce and frame them in a direct, respectful way and invite discussion. Varying opinions are healthy and contribute to sound decision-making.

Make the call. When it comes time to make a decision, it’s critical to determine in advance how decisions will be made. Reaching consensus does not require a vote and results in better decisions, implementation and relationships.

Put the “treat” in “retreat.” Remember that board members are volunteers. Be gracious and grateful for their insight and participation. Integrate team-building activities to promote interaction and foster relationships.

Show action. Attendees will be demoralized if they don’t see results from the retreat. Be sure you communicate the action plan to participants as quickly as possible after the retreat and continue to communicate and demonstrate progress.

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The column contributor, Octavio “Bobby” Peralta, is concurrently the secretary-general of the Association of Development Financing Institutions in Asia and the Pacific (ADFIAP) and the president of the Philippine Council of Associations and Association
Executives (PCAAE).

PCAAE enjoys the support of ADFIAP, the Tourism Promotions Board  and the Philippine International Convention Center.

E-mail [email protected].