How many times have you reflected back on a firm retreat and thought “wow, that was money well-spent”? I worry that we’ve become far too comfortable with the underwhelming performance of one of the most expensive management tools a firm will ever engage in.

Most professional service firms have held a retreat before and are comfortable with the concept and expense. However just as not all PR is good PR, not all retreats are worth the investment.  Having participated in, coordinated and been responsible for outcomes of a wide range of firm retreats, here’s a summary of what I’ve learned about the most productive ones.

Why do we have retreats?:  Firms can have local one-day retreats or longer excursions to a resort setting.  Retreat budgets include the cost of the venue, all food and beverages, and any entertainment, but should also consider cost in terms of lost billable hours.  It’s therefore important to ensure that you’re retreat provides at least the equivalent value of these costs.  And that means they need to be carefully planned.

Many larger firms with multiple locations hold retreats as a way of reconnecting their members. While these retreats include business items on the agenda, the real purpose is firm morale and collegiality.  Greater emphasis is placed on social time than on business time, or the retreat has a strong cross section of events to cover off both purposes.

Smaller firms can take the same approach, but often hold retreats to deal with a particular issue. It could be strategic planning (although not often enough), or it could be to consider a major development such as a possible merger, etc.  These retreats may also have a social aspect, but the ultimate purpose is to attempt to get direction on the issue at hand.

But likely, the more frequent retreat purpose is non-existent. Firms hold a retreat every few years because they believe that to be a good business practice. So they ask several professionals to be responsible for planning the event, and the members of the firm show up to participate.

Improve the Retreat’s Purpose: Often, such retreat agendas are primarily comprised of standard partnership agenda items: status reports on the firm, its practice areas and its admin functions an approval of some decisions around these areas, some basic legal education, and perhaps an outside speaker or two in an attempt to inspire professionals around random topics.

To use a retreat for holding an extended Partners’ meeting or to provide a legal education is a waste of the firm’s times and resources. Ideally, retreats should be used for a combination of purposes including:

  • A moment of reflection and accountability in order to critique past actions against the firm’s strategic plan, and to celebrate successes;
  • The provision of better information about the firm’s segments for the purpose of improving awareness and cross-selling;
  • An opportunity to determine the next strategic direction of the firm;
  • A chance to explore new ideas, programs, market segments;
  • The ability to have all professionals brainstorm over new ideas, to flesh them out and simultaneously, feel they were part of the creation of strategy and implementation plans;
  • The chance to reconnect on multiple levels with other professionals in the firm, to re-affirm existing ties and establish new ones.

Retreats certainly can and should include social aspects; however they are too big an investment for most firms for the value of a retreat to be so restricted. They should primarily serve a business purpose, with social interaction as a secondary purpose.

Strong retreats have strong agendas that focus presentations and conversation on the firm’s future. Presentations on status are there to set the foundation for such discussion, and not the purpose of the event.  Strong retreats also ensure that the agenda items are not limited to talking head presentations: retreats are about information sharing, discussion, and then decision-making.

Really strong retreat retreats are those where organizers find a way to tie together all agenda content under a theme that can shape the tagline and images of the retreat to focus the tone of the event.

Partners v. Everyone: Many firms believe that a retreat should be a Partner-only affair, as if it is one of the privileges of Partnership.  I’m all for Partnership galvanizing events, but turning a retreat into an expanded Partners’ meeting and hug is an expensive way to hold them. Have a Partners’ weekend of golf, but plan for your retreat to be for a far more business-oriented goal.

I’m a huge proponent of associate or junior inclusion in retreats, for three reasons. 1. Decisions that affect the future of an organization are always better served by a wider range of perspectives. Younger professionals will have ideas that older professionals might not have thought of.  2. The next generation of professionals in a firm will be responsible for implementing a good chunk of whatever strategy is decided upon; therefore wouldn’t it make sense to engage them in the strategic development process so they feel invested in the idea?  3. And finally, involving all professionals in a business retreat re-enforces a firm culture of engagement, respect and opportunity, whereas limiting such meetings to the Partnership only sets a very different cultural tone for the firm.

Spouses or No: This becomes largely a matter of expense although a firm must also consider the potential loss of bonding time between practitioners if spouses come along.  Should a firm decide to include spouses, I recommend that the agenda include but limit spousal involvement.  On a typical weekend retreat, ideally, spouses would be included in at least one dinner and on an afternoon of leisure activities if the retreat agenda has allowed for it.

Preparing for a Retreat:  Many firms assign retreat coordination to a task force, sometimes comprised of more junior Partners.  Your retreat may be your most expensive management tool that year: give it the gravitas it deserves with proper oversight.   Assign a power Partner as retreat planning leader and surround them with a small but credible team that includes at least one other Partner (representing a different practice or industry area than the first), an associate or two, your Administrator, your marketing professional, and appropriate support staff.

Have the Partnership approve a carefully considered agenda. Assign a respected professional to lead each section of the retreat.  They (or their delegate) should be responsible for all appropriate research (internal and external), and the production of any pre-reading materials required by retreat participants.  At the event, the agenda item leader should oversee the presentation and facilitate any subsequent discussion (by the room, in break out groups and report backs, etc.)  Each session should end with a summary of key learnings, and next steps.

Ensure the Retreat Actions Occur: After the retreat the Partnership should have an accountability process in place to ensure that all activities and programs agreed to during the retreat actually occur when and as appropriate.  I also recommend that six month after the retreat, the Managing Partner report back to the firm on the status of activities committed to within the retreat, and any resulting benefits to the firm.  At the beginning of the next retreat, the firm would ideally begin with a reminder of what occurred at the last retreat, what has happened since, and any corresponding results.

Retreats should be business tools, not boondoggles. Sure, have some fun and bonding because those things are important to the collegiality and culture of a firm; but also ensure that are used to maximum advantage with a meaningful business purpose as well.  Retreats are too expensive to conduct poorly and the associated professionals’ time is too valuable to use unwisely.  Be clear on the purpose of your retreat; coordinate it well; and ensure that decisions and actions developed through the retreat are undertaken and subsequently reported on.