PMA Consulting, LLC

Establishing the Right Culture at a Board Retreat

I had the privilege of facilitating a board retreat and strategic planning session last week for the Western NC Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.  Like many of the retreats of which I’ve been a part, the Alzheimer’s staff and board were impressive both for their collective talent as well as their dedication to the cause.  As I left after the second day, I was reminded that retreat success is often less about the “mission/goals/objectives” methodology, but more about creating a retreat “culture” that is conducive to success.

My experience with the Wildacres Leadership Initiative captured the elements of “meeting culture” better than any other I have seen, and I continue to employ these tactics as a facilitator working with volunteer boards:

Be responsible for your own learning.  The staff have likely assembled important information on the organization and on the objectives of the retreat.  Read what is provided and familiarize yourself with the website and other recent communications.

Participate.  Of course your voice needs to be heard, but best-practice retreats have participants who strategically encourage less vocal members to get involved too.  You know you’re retreat is going well when veteran board members find ways to bring in new members’ perspective through a well-timed question lobbed their way.

Speak from the “I” perspective.  Veteran board members can inadvertently hurt a retreat’s culture is when they speak with a “royal we.”  Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but when an individual starts a comment with something like: “Well, WE have tried that before and it didn’t work” it immediately discourages new ideas and conveys a majority opinion that doesn’t necessarily exist. 

It’s OK to be messy.  When expectations are not made clear at the outset, some board members are frustrated by their inability to resolve complex issues in a day or two.  It would seem obvious that challenging issues (that the staff has wrestled with all year) are not going to be resolved neatly in a day, but I continue to find board members who leave frustrated when they can’t “fix” things.  It’s important to understand that success may not be conclusions on every topic, but likely a clear set of action items before the next board meeting. 

Have fun.  Often the staff puts so much time and energy in crafting the perfect agenda with multiple objectives that it becomes an exhausting experience.  There is real danger that the organization “successfully” completes all of the agenda items, but exhausts the volunteers in the process.  Give the board room to breathe during the day and to make personal connections.  Additional time (and the energy that comes from it) can lead to the best follow-up of all: board members seeking out the next meeting and volunteering for activity instead of being stalked at the end of the day.

Clearly effective retreats are important for the strategic planning objectives they can accomplish, but don’t let the focus on planning get in the way of providing a culture that nurtures your board for long-term success.  PMA is focused on strategic success but also developing a positive board culture.  Let us know if we can help you plan and facilitate your next board retreat.