Keeping Off-sites on Target

It may cost up to six figures, but that executive retreat can pay off — if you do it right.

When Experian Interactive Group’s 12-member executive team jetted off to a Napa Valley, California, resort last May, no one expected to have a miserable time. After all, as CFO Laura Conrad says, “Everyone here likes wine.”

But there was far more to the off-site strategy session than a tour of the winery — although the team did manage to squeeze that in. Having acquired four companies in six months, Experian, a division of Experian Group Ltd., needed a chance to “get all those minds together,” says Conrad. That was particularly important, she adds, because some of the acquisitions (which included LowerMyBills.com and Pricegrabber.com) featured strong founding entrepreneurs who were staying on. By assembling everyone off-site for nearly two days of planning sessions, Experian fostered a free-flowing exchange of ideas that was so productive that, Conrad says, “the most frustrating part was deciding what not to do.”

The notion that fresh surroundings can inspire fresh ideas is so ingrained in corporate culture that “it is the rare management team that doesn’t have some type of off-site,” says Logan Chandler, a partner at The Strategic Offsites Group LLC, a Boston-based firm that organized 49 such events last year. Away from phones, E-mail, and other interruptions, there is “inevitably some learning around an opportunity that wasn’t readily apparent,” says Jim Deuschle, CFO of Buffalo-based Rich’s. Deuschle has organized more than 10 meetings and says that it’s only logical that a CFO would be at the center of those efforts. “There is such a close tie between strategic planning and finance,” he says, that regardless of the aim, style, or duration of the off-site, the CFO is bound to be involved.

A Metric for Meetings

Off-sites are unlikely to escape the attention of a CFO for another reason: the price tag. A one- to two-day meeting for 10 or so senior executives can run anywhere from $30,000 to $90,000. At that price, a solid return on investment is essential. Strategic off-sites sound simple enough: choose a venue, develop an agenda, and book the travel. But too often, “companies throw the kitchen sink onto the agenda,” says Bob Frisch, managing partner of Strategic Offsites. Even worse than a lack of clear objectives, experts say, is a complete lack of follow-up.

Frisch says a useful metric is “four days of preparation for every day in the room.” Goals should be set, materials prepared, and expectations managed. Frisch and his team interview all participants in advance to make sure everyone is on the same page. Bill McCarthy, an executive coach with LeaderSource, says that it’s important to let participants know up front that the meeting will entail real work. That will galvanize them, he says, because “people are not interested in going out in the woods and singing around a campfire.”

Deuschle recommends having event champions — a staff member and an outside consultant — who not only facilitate the discussions but “become owners of the meeting, responsible for the outcome and staying in tune with the original objective.” Having an independent facilitator helps, says Experian’s Conrad: “People can express their views in a nonthreatening way.”

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