This past weekend I had an opportunity to facilitate an executive leadership retreat with an organization’s senior staff and Board members. As I reflect on that experience, I really don’t think the meeting could have gone better. We accomplished all of our objectives. We stayed on time. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive. And there are concrete, actionable items that came out of the meeting that will impact the organization for the next five years.
Over the past several years, I’ve also facilitated strategic planning sessions and other meetings of senior staff that haven’t gone so well. Meetings have ended with a vague set of next steps. Participants have shared they felt lost at times during meetings.
As I contrasted these various experiences in my mind, I began to come up with a list of key ingredients for such facilitated meetings to be successful. Here’s a list that I’ve come up with for the top five essential elements to any successful planning session or high level meeting:
- Strong executive sponsorship. I had direct access to the organization’s CEO, and we met almost weekly in the six weeks leading up to this meeting to ensure what I was designing aligned with his vision for the meeting. He relayed all of the design ideas and content to the organization’s Board chair to ensure there was alignment at the highest level.
- Clearly defined outcomes. One of my first questions for the CEO was: “What will success look like when people head for the airport on the final day of the retreat?” He was very clear on specific objectives that we’d be able to observe if they were accomplished. These outcomes were also defined so clearly that we’d be able to observe if these objectives were not accomplished, too.
- The right people in the room. Time and time again, I looked around the room during discussions and activities and was in awe of the brainpower and the thought that was going into the various assignments that were given to small groups. There’s no way we would have been able to accomplish everything without the diverse opinions and perspectives represented in the room… and there’s no way we would have been able to accomplish everything had we included 10 or 15 more people. There was ruthless prioritization of who was invited to attend this meeting.
- The desire to make others look good. There are two aspects to this point. The first is that everyone in the room chose to check their ego at the door. Where there was disagreement, it was done respectfully and revolved around differing opinions of how the organization’s mission should be carried out. The second way to look at this point is the way in which everyone in the organization was willing to assist me when I asked for their time to help me prepare for this meeting. Staff from the executive level on down were willing to give me time prior to this meeting to conduct interviews that would be videoed and re-played during the retreat. Several individual contributors were willing to give up a Saturday in order to come to the retreat and share the perspectives of frontline workers across the organization. Basically, I was working with people from across the organization who were looking for reasons to help as opposed to people looking for reasons to say they were too busy to help.
- Thoughtful, inclusive design. Acknowledging that the right people were in the room, I approached the design of this meeting to limit my “airtime” as facilitator and I ensured the attendees were given plenty of time in small and large group discussion. Even small or large group discussion can grow monotonous after 2 days of meetings. This meeting included puzzles that would serve as a metaphor for the meeting’s overall goals, it featured lock boxes and different colored baseball caps and PollEverywhere and a scavenger hunt and a movie with popcorn. Sometimes Often we can’t rely on the power of small group discussion alone to keep an audience engaged.
Last weekend was exhibit A for what it looks like when the ideal meeting conditions have been met. What happens, however, when one or more of these essential elements are missing? Can a meeting still be effective?
Next Thursday, I’ll return with a follow-up post that features the voice of two very experienced L&D professionals who will share their thoughts and experiences for how you might recover if any one of these essential elements are missing.