Jun 212012

Running a Productive Offsite

Running a Productive Offsite

A couple OnlyOnce readers asked me to do a post on how I run senior team offsites.  It’s a great part of our management meeting routine at Return Path, and one that Patrick Lencioni talks about extensively in Death by Meeting (review, book) – a book worth reading if you care about this topic.

My senior team has four offsites per year.  I love them.  They are, along with my Board meetings, my favorite times of the year at work.  Here’s my formula for these meetings:

–          WHY:  There are a few purposes to our offsites.  One for us is that our senior team is geographically distributed across 4 geographies at the executive level and 6 or 7 at the broader management team level.  So for us, these are the only times of the year that we are actually in the same place.  But even if we were all in one place, we’d still do them.  The main purpose of the offsite is to pull up from the day-to-day and tackle strategic issues or things that just require more uninterrupted time.  The secondary purpose is to continue to build and develop the team, both personal relationships and team dynamics.  It’s critically important to build and sustain deep relationships across the Executive Team.  We need this time in order to be a coordinated, cohesive, high trust, aligned leadership team for the company.  As the company has expanded (particularly to diverse geographies), our senior team development has become increasingly critical

–          WHO:  Every offsite includes what we call our Executive Committee, which is for the most part, my direct reports, though that group also includes a couple C/SVP titled people who don’t report directly to me but who run significant parts of the company (7-8 people total).  Two of the four offsites we also invite the broader leadership team, which is for the most part all of the people reporting into the Executive Committee (another 20 people).  That part is new as we’ve gotten bigger.  In the earlier days, it was just my staff, and maybe one or two other people as needed for specific topics

–          WHERE:  Offsites aren’t always offsite for us.  We vary location to make geography work for people.  And we try to contain costs across all of them.  So every year, probably 2 of them are actually in one of our offices or at an inexpensive nearby hotel.  Then the other 2 are at somewhat nicer places, usually one at a conference-oriented hotel and then one at a more fun resort kind of place.  Even when we are in one of our offices, we really treat it like an offsite – no other meetings, etc., and we make sure we are out together at dinner every night

–          WHEN:  4x/year at roughly equal intervals.  We used to do them right before Board meetings as partial prep for those meetings, but that got too crowded.  Now we basically do them between Board meetings.  The only timing that’s critical is the end of year session which is all about budgeting and planning for the following year.  Our general formula when it’s the smaller group is two days and at least one, maybe two dinners.  When it’s the larger group, it’s three days and at least two dinners.  For longer meetings, we try to do at least a few hours of fun activity built into the schedule so it’s not all work.

–          WHAT:  Our offsites are super rigorous.  We put our heads together to wrestle with (sometimes solve) tough business problems – from how we’re running the company, to what’s happening with our culture, to strategic problems with our products, services and operations.  The agenda for these offsites varies widely, but the format is usually pretty consistent.  I usually open every offsite with some remarks and overall themes – a mini-state-of-the-union.  Then we do some kind of “check-in” exercise either about what people want to get out of the offsite, or something more fun like an envisioning exercise, something on a whiteboard or with post-its, etc.  We always try to spend half a day on team and individual development.  Each of us reads out our key development plan items from our most recent individual 360, does a self-assessment, then the rest of the team piles on with other data and opinions, so we keep each other honest and keep the feedback flowing.  Then we have a team development plan check-in that’s the same, but about how the team is interacting.  We always have one or two major topics to discuss coming in, and each of those has an owner and materials or a discussion paper sent out a few days ahead of time.  Then we usually have a laundry list of smaller items ranging from dumb/tactical to brain-teasing that we work in between topics or over meals (every meal has an agenda!).  There’s also time at breaks for sub-group meetings and ad hoc conversations.  We do try to come up for air, but the together time is so valuable that we squeeze every drop out of it.  Some of our best “meetings” over the years have happened side-by-side on elliptical trainers in the hotel gym at 6 a.m.  We usually have a closing check-out, next steps recap type of exercise as well.

–          HOW:  Lots of our time together is just the team, but we usually have our long-time executive coach Marc Maltz from Triad Consulting  facilitate the development plan section of the meeting.

I’m sure I missed some key things here.  Team, feel free to comment and add.  Others with other experiences, please do the same!

  • Nick Mehta

    Excellent post, Matt. We also had a very similar format (once a quarter, alternated main exec staff and full extended staff, etc.) A few more things I learned:
    * Goes without saying, but too many slides kill these things. I actually opted for no projected slides and only prinouts as needed. As much as I hate printing things, having a dark room with a projector kills the vibe.
    * Room size (as with any meeting) is critical. We always opted for rooms that were just slightly bigger than being too small.
    * I used to do packed 8 am to 6 pm type agendas but over time found they burned people out. So I started to opt for later starts to make sure people didn't feel pressured by the agenda.
    * The agenda was radically different with extended staff vs. core exec staff. With the bigger group (about 20), I viewed the meeting more about leadership engagement and brainstorming than specific decision making (which is hard to do with so many people). One exercise that always worked surprisingly well in the bigger group is "List things in last six months that were big wins and big misses" or things like that. Once I did an exercise where I asked extended staff to discuss how each of our stakeholders (customers, partners, employees, investors) perceives us and how we can serve them better.
    * Obviously keeping people engaged is key. I ended up being hardcore about "no laptops in meetings," etc. so that people really stayed focused.
    * A few times, I had my exec staff do a live review on me. I left the room, they brainstormed and wrote stuff on a whiteboard. I then came back and they presented it to me. I was impressed by their bravery and candor.
    * One challenge as in any meeting is keeping the content relevant and engaging for everyone. So I'd try to tweak the agenda and coach the presenters to talk about stuff that truly needs the groups' overall opinion. For example, lead management (beyond high level discussions) is better handled between sales and marketing only – People Ops (HR), engineering, etc. don't care about the details. Whereas bonus structures, employee reviews, strategic goals, etc. are relevant to all.

    Keep these thought-provoking posts coming, Matt!

    • Matt Blumberg

      These are all good points, Nick.  Another small things are room temperature (hot=sleep, cold=awake), and providing enough breaks/healthy snacks!

  • Cloughie2012

    Nice post. Offsites are really growing on me. I tend to run one every 4 months or so with the management team. A great chance to spend time on strategy, having priority discussions and generally debating tough issues. It's great for team building too – I tend to run two day ones and stay over at the hotel and go out for some dinner and a few whiskeys in the evening ;)

    A few things I have learnt:

    – One or two ice breaker / refresher sessions work well. They help keep things fresh and people engaged throughout the day

    – No laptops, blackberries – kinda defeats the point of an offsite, This can happen during breaks.

    – lay out what you want to achieve up front and how the offsite is going to be run

    – don;t take yourself too serious. I used to plan super rigid schedules and run the whole thing like a meeting – I tend to find a more informal approach works well – often we change things up depending on how we're doing.

    • Matt Blumberg

      All great practices. Thanks for adding them to the post, Daniel!Matt