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!

Jun 142012

Book Short: Alignment Well Defined

The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business is Patrick Lencioni’s newest book.  Unlike most or all of his other books (see the end of this post for the listing), this one is not a fable, although his writing style remains very quick and accessible.

I liked this book a lot.  First, the beginning section is a bit of a recap of his Five Dysfunctions of a Team which I think was his best book.  And the ending section is a recap of his Death by Meeting, another really good one.  The middle sections of the book are just a great reminder of the basic building blocks of creating and communicating strategy and values – about driving alignment.

But the premise, as the subtitle indicates, is that maintaining organizational health is the most important thing you can do as a leader.  I tell our team at Return Path  all the time that our culture is a competitive advantage in many ways, some quantifiable, and others a little less tangible.

A telling point in the book is when Lencioni is relaying a conversation he had with the CEO of a client company who does run a healthy organization – he asked, “Why in the world don’t your competitors do any of this?” And the client responded, “You know, I honestly believe they think it’s beneath them.” Lencioni goes on to say, “In spite of its undeniable power, so many leaders struggle to embrace organizational health because they quietly believe they are too sophisticated, too busy, or too analytical to bother with it.”  And there you have it.  More examples of why “the soft stuff” is mission critical.

Lencioni’s “Recipe for Organizational Health” (the outline of the book):

–          Build a Cohesive Leadership Team

–          Create Clarity

–          Overcommunicate Clarity

–          Reinforce Clarity

And his recipe for creating a tight set of “mission/vision/values” (the middle of the book):

1. Why do we exist?

2. How do we behave?

3. What do we do?

4. How will we succeed?

5. What is most important, right now?

6. Who must do what?

While there are lots of other good frameworks for doing all of this, Lencioni’s models and books are great, simple reminders of one of the CEO’s most important leadership functions.  We’re recrafting our own mission and values statements at the moment at Return Path, and we’re doing it using this 6-Question framework instead of the classic “Mission/Vision/Values” framework popularized a few years back by Harvard Business Review.

The full book series roundup as far as OnlyOnce has gotten so far is:

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