Why Strategic Planning Offers Team-Building Opportunities

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Listen to this episode here.

Why is it said that a well-conducted strategic planning retreat can be the best executive team-building session ever? What elements should you include so that the time spent helps participants work better than before?

First, you must start by setting aside any recent, fluffy definition of “team-building”: it’s  become synonymous with “entertaining.” For many it means “changing out of work clothes to engage in an activity completely unrelated to the job”. Here in the Caribbean activities such as paintball, casino nights, church services and Soca parties have all earned the label, even as they deliver a “feel-good” experience.

However, many executives are not amused. They see it as unproductive, a way to bribe employees by giving them some fun (they supposedly want) in exchange for doing work (which they don’t really want.) This perverse logic represents old thinking. It comes from a time when productivity had to be coerced.

By contrast, the highest performers who typically make it to the executive ranks are already motivated. For them, team building shouldn’t be a break from work. Instead, it should enhance it by giving them a focused, intense opportunity to fix communication problems, deal with unresolved issues and learn new soft skills.

However, if you are designing such an outcome, don’t expect it to be easy. The best way to start is by focusing on observable behaviors which are missing. Once they are identified, provide your trainees the chance to practice them in a safe environment. Think of it as the equivalent of sparring with a partner in boxing, practicing in the nets in cricket or doing 100 free throws in basketball practice. Repetition, especially under the watchful eye of a demanding coach, works.

A strategic planning retreat, due to its intense nature, can be engineered to produce such outcomes. Here’s how you do it.

  1. Recast the Retreat as a Balance

The worst mental model to have of a strategic planning retreat is to think of it as a round-about way to develop a key document. In fact, it’s easier to get the CEO or consultant to just sit down over a weekend and type away until the task is done.

When convinced by others, some leaders condescend to conducting a full team retreat just to get other people to agree to their ideas. In these settings, the event is simply a rubber stamp. The goal of including colleagues is to sell them on the CEO’s or consultant’s brilliance.

By contrast, an authentic retreat which infuses team-building at every step views the process of developing the details as co-equal with the final product. When they are both respected, you can achieve a fine balance between engaging participants and upholding the quality of the end result.

  1. Use the Retreat to Engage and Train

The best process to create a group strategy involves two kinds of thinking activities. The first, “divergence”, means generating new ideas. The second, “convergence”, is the activity of bringing about agreement between different parties.

In a strategic planning retreat, it’s possible for you to emphasize these two opposite phases, teaching participants how to recognize each one. Now, they can learn the relevant skills within each activity and how to switch between them.

In particular, convergence is fraught with danger. In these phases, a good retreat should have moments when the fight for contending ideas becomes fierce. After all, the stakes are high and people from separate disciplines see the same facts with the special lenses they have been trained to use.

Don’t be like members of weak teams which try to avoid such tussles by putting decisions to a vote. Effective groups work out their differences in an open discussion. Before doing so, take your participants through a self-evaluation of the specific skills needed when diverging or converging. As they make progress towards the end result, get them to reflect on how to improve them in real time.

The truth is that a strategic planning retreat is actually made up of everyday conversations. It’s just that you can seize the opportunity for participants to reflect on the quality of these discussions as well as the final output.

If you also provide an experienced coach to give feedback in the moment, that’s a huge bonus. She should encourage each person to take risks, to try out fresh skills. Expect some new behavior changes to occur in real-time that stick around for years to come.

The bottom line is that a strategic planning retreat is an ideal chance to practice and up-level everyday executive skills. By the end, the benefits the company gains far exceed that of the best party or outside exercise. That’s real team-building.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Effective Leaders Never Play It Safe

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The audio version of this article can be found here, plus an archive of past publications

What allows a few corporate leaders to take risks so effortlessly? And why are so many of the rest over-cautious, trapped in behaviors that leave staff uninspired and disengaged? These tough questions resist one-size-fits-all answers but much can be learned from the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Few realize that he died with a disapproval rating of 75%, higher than any leader in modern times. At the time, many believed that his approach was not only wrong, but unnecessary. As a result, according to those close to him, he became increasingly disillusioned inside, but to outsiders, he just kept moving. He continued to put himself at physical risk, and today Americans revere him with a 90%+ approval rating.

However, King’s example isn’t only for CEO’s and Managing Directors. In fact, anyone who wants to make a difference must face similar challenges, regardless of their level. Here are two ways to remain motivated as a change agent in your company.

Fleeing Familiarity and Safety

Anyone who is inspired with the ability to see a shiny new vision is cursed by their good fortune. Why? Inspirational feelings soon wear off, revealing an opposing force which feeds on fear and pulls them backwards. It represents the familiar parts of their lives, the routines to which they have become accustomed, the comforts they have embraced. These were all-important right up until the moment when that new vision disrupted everything.

King was no different. He was living a comfortable, middle-class life as a pastor of a church and a father of young children when he was recruited as a spokesman for the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. He was 26-years old.

Over the objections of others, he steadily abandoned the path other ministers in his circles had followed. This brought him into a sustained, dangerous confrontation with enemies intent on destroying his work and personhood.

However, at the very beginning he may not have perceived the upcoming threat to his life. Like many of us, it was probably more about giving up everyday middle-class certainty for a vision of the unknown.

In fact, a week before he was caught unawares by a nomination to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association he turned down an opportunity to head up the local NAACP chapter. He was too busy, he explained, taking care of this church to serve in a community position.

Thankfully, he accepted the new role in spite of the time pressure.

As a corporate change agent, you may know what it’s like to fail when the moment to step up to lead arrives at your doorstep, dressed in unfamiliar garb. Like Lot’s wife, you glance wistfully back at the fruits of your hard work, afraid to lose them. It pays to look ahead. Here’s why.

Being Willing to Be in Harm’s Way

As a first-time manager you may have been shocked to discover that the easy life you imagined after being promoted doesn’t exist. Now, you find yourself in harm’s way: the subject of criticism from employees below and executives above.

But it’s just the beginning. With every promotion it only gets worse: the risk increases, takes on new forms and arises in ways you never thought possible.

Seasoned executives will tell you that their perks pale in comparison to sleepless nights, undeserved attacks and targeted gossip that comes from any move into the limelight. They also share that leadership is about accepting such uncertainty, while consciously putting oneself in harm’s way. In other words, it’s a bad idea for the employee who has learned how to avoid risks at all costs.

Even King admitted that if he had been given time to think about becoming the leader of the new organization, he would have declined. It was a decision made in response to the moment.

Yet, we only understand it as a historic turning point in hindsight. On that critical occasion, the choice before him was similar to the ones you face each day. Like every other chance to lead, it eventually passes and life goes on, but the difference that you could have made is lost; sometimes forever.

Take this example and multiply it a few hundred times to get an idea of why change in your firm takes so long to bring about. Many company cultures are built on staff members clinging to familiar gains while habitually avoiding risks. They have learned to avoid the key moments when they could step up to lead.

As an agent of change, don’t run: instead, look for these rare opportunities. Prepare yourself to be in harm’s way. It’s not about being reckless, just understand the risk and accept it as part of the cost of leadership. The history of icons like Dr. King shows us that your decisive action in these key moments makes all the difference.