Question: Making offsites more effective

We have a 2 day offsite coming up to discuss key initiatives for 2014. Typically we just have the executives participate in these discussions, but this time we are are thinking of bringing in their DRs on the 2nd day. (Participants will grow from 7 to 19.)

1. Develop next group of leaders
2. Executives often postpone commitment on a proposal, to get buy-in from their constituents. Presence of their DRs might make this process faster.

Key risk: we will lose the openness/ equality needed for a healthy strategy discussion.

Are there any best practices we can follow?

7 Expert Insights

Great question.   What I believe you will accomplish is broadening the sense of ownership for the initiatives that you decide upon which always has advantages.  I would like to make this suggestion however ...

Rather than bring the DRs in on the second day, bring them and their perspectives/ideas in on Day 1.  Here are the potential benefits:

1.  What you will achieve is moving into Day 2 with a broader range of ideas that are bound to impact the decisions made by the executive/leader team.  
2.  You still accomplish the initial step to developing the next group of leaders
3.  You still retain the ability for the openness/equality needed for a healthy strategy discussion
4.  You accomplish your # 2 above
5.  importantly, you gain the support of a broader base of people with leadership responsibility which addresses the executive commitment issue you mention

CAUTION:  Based on my experience in facilitating such sessions I suggest that once you have taken this approach (the broader involvement) you are giving others a role many will value.  Unless you present this approach as a one time situation or something you want to try this one time, you will create expectation of future involvement and as such can discourage those who like the role and want it again should you not repeat it in the future.

I expect that you will have an outcome that you will find valuable.  Congratulations on taking this approach.  

Employee engagement is a hot topic these days, and with good reason.  Companies that are highly rated in employee engagement tend to outperform their counterparts, often to an astonishing degree. While your offsite would indeed be a great development opportunity for the DRs of your executives, your executives will benefit as much or more by hearing their input regarding the key initiatives for 2014. Ideally the DRs would follow suit and subsequently seek input from their DRs, and so on down the line.

Maintaining openness and equality during the broader discussions about your key initiatives may be as simple as establishing ground rules at the start of the day that encourage openness and equality.  Your most senior leader can help set the tone by behaving as an equal participant with the most junior attendee. There should be a clear expectation that the exec group will be there to listen on day 2, not to stifle discussion.

What often makes offsites so valuable is the time that is made available for dialogue, in contrast to the typical workday. That two-way exchange of information can lead to a level of shared understanding of why your key initiatives are so important, as well as some solid ideas re how they can be accomplished.

I would like to add the following to what What  Mike and Jon already said.
1. Get a professional facilitator that will help the management team through a process to get the best answers
2. The best way to find one is to check with somebody you know and trust who used a professional facilitator; today there are many and not all of them are good
3. Ask the facilitator to interview the participants in this offsite to see what their expectations are. Once that is completed, have the facilitator propose a process that would lead to get to the best answers possible

An experienced facilitator is critical.  Your objectives are worthy, but in the absence of an open culture, the program will prove to be frustrating. A significant amount of preplanning & active involvement  from the DR's in advance of the off-site are urged if you want substantive results in the 2 days.

1. Have the objectives for 2014 been defined and communicated?  This represents the executive contribution to the off-site.
2. Has each of the 7 principal organizational units conducted its own SWOT analysis?  This is important since these factors will affect the ability of each unit to meet the operating requirements which may be proposed  and operating conflicts can be identified.
3. The executives should be silenced to the extent possible. If you want DR buy in, the DR's  must be the creators/primary contributors of the plan.  
4. There can not be any judgment of any contribution offered. Every idea is worthy of consideration. The best role for the executives is to identify risks and to raise questions related to the ability of the organization to respond effectively.
5. If successful, the output of the session will be the list of key initiatives required to meet the objectives.  An interdisciplinary team (again excluding the executives) will then be needed to convert this list into the operating plan.  I suggest that the facilitator continue to work with this team through the planning phase.

An effective off-site will result only if all participants are involved in its preparation & in the post event plan development.

Hope these ideas are of value.

There's a classic saying by Dale Carnegie that "People support a world they help create."

If you want to create a sense of ownership and accountability, and create a culture of openness and transparency, invite the direct reports from Day 1 !

If they are involved in the process from the beginning, they will feel a sense of ownership and help drive the process. That's how you create the next generation of leaders -- invite them into the inner sanctum and the inner circle, make them feel like the leaders or future leaders that they are, and then challenge and empower them to step up to leadership.

The second thing, as some of my colleagues mentioned, is to bring in a seasoned, experienced external facilitator to run the session. (And I'm not just saying that because I am a seasoned, experienced, external facilitator :) Seriously, you want to allow everyone including the CEO and senior leaders to be participants in the process and not be concerned with running the show. What that also does is level the playing field and encourage others to contribute their thoughts without concern for hierarchy, status, or title.

Lots more can be said, but I'll leave it here...except for one other thing: Before leaving, make sure you capture the Action Items and next steps by determining and documenting Who is committed to doing What, by When. I've seen too much good work done in off-sites gone to waste when everyone returns to work and dives back into business as usual and focusing on nothing but playing catch-up on everything they missed while they were away. What you want is to keep the momentum created at the off-site going strong as you return to work energized and excited, ready to hit the ground running, and with a plan for how you are going to turn all those big ideas into actions, and actions into results.

A decent facilitator will work with you to plan the best strategy and format for the meeting; this will be the best practice you are asking for and it will be in the process of that planning that it will become clear whether the DRs will be best involved (and if so, when and for how long), or excluded.

There are so many factors that need to be taken into account in order to arrive at the right strategy and your facilitator should help you explore them in a structured way.

I agree with much of the ideas presented by colleagues here. In addition to inviting the direct reports to day one, and working with a professional facilitator, look at what real contribution they can make, to achieve your leadership development goals and support buy-in. For instance, consider asking them to prepare for the offsite by anticipating challenges to implementing the proposed key initiatives, including buy-in of peers and others, and how to proactively address those challenges. What processes, practices, communication, training needs to be in place?