These tips for planning retreats will optimize the potential of your top leadership team

Retreat to greatness: these tips for planning retreats will optimize the potential of your top leadership team

John Jay Bonstingl

The next time you plan a retreat for your top leadership team, your chances for success are greatly enhanced if you remember these seven key elements.

1. Choose a conducive environment. Select an attractive environment that reflects the nature and purpose of your retreat. Everyone likes to get away for a while (except, of course, those of us who are incurably addicted to our cell phones, pagers and Internet connections), so an offsite location is often best. The fewer distractions you have in your retreat environment, the more productive you will be.

Choose a retreat site that is far enough away from the office so it would be difficult, if not impossible, for your participants to run away to an “urgent” last-minute meeting or crisis.

Establish a cell-free zone, and tell everyone to leave their mobile phones outside your meeting rooms. Cell phones have a way of creating false urgencies, and even the anticipation of their ringing can distract your people from the work of the retreat.

If your aim is to improve the quality of your systems and processes so that everyone can succeed (including all of your students, families and other stakeholders), then choose an environment that models what you want your people to learn. For off-site retreats, I often take my clients to a Ritz-Carlton hotel, winner of two Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards. Benchmarking best practices at the Ritz as you conduct the business of your retreat can energize your own Continuous Quality Improvement journey in a very special way.

We know that when people fail, it is often their systems that have failed them first. When people succeed, it is most often because there are systems and processes in place that make success possible for everyone. At the Ritz-Carlton, they have systems in place that result in consistently high performance and customer satisfaction levels, ensuring success for their own employees as well as for their clients and providers.

Many of the Ritz-Carlton practices can be adapted to school use. What could we learn from such a quality-focused organizational environment that we could use to improve our work back home?

2. Focus on policies and processes, not personalities.

This must be the primary, non-negotiable ground rule for your retreat. Make sure everyone avoids the temptation to make issues personal. Most problems are directly related to the way an organization’s systems and processes are set up. The “blame game” is always seductive, but it is always counter-productive in the long run. Everyone wants to be known for competence, and people resent working in environments that unfairly limit their potential.

Use your retreat to create systems and processes that will optimize the greatest potential of all your people–administrators, teachers, students, parents, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, business and community partners, and all of your other stakeholders. Rather than fixing blame, put your group’s energies into fixing your systems instead.

3. Make relevant data the basis of your work. Put your quality improvement processes on solid ground by focusing on the collection, analysis and application of relevant data. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” Accurate and relevant data will either prove your point or open it up for debate.

People at all levels of your organization must feel free to challenge unsupported assumptions. In school districts of quality, an often-heard comment is: “That’s an interesting perspective. Can we back it up with data?” Along with “effect” data such as test scores, be sure to collect and analyze “cause” data–information about the possible reasons why you are getting the results you are getting.

Are all students learning and achieving their potential? Why are some of our students performing below their capabilities? Do we need more data on whether they are getting enough uninterrupted sleep at night, whether they are coming to school with protein-rich breakfasts in their bellies, and whether they are getting enough water and exercise throughout the day?

Do we need to consider whether our teaching styles match our students’ learning styles? Are our students engaged in nonfiction writing across the curriculum–a proven method for raising student achievement and improving test scores? These are just a few of the “cause” data sets that are too often missing in our deliberations.

4. Consider every stakeholder group and focus on results. In your deliberations, give adequate consideration to each and every stakeholder group. Unnecessary exclusion creates unnecessary adversaries. Not everybody needs to have a seat at your retreat, but be sure to weigh the needs of your internal and external clients and providers as you plan your next steps.

For example, do your teachers have the tools and strategies they need to help all of their students succeed? Do they use up-to-date tools and techniques to help students develop effective study skills and personal management skills, as well as the ability to think clearly and creatively as they take ownership of their own learning?

A national project of our Center for Schools of Quality, called Expanding Learning Potential, teaches teachers these essential strategies. Students are our most important stakeholders, and our retreat deliberations must have a laser-like focus on the central question: How can we best help our students to learn and grow to their fullest potential?

5. Celebrate and build on your strengths. For the greatest possible improvement, build upon what you already do so very well. Celebrate existing strengths while you expand those strengths to become even better tomorrow than you are today. You might want to begin by having your participants consider these four basic questions: What is getting better? How do we know? What needs improvement? How do we know?

One of the most useful tools is my Plus/Delta/M Exercise, in which you work in teams to identify your greatest strengths (pluses), your opportunities for possible improvement (deltas–the international symbol for change and improvement), and what is currently missing (M) from the mix, or is not yet on your radar screen.

Note that we never use the word “weakness” in my exercise. It’s good to substitute positive words for negatives whenever possible. Positive ideas have much more power because, rather than pointing to past mistakes and causes for blame, they point the way toward future possibilities and opportunities for growth.

6. Provide objective facilitation. To avoid unnecessary conflict and to keep everyone on track, your facilitator should be someone who is objective. More importantly, your facilitator should be perceived as impartial by all of your retreat participants. For this reason, most successful retreats are not conducted by superintendents or board presidents, or even by internal staff developers, but rather by an experienced, respected outside consultant who is a specialist in guiding participants through the often-tricky terrain of interpersonal relationships and personal agendas. An outside facilitator can afford to say things that insiders may not be able to say, leading to more positive results.

7. Don’t forget food, fun and fellowship. Your retreat should provide good nutrition, especially first thing in the morning. “Feed them, and they will come!” is an oft-heard truth from retreat planners. Resist the temptation to offer your retreat participants the usual fare of donuts, bagels and coffee–extremely high in sugars and caffeine. These traditional breakfast foods all too often result in caffeine crashes and sugar slumps by mid-morning, setting folks up for the “dead zone” after lunch, when many people have to struggle just to stay awake.

Instead, consider providing a protein-rich breakfast (egg and cheese croissant, for example) before the first session of the morning, and have protein snacks (cheese sticks, mixed nuts, shelled sunflower seeds) at their tables to munch on throughout the day. You’ll be amazed at the improved energy levels of even your most unenergetic participants!

Also, be sure to build in time for members to enjoy each other’s company away from the business at hand. Make it possible for your people to get away for a golfing outing, a picnic or a concert, so they can get to know each other on a personal level in a relaxed setting. Bonding opportunities such as these offer one of the most valuable, long-lasting benefits of taking your group on a retreat.

Enjoy amazing results

Plan your next leadership retreat with these seven key ideas in mind, and you may be amazed at the results!

Copyright [c] 2003, John Jay Bonstingl. All rights reserved.

John Jay Bonstingl is president of Bonstingl Leadership Development, director of The Center for Schools of Quality, and author of the best-selling book, “Schools of Quality” (Corwin Press, 2001). He conducts leadership and board retreats for administration teams and business partners who would like to improve the quality of relationships inside their organizations and raise achievement levels. He can be contacted by e-mail at or by phone at (410) 997-7555.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Association of California School Administrators

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group