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Five reasons to sound the retreat

Last week, I found myself with a group of other CEOs in a field in Wales whistling and barking orders like "lay low" and "go by" to a Border Collie. Here's how an away-day can transform your business.
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Getting muddy in a field with a group of chief executives and a sheep dog was a surreal experience, but in many ways surprisingly familiar. If you got it right, the sheep went into the pen. If you messed up, they went over the hill, possibly never to be seen again. So, like a typical day at the office?

A few days beforehand, I’d been chairing an off-site meeting for a young tech startup in the digital media sector. It involved pulling together a very busy team, all working on day-to-day tactics, to get us focused on our plans for the mid-to-long term strategy and vision for the business. We assessed what we want the business to look like in one to two years and put the milestones in place to bring the dream to reality. 

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It was a day of massive energy and a real feeling of teamwork and a common direction. 

Too often people tell me that they are so busy on the day-to-day stuff that they never have time to get away and think about the future. When you are fire-fighting, it is tremendously challenging, because customers and projects must come first, but the massive downside risk is that “if you always do what you always did, you will continuously get what you always got”. 

Getting away from the office for even half a day can be a tremendous way to clear your head, see things in perspective and surprisingly, save time.

Here are five ways that I have benefitted over the years from “sounding the retreat”:

1. Involvement: Setting a strategy for the business that everybody buys into because they have made a personal contribution to it. This is particularly effective with a new team or one that you have recently been brought in to lead. As the old Chinese proverb says: “I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.” 

 2. Conflict resolution: Using it as an opportunity to build bridges between colleagues who waste time and damage the business with internal conflicts. I hadn’t realised the depth of animosity between two senior colleagues who had had issues for many years until we did our off-site meeting. We took the opportunity to clear up some long-standing misconceptions and they worked really well together from then on. 

3. Explaining management decisions: On one occasion, when I was running a dotcom, we had to make some redundancies after the market crash and I took the whole company (circa 40 of us) off-site to explain what we had done and why, allowing the employees to ask the management team any question they wanted. It was a painful grieving process, but helped us steer through a very difficult period. 

4. Futurology and scenario planning: What will the future of our industry look like and how long will it take? If we were running our competitors’ businesses, what would our strategic and tactical moves be to compete with us? If we choose three different strategies, what might happen under each scenario? 

5. Developing a set of core values with your team: What does your business stand for? In my view,  a business is a bit like a building: the foundations are the culture, which are essential for a stable platform; the roof is lifetime relationships with customers who are delighted to recommend you to others; and the pillars are your key skills and points of differentiation.

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