Start Your Company Retreat With Gratitude
One of the most lively and memorable staff retreats I‘ve ever organized began with a session of unexpected gratitude. This retreat took place in a large rental house in a small Northern Minnesota town in the middle of winter. My staff had been running leadership programs in 4 different countries for a few years. This was our opportunity to reunite under one roof for a week and exchange stories and ideas to improve our processes – over a table laden with delicious food and drinks.
My staff are incredible individuals – executing their roles with passion and purpose, without a lot of sleep or predictability in what each day would bring. They are solid, sought-after professionals who live life to the fullest, appreciate other cultures, and teach leadership and connection each day, while maintaining focus on the particular project at hand. They truly made a difference in the lives of each of participant.
For this, I wanted to thank them. I wanted them to feel my gratitude before we jumped headfirst into workshops and developmental sessions planned during the retreat. I wanted them to know how much they were valued – not just by their boss, but by the people whose lives were touched and changed by the short, but impactful time they spent with their Program Leaders.
We were a small group of about 10 or so, from 8 different states and two countries. On the first evening, we gathered around the big screen TV in one of the bigger lounge rooms, piling on the couch and on the floor. After a brief welcome, I hit the play button.
For the next 40 minutes, we watched clip after clip of about 30 different past participants who, upon my request, had sent in a selfie-style “thank you”, specifically for their own Program Leader. Each clip was a candid and honest expression of gratitude directed to the person that had inspired them. Thank you for showing me…, thank you for being kind, thank you for believing in me. The clips were personal. They were touching. They were sweet. They were unscripted. They were wonderful.
By the end of the “Thank You” video, the room was full of small tears and big grins. It was the best way to kick off a retreat. I wanted my staff to know how much they were valued, and I wanted them to be excited for the next stage of growth we were about to embark on. Which is exactly what happened.
Here are the fundamental ingredients I am sure to include in every Professional Development Retreat I organize:
This a crucial ingredient when creating a company retreat. A little appreciation goes a long way and sets the tone for a high-vibe, positive atmosphere.
Focus and Objectives
- The workshops must focus on learning things that matter. Identify what can make your team better. Where is the organization feeling a bit of slack, and how can the week be tailored to fill in this slack and make improvements?
- Plan with a purpose. The entire week should have a common thread. Does each session contribute to the overall goal? Do the activities and skills-practice align with your purpose? They should.
- Inspire a new perspective. To spark innovative thinking, you need to change the environment around you and enhance your context. You do this by isolating key leadership skills to improve, and applying them directly to a new project. Because you are in a new environment, focusing on a new project, and engaging in new endeavors, you can’t help but gain new insights. You see solutions differently, and you learn new ways to develop your expertise and leadership approach. The magic happens when you apply your new perspective to your life and workspace back home. This is important for any organization who wants to experience growth and improvement.
This is why Venture Within provides professional development training overseas (new environment) and uses local conservation projects to facilitate deeper learning (new context).
- Accountability. A good idea is only as successful as its implementation. Knowing how to continue reaching your goals after your retreat by structuring accountability strategies is the key. Give yourself a list of goals, recognize the tools to get there, and lock in a few check-in points on your calendar.
- Music. This is important. I usually create a playlist on Spotify, and ask all members to contribute ahead of time – this generally makes everyone happy at one point or another and livens up your sessions.
- Good food and snacks. This is a no-brainer. Hungry people are not happy people, so splurge on providing plenty of good, wholesome, healthy, (and some not so healthy) food for your crew.
- Location. If your group is going to be in close quarters together and undergoing somewhat intense learning, it better be in some place invigorating and exciting. We prefer Costa Rica, Thailand, or Nicaragua, but it’s up to you.
- Happy Hours. Also a no-brainer. As long as the group doesn’t extend happy hour into the wee hours of the morning, this breaks up any heavy workshops the group has been focused on and adds enjoyment to the retreat.
Style and Structure
- 45 – 60-minute sessions. Less is more. Don’t overdo it with sessions that take too long to deliver. Your team will burn out and experience information overload, and that’s not good for anyone. Give your team something to focus on, and the time to let their learnings simmer.
- Breakaway sessions. Equally important. Lecture-style has its benefits, but opportunities for your team to break away on their own will also allow them to become leaders within smaller groups, and share their own insights on a more personal level.
- Sharing stories and storytelling. It can’t be all concepts and goals and graphs and dot points. Nothing is better at making a lasting impression than to illustrate a point with a good story. It also is a tool for connecting your team by making them feel comfortable enough to share. Sharing encourages sharing. People remember stories.
- Guest speakers. New faces, new voices, fresh insights. Bringing someone in from the outside is a great way to spice up your retreat and inspire your team.
- Explore. There’s no sense in hosting a professional development retreat in an exciting location if you can’t have a look around! Free time is important. Letting your team explore outside and experience the location they’re in is essential to making their retreat truly memorable.
- Optional outdoor activities. As above, get your team outside! Team building activities don’t have to only be unraveling human-chains and organizing trust falls. Take your team surfing, go to yoga, hike a volcano, go horseback riding on beaches. Have a little fun!
- Disconnect and marinate. Chances are, there will be a lot of information that is passed around and soaked up by your team. Free time will give each individual the opportunity to marinate in what they’ve learned will ensure that their new insights stick – and can be applied to their work in the near future.
I follow these guidelines when I create and deliver a corporate retreat for our staff, and for others who seek an invigorating leadership training experience that will be remembered. And even though I make slight adjustments here and there, or the objective and location may change, it’s always essential to start your retreat with a gracious “thank you”. People are our most valuable asset. Treat them as such, and you’re off to a great start.
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