Facilitating Offsite, Retreat, and Board Meetings

At an offsite, retreat, or board meeting, companies often struggle to make the most of the time and opportunity. These events pull leadership teams together at great cost to solve a problem, create a plan, and improve business results.

But too often, these meetings don’t deliver the results that CEOs and boards hoped for – real action items and smart decisions that will propel the business forward. Sending the team away feeling energized and upbeat isn’t enough.

At certain times, companies convene meetings due to a challenge, such as an unexpected need to fill an executive role. At such a time, emotions run high, but a company must prioritize facts as it evaluates options and decides on the best one. Yet personal tensions, internal politics, and lack of experience by certain executives often come into play. This puts the company at risk of making a rash or unwise decision, at a vulnerable time.

What We Can Do

CEO to CEO facilitates these types of events, using our deep knowledge of the challenges faced by midsized company CEOs and their companies. We bring our personal experience as CEOs and our insights into best practices used in many other midsize companies to expand your thinking and fully explore options.

We help you plan the content and objectives of your offsites, retreats, and pivotal board meetings. We act as the neutral, outside facilitator of the event. We ensure that everyone gets heard and that the meeting produces tangible, actionable outcomes for the business.

How We Do It

We help midsized companies power up such key meetings in three ways:

    1. Harnessing the collective wisdom of the group. Every meeting attendee counts. We often talk to each attendee in advance, to create a relationship that encourages everyone to speak up. We also flush out pre-conceived positions, so we can make sure to deal with those during the meeting. In most cases, we encourage the team to speak more — by coaching the CEO to listen more and speak less.
    2. Serve as a neutral party. Having CEO to CEO running your offsite means the company gains an outside expert to navigate the issues and personalities involved – without career interests or political alliances coming into play. Additionally, CEO to CEO serves as an outsider, but one with insider knowledge of midsize companies. We can calm tensions, solicit opinions, and get people talking in ways that company insiders often can’t. All this drives the meeting toward action items that make sense for the company and earn approval from the group.
    3. Guide in tense times. For meetings that must deal with great and sudden disruptions, such as when a company must implement a CEO succession plan, we bring experience and guidance to management teams and boards. We examine the company’s internal and external risks related to the leadership change, advise boards on how to operate during the transition time, and coach them to become more cohesive and effective. We facilitate engaged, informed, and constructive debate on leadership succession and necessary organizational changes.

The case studies below will illustrate how we make critical gatherings of leadership powerful events for midsize companies.

Client Case Studies

GSC Logistics' Top Team Chart Clear Path to Faster Growth

Client GSC Logistics

In 1988, Scott Taylor and Andy Garcia left their executive jobs at two San Francisco Bay Area consumer goods distributors to set up their own firm. They have never looked back. More than two decades later, Scott and Andy have steadily driven their firm, GSCLogistics, to become the largest logistics provider at the Port of Oakland.

GSC today handles in excess of 15% of the goods that come into the port, third-largest international gateway on the West Coast. The firm has come a long way from its early years shipping Gatorade to Northern California food and drug stores, and has gained a customer list that includes some of the biggest names in retailing: Target, Walgreen, JC Penney, Crate & Barrel and many more. Yet despite building GSC into a $35 million business by 2010, neither Scott (CEO) nor Andy (chairman)were satisfied with their firm’s growth. In fact, they thought GSC should have grown much faster, but by the end of 2010, their immediate concern was enabling the firm to better manage their existing business.

Scott, Andy and their 15-member management team had scrambled to manage the biggest third and fourth quarters GSC had ever seen in its business. Shipping containers were flooding into their Oakland cross-docking facility at 30% over plan because a key customer, in an impressive vote of confidence, shifted its business to GSC from another provider in a different port.

By December, Scott decided the management team should hold an off-site meeting to review what went well, what didn’t and – most of all — what the firm needed to do in the future to accelerate its growth. The question would be who should lead the meeting.

Earlier in 2010, GSC’s chief financial officer, Joel Lesser, watched Rob Sher moderate an Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) panel of CEOs with a deft hand and with confidence. After hearing good things about Rob from others in ACG, Joel envisioned Rob leading the GSC offsite.

But Rob first had to sell himself to GSC’s two owners. Joel brought Rob in to meet Scott and Andy. After an initial discussion, Andy, who is skeptical of the value of consultants, challenged Rob: “How do you think you’ll be able to make our offsite more productive when you don’t know anything about our industry or our company?” Rob described his approach: before the offsite, he would meet one-on-one with each management team member to understand their issues and ensure they would be discussed at the offsite. The second benefit of meeting with the team in advance was that it would help Rob know far more about GSC’s challenges going in. He told Andy and Scott that letting an outsider without a vested interest run the offsite would be to their advantage – particularly an outsider with insider knowledge. All of that resonated with both owners.

Scott was especially impressed and excited about having Rob run the meeting. “He had a great way about him,” Scott says. “Rob was very calming and very, very engaging — not a hyper guy. The personality came through strongly, and I really liked him when I first met him.” They agreed to let Rob facilitate the off-site meeting to be held in a local hotel that December.

The meeting went exceptionally well, bringing a number of current and future growth issues into focus. “It was a very, very effective meeting,” Scott says. “Rob found a way to solicit opinions and get everybody engaged – better than if we had tried to do it internally. He is such a good people person that he can bring the personalities together, disarm everybody, and make them feel comfortable and have equal voices. It takes somebody outside the organization to effectively lead this kind of meeting. He’s a very calming influence. Nobody feels like they better be careful about what they say. He puts you at ease.” The team came out of the offsite energized and organized, with a list of action items to work on in 2011.

By February 2011, Scott was convinced the firm needed more of Rob’s help to continue the momentum of the offsite and focus the firm on growth. Scott voiced his concerns to Rob about GSC’s ability to grow at a faster clip. Says Scott: “I told him that we had to start thinking outside the box with the way the economy was going and our challenges in this industry, which is low margin and very competitive. I said that we had to do some things very differently and asked Rob whether he could help us out.” At the time, GSC was pursuing an acquisition in the Pacific Northwest, but it was getting harder and harder to expand its core business.

Scott and Andy’s first request was for Rob to help with the firm’s sales plan. But after listening carefully and thinking about the offsite discussions, Rob suggested he help them and their management team create a three-year business plan. “At first, we didn’t see the value in that,” says Scott. “But Rob said he had a way to create a one-page business plan. We’re now knee-deep into that exercise with our top six people, both sales and operations. It’s been an extremely enlightening exercise because it has focused us and helped our team members become much more open and transparent with each other. We’re starting to see the fruits of our efforts already.”

One of the ways Rob has helped the GSC management team is in learning how to evaluate ideas for growth. Rob demonstrated a systematic way to vet ideas without dampening managers’ enthusiasm for volunteering them. For example, one GSC team member suggested that the company not only deliver goods imported through the Port of Oakland but also handle goods to be exported through the port. Rob taught the management team how to conduct disciplined research to evaluate the idea, including determining the investment to implement it. They quickly realized that the export business would require specialized equipment, personnel with skill sets the company didn’t have on staff, and other big investments. They abandoned the idea.

But they didn’t reject the idea of expanding to an adjacent market segment. While researching the export plan, they realized that picking up or delivering domestic trailers at the railheads was not much different than handling their current business of transporting international containers. They even found another synergistic area of growth at their own deconsolidation facility. “Once we had filled a trailer to be shipped across the country on rail, we handed it off to another company,” Scott says. “We realized, ‘Why hand it off? Why don’t we take it to the railhead ourselves?’”

In logistics parlance, this is called the intermodal business. It’s become a new GSC division and revenue source, one that didn’t require significant investments. “It was the first time that our company had really analyzed a market segment and developed a plan on how to attack it – i.e., the people we would need, the systems and other investments,” says Scott. “Rob taught us how to create a rigorous growth plan.”

Part of the plan covers the integration of their first acquisition, which closed in June 2011. GSC acquired a Pacific Northwest distribution company called Best Way Trucking Inc. That enables GSC to expand its business beyond the port of Oakland to the Seattle-Tacoma region.

GSC now brings in Rob once a month to help keep its three-year plan on track. “Rob has a good business mind. It doesn’t matter what business you are in –- he figures out what he needs to know very quickly. He does a great job of bringing teams together,” says Scott. “Some of it is his personality: He’s non-threatening. He’s there to help you, not to criticize. He helps you be creative and look at things in different ways. I’ve been doing this so long that I get stuck in my ways. He’s able to help you think outside the box.”

Scott says GSC’s three-year plan has clarified the path to growth — $80 million is the target for 2014 (double 2011’s revenue) –- and therefore made it more achievable. “I can see how we easily transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2,” he says. “I’m not sure what Phase 3 will be yet, but I’m sure that as 2012 starts to unfold we’ll get a better picture of the operational and sales changes we need to make.”

Facilitation of Crucial Board Meeting

A $60 million revenue manufacturing firm found itself without a founder and CEO when he passed away suddenly. There had been a #2 executive who had been discussed as a successor, but the founder had made no official choice. The business was owned by six people, many whom were working in the business for years. They were all on the board, but it had always operated informally, turning to the founder (and controlling shareholder) to make decisions.

CEO to CEO was retained to facilitate the crucial board meeting where the new leader was to be chosen (or a search would be commenced), and where several other key decisions had to be made relative to the passing of the founder. Hundreds of employees nervously awaited news about who would lead the firm: an outsider to be recruited, or an insider, and if so, who?

Before the meeting, we interviewed many stakeholders and assessed the internal and external risks to the firm stemming from the leadership change. Both before and during the meeting, we helped the board understand what tasks and roles the founder and the #2 executive had undertaken in the past, and how that work would need to be done in the future. We educated the board members on how the board must now operate differently (and more formally) in the absence of the founder. We emphasized that without a “strongman” founder to make decisions and to settle disagreements, the tone and actions of each board member were now far more important (and consequential) than ever before, and that this was a juncture where the board would either become more cohesive and effective, or divisive and toxic.

The full day session went exceedingly well. The #2 executive was elected to be CEO. The debate on this issue and others was both passionate and constructive. The board further decided several other organizational changes that were implemented in the weeks following.

Two Day Strategic Planning Retreat

A CEO realized in early November that her planning effort needed a jumpstart in order to be finished before the New Year. While she was the controlling owner and founder, she had several others involved who were owners and considered partners. They had become restless, talking about new strategies loosely, but no one had the time (it was a busy, high growth year) to really discuss them and make decisions. She knew that if she didn’t make the time to have these important discussions, they might make rash, uninformed strategic decisions. There was the short term planning for 2016 that needed to be nailed down as well. To pull all of this together, she set up a two day planning retreat and asked CEO to CEO to lead it.

We met with the CEO several times before the offsite. She was good at listening and staying open, understanding key business issues and personality considerations and laid out the agenda. We decided to focus on strategic discussions the first day (to relieve the pent up desire to talk about these), and operational planning for 2016 the following day. It was too much to squeeze into two days, but we had no other choice since the team was sprinting toward a strong year-end and was buried in the day-to-day.

The team was very engaged. Active facilitation was required on the first day to keep the discussions at a high (strategic) level. Since no research had been done before the offsite, final decisions were not made, but tasks and projects were assigned to those strategic ideas with the greatest merit. It was agreed that any new strategies decided upon would be kicked off in Q2 or Q3, giving time to properly plan. Key actions were assigned to a specific owner, with deadlines. The second day was focused on the upcoming year, including an agreement on priorities and a high-level discussion around resources. Specific meetings were put on the calendar for follow up discussions, and a deadline was set for a final operational plan to be executed.

Offsite for New CEO Jumpstarts Planning Process
After ten years, a successful partner in a professional services firm was promoted to the CEO’s seat when his long-running predecessor moved toward retirement. The new leader turned to CEO to CEO to lead an offsite for visioning – the hoped-for future vision of the firm growing and expanding.

The predecessor had been a directive leader, setting the direction for the organization, including making all decisions. Because of this, the new leader found that many of the senior partners were not acting as proactive leaders when it came to business challenges (finance, recruiting, productivity, etc.). And many of the functional leaders were brand new. In the preparation for the offsite, we heard his observations of the weakness in the leadership team. Some pressing challenges (and our advice) shifted the focus of the offsite to helping the leadership team be more proactive by clarifying what had to be done and who would drive those activities.

The offsite was empowering for the entire leadership team. Each came away with a draft one-page business plan, the core of what forms a Business Leadership Operating System (BLOS). We built and kicked off the BLOS, working with the team of 12 to hone those plans, coordinating approval of those plans from the CEO and training the team in this methodology. We supplied a cloud-based portal where the plans resided, and where each plan owner would maintain monthly scorecards and progress reports. We facilitated monthly plan review meetings for six months to coach and ensure the operating system was running well. We coached the CEO (meeting twice monthly).

Within a month after the plan set was completed, the CEO observed that leaders were “making things happen” without relying on or waiting for a “nudge” from the CEO. He was delighted. The call to action for more business development, peppered throughout the plans, moved the firm from needing more work to having an abundance of work. In the past, the CEO had to request data from the CFO to give to his team, which was time consuming for him. With the BLOS in place, the operating system connected all the leaders directly to the CFO for some of their dashboard data, a big relief.

Most leaders have stepped up their performance and are clearer on the results they must deliver. However, some are not capable (or don’t have the time) to attend to all the priorities, and the firm is hiring to fill in crucial gaps.

An Offsite to Reconnect with Their Why: Their Passion for the Work

After seven years of running the business, the CEO was concerned that the leadership team had lost the connection with their mission—their “why” for running the business. We were retained to lead an offsite where the extended leadership team would come together and redefine their “why” and their corporate values.

We began by working with the CEO/founder to understand her “why.” She had gone through some personal changes, and was wondering if she was “burnt out.” With a few private sessions, she found the core of her passion for the business, but we didn’t want to impose that on the team. We constructed a ground-up approach to genuinely extract the team’s feelings in a half-day session.

At the start, we solicited commentary through open-ended questions. We had learned in advance who might be inclined to dominate the conversation, and we encouraged other people to share. Using values cards and a lot of post-it notes, we collected values and led a discussion to find those closest matching most of the group. With that short list in hand, we launched into a development of a “why” statement (a mission) that the group loved. With 15 minutes left to spare, we settled on an excellent, well received statement that epitomized their “why.”

About Robert Sher

Robert Sher is founding principal of CEO to CEO, a consulting firm of former chief executives that improves the leadership infrastructure of midsized companies seeking to accelerate their performance. He was chief executive of Bentley Publishing Group from 1984 to 2006 and steered the firm to become a leading player in its industry (decorative art publishing).

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Forbes.com columnist, author and CEO coach Robert Sher delivers keynotes and workshops, including combining content with facilitation of peer discussions on business topics.

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