Four leadership rules for the ultimate away day

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Are you making the most of your leadership away days? We asked Gordon Rudow, Director of Organisation Engagement and Jeremy Morgan, Partner at Lippincott to give their advice on how to make the most of your development days outside of the office.

Boards, executive committees and top leadership teams in virtually every sector and region are recognising the need to build businesses that can thrive in the midst of accelerating, unrelenting and unpredictable change.

And the good news is that there’s a moment coming up in every leader’s calendar that presents them with the ultimate opportunity to do it; that moment is the leadership off-site. But how many companies are seizing the moment?

There are numerous barriers that prevent us from realising the beauty and possibility of these events, from strategic vacuums to one-way PowerPoint presentations that would sap the energy of any group. Planning for and designing these events are rarely a priority. But in this ever-quickening world where change is the only normal, the company off-site can have, if we could just think about it a little differently, a truly unique power.

We’ve found four dimensions that the best away days have in common:

1. Removing armour

Removing our armour creates new levels of connection and brings teams together in deeply meaningful ways. Vulnerability authentically modeled from the top can change the nature of how a group interacts. In the ultimate away day, a leader’s disclosure of imperfection causes a whole room to approach tasks with the beginner’s mind.

We saw this last year with one of our global pharmaceutical clients, and it was a powerful thing. The Chief Medical Officer had recently taken over from a highly esteemed colleague with whom she was compared at every turn. In her first away day, she invited her top 120 leaders to flesh-out the five-year strategy and adopt a new and more empathetic leadership model. Over the course of the two days, she pushed her own comfort limits by empowering teams to work dynamically, build the plan together and challenge the company’s norms.

By the end of the event, she recognised from the stage that the passion of this group was more important than her intended outcomes. She had been transformed by the concerns, aspirations and ideas that they had shared. We watched people’s perceptions of her shifting with her words. Her armour had been pierced, and a new level of intimacy was palpable. The group was, and still is, forever changed from the experience.

The Ferrazzi Institute has studied this phenomenon and found that when an away day includes personal sharing, creative thinking increases by up to 29 percent. The simple gesture of exposing what’s beneath the surface can change the course of a session, of a group, and of the effectiveness of a team over days, weeks or years.

2. Disrupting patterns

The ultimate away day attempts to change the status quo, and the only way to do that is to shift participants from ordinary attention to heightened attention. It’s surprisingly easy to disrupt existing patterns, but it needs to be a conscious decision.

Discovering the right new pattern begins by taking an empathetic view. Applying the principles of anthropology, ethnography and design thinking, you’ll recognise the deeper motivations of the participants, assess the trajectory of the current patterns and identify the gaps and solutions to bridge those worlds. This is where the creative process begins.

Three away days we recently ran illustrate the different ways that you can disrupt patterns. We challenged one leadership team by asking them to listen to a jazz quartet in blindfolds to enhance their presence and sensory perception. We shocked another by inviting a recent U.S. President to speak to them via videoconference and illustrate the company’s commitment to global work. We unsettled the third by replacing their prior meeting structure with open-space methodology that generates a more personalised agenda in the moment.

Regardless of the technique, it should surprise, delight or challenge participants. The resulting heightening of attention pays dividends when the real work begins.

3. Reframing challenges

Creativity guru Edward de Bono says, “Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns to see the same thing in a new way.” But reframing challenges requires new language and new lenses, new processes and a most importantly, a willingness to see anew.

One of my favourite examples of an elegant reframe took place with a large national media company. With a track record of poor customer service and vocal customers whose complaints had gone viral, we had the sense that there would be a hard road ahead to train the front line and improve the customer experience. It seemed clear from their behaviour that this lack of passion would remain pervasive until we dove deep enough to understand the real issues.

By spending time with employees and executives, we saw that the challenge was less about front-line motivation and more to do with underlying systems, policies and executive mindsets. The ultimate away day in this case took months to plan. But with care and attention, we got the right people in the room, and re-framed the challenge from “How do we activate the front line?” to “How do we take responsibility for putting the wind at our employees’ backs?”

4. Solving the real problem

How many off-sites have you attended where you knew that real, fundamental issues weren’t on the table? But unprecedented change at unprecedented speed means we can no longer indulge in these superficial conversations. Moreover, a host of tools and approaches have been introduced that dramatically improve the output of these sessions. Agile methodologies, iterative prototyping, collaboration software and group processes have come together to accelerate our productivity and make these off-sites more interesting and creative.

Take for instance a recent executive away day for a multi-billion dollar professional services firm. Growing consistently for years at around four percent, the CEO was proud of their returns but also aware of the limitations that surround incremental growth. His remit to us was simple: “Create a new vision for growth, and leave our leaders with a shift in mindset.”

With careful planning and a generous amount of re-framing ahead of the meeting, we broke down the team’s risk-adverse patterns by putting participants in cross-company teams and challenging them to find exponential growth in their businesses. We facilitated a two-day hackathon that ended with a network television-quality Shark Tank in which new ideas were pitched to the executive committee.

The event underscored how different problem-solving techniques send different messages. The lenses, frameworks and tools provided fresh perspective, and the result was extraordinary. Seventy leaders created multiple new potential revenue streams over two days, and left with their DNA slightly rearranged.

The off-site is a rare, essential moment to make sharp pivots and put profound changes in motion. We simply cannot afford to follow old patterns and check boxes. If your next leadership off-site is your best chance to design your future, what will you do with it?

About Gordon Rudow

Gordon Rudow

Over the past 20 years, Gordon has partnered with leading global companies – including Starbucks, GE, Genentech, Oracle, Merck, Nestlé USA, Gap Inc. and Harrah's Entertainment – to implement critical business initiatives and drive transformation.

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