Five quick ideas for CEOs planning a board retreat

A successful board retreat can energize and unify your organization’s leadership around shared goals and priorities. Here are some ideas for planning a retreat that will engage your board and produce results that will strengthen the organization.

1. Know what you want to accomplish. Getting everyone together takes an investment in time and energy by all parties. Make sure you are using that time effectively by having one or more clearly defined goals. Do you want to focus on education, input and feedback, or decision-making? What subjects need to be addressed – overall strategy or specific opportunities?

Share the goal(s) (“We will…establish strategic priorities for the year…learn about the health system of the future…determine preferred options for partnering with physicians…decide on facility investments”) with participants so everyone understands the desired outcome from the retreat. Structure the agenda so that the board’s attention is focused on strategic and governance issues rather than operations. Consider outside speakers to bring fresh ideas and perspectives.

2. Make sure the right people will be there. Board retreats rarely involve just board members; senior executives and key physician leaders are usually invited to provide relevant information and perspective. Keep the participant count down by making sure that everyone has a defined role. If board members feel outnumbered they may be reticent to engage fully in the discussion and make their voices heard.

3. Provide materials in advance—but be highly selective. It’s fair to ask board members to invest some time in preparing for a retreat so you don’t have to spend your limited meeting time providing background information. Just don’t go overboard. An hour’s worth of pre-reading materials, provided well in advance (not the day before) is about right.

4. Pay attention to logistics. Be thoughtful about how much meeting time you need to accomplish the goals for the retreat. Participants may be particularly sensitive about giving up a weekend or other personal time.

Maybe you’ve always had an annual full day retreat on a Saturday. Could you handle this year’s agenda in two half day sessions, such as back-to-back evenings during the week? Ask about preferences and explore alternatives prior to finalizing the schedule. Make sure the actual invitation goes out months ahead of time so that participants can plan other commitments around the retreat.

Select a venue that will be comfortable and conducive to group interaction. Avoid overly large meeting rooms with long U-shaped tables. Large round tables are a good solution; make sure they have room around them so that chairs can be re-arranged for discussions by the full group. Finally, don’t forget to provide meals and refreshments, and do schedule a break every couple of hours for people to get up and move around.

5. Give some thought to facilitation. If you facilitate, does that interfere with your ability to act as a participant in the meeting? It’s possible, but usually not ideal, for the CEO to serve as both participant and facilitator. Consider using an outside facilitator so that you can concentrate on providing information, advice, and recommendations as the CEO. A neutral facilitator may also be better positioned to ask provocative questions that will elicit opposing viewpoints, which can then be addressed.

By devoting some time to planning your board retreat following the suggestions above, you can assure that board members feel their time was well spent, and realize maximum benefit for your organization.

Carol Davis, FACHE, MSHA, Principal - Veralon
Carol is an experienced strategy consultant and project director with more than 25 years of experience working with hospitals and health systems, both as a strategy advisor and health system executive. She has led over 250 consulting engagements for community hospitals, health systems, and academic medical centers.
Her work focus includes strategy development and implementation, including affiliations and partnerships, service line and ambulatory care strategy, and clinical integration. Carol has presented for regional and national healthcare organizations.

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