Ten things to know about high impact leadership retreats

For some healthcare organizations, the thought of a “leadership retreat” triggers excitement or fear among executives.

It may afford the opportunity to spend a weekend at a resort and assess their career trajectory and political capital. For others, there is anxiety about presentations to board members and influential physicians.

Retreats present a unique forum to design and refine an organization’s strategy. Effective retreats enhance a health system’s market positioning, execution, culture and decision-making. Here are 10 observations:

1. Define a theme for your retreat.
If your retreat is a series of unrelated sessions on disparate topics, attendees will perceive it as continuing professional education, with minimal benefit for the enterprise. Rather, create a theme that permits flexibility but guides the group toward conclusions and decisions. Potential themes include an update to the strategic plan, growth, execution, partnerships, access, or physician-hospital alignment. One hospital insisted that “retreat” had the wrong connotation and labeled their meeting as an “advance.”

2. Underscore that attendance at the retreat is a privilege with responsibilities.
Each participant must actively participate and maintain the confidentiality of the topics. Most important, apply your expertise to the perspective of the overall health system. An orthopedic surgeon insisting on more resources for the musculoskeletal service line is less compelling than contributing insights about the pros and cons of bundled payments for joint replacements. Related to the number of attendees, if you exceed 30 people, it is difficult to engage everyone. Anticipate political maneuvering in the decisions about invitees. Some health systems correlate invitations based on title e.g., vice presidents and above. Others are flexible based on the retreat agenda and the expertise required.

3. Invite a few mavericks.
A homogenous group with a common view of your organization and the business environment will ensure polite discussion, but that’s not the goal. Many hospitals are wary of inviting people with divergent views, fearing a disruptive meeting. Occasionally there is a fine line between debate and chaos, but the group of attendees should represent a broad array of perspectives. Inclusion of constituents with outlier views is preferable to excluding them and risking the perception that your organization is resistant to new ideas.

4. Consensus is a challenge, but unanimity is impossible.
An exceptional retreat generates debate about thorny issues. Think of it as a roller coaster: ups, downs and a bit scary. But in the end, you have a sense of achievement. A retreat is an opportunity to assemble key leaders in the same room for an extended discussion of critical strategic issues. Do not blow it by designing an agenda with mundane or operational topics.

5. Assign a facilitator (external or internal) accountable for results.
Effective facilitation is essential for success. Industry knowledge, diplomacy and humor all contribute to an exceptional outcome. An internal facilitator may know the organization and the attendees, but it is the rare executive who wants to cut-off a board member or physician who talks too much. An external facilitator has objectivity, can ask the sensitive questions and attempt to resolve conflict without concerns about a career-limiting move.

6. Create a foundation of industry knowledge.
An industry overview early in the retreat agenda creates a common reference point for all attendees. In 60-90 minutes, construct a profile of the key trends and potential implications. For the executives, this content is not new, but board members and physicians benefit from a fact-based synopsis. Avoid the temptation to highlight your enterprise’s performance at the expense of sharing information about national, regional and local market dynamics.

7. Foster creativity in the retreat sessions.
Your attendees have distinctive talents and insights from their life experience and jobs. Find avenues for the attendees to apply this knowledge. For example, perhaps assign the attendees the task to act as a competitor looking to beat your organization in the market. Ask them to describe your health system’s strategic vulnerabilities and how to attack them. Inferences from outside healthcare are also valuable. Many companies serve as examples of successful strategies associated with the core issues of access, efficiency, talent management and branding.

8. Proceed with caution in team-building exercises and break-out groups.
If you have two full days and new members in the group, then a team-building exercise may have merit, but most health systems prefer team building to occur during the social or recreational events at the retreat. Break-out groups present different risks: Discussion dominated by a few people and/ or poor outcomes because of limited presentation skills of the designated spokesperson for the specific group. If you assign a strategic issue to a single group, some participants will be disappointed that their views were not heard.

9. Generate an action plan.
If your health system spends the time and money on a retreat, define the next steps and accountability. Devote some time at the end of the retreat to summarize the key findings and implied actions. This approach permits immediate feedback from the participants that you have captured the major elements. Within a few weeks of the event, management should develop a more detailed action plan that delineates the tasks, the person accountable and the timeframe for completion.

10. Manage the details.
Logistics dictate a stellar retreat or a disaster. The layout of the room (a single U-shaped set-up is preferred for maximum interaction), lighting, timely breaks, and the AV equipment affect the group dynamics. Several times a day, the facilitator and a few key leaders should huddle, assess if the retreat is on track and adjust accordingly.

Follow these guidelines and you will increase the probability of a successful retreat. Given the pace of change and uncertainty in our industry, periodic retreats are vital as you map your organization’s path to greatness.

By Chris Kane
Progressive Healthcare, Inc.
Tel. 404-307-4580

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