Get Ready For Your Next Partner Retreat: Best Practices For Success

Despite a sluggish economy, IPA’s Most Recommended Consultant Sam Allred says more firms are organizing partner retreats to spark positive, lasting change in firms’ finances, operations or relationships.

“The ultimate goal is to become a better firm and the partner retreat needs to be a catalyst,” Allred said at IPA’s first PRIME Symposium in November. “It’s a big commitment on the part of the firm from a cost and time standpoint.”

Allred, founder and director ofUpstreamAcademy, a CPA firm consulting practice inHelena,Mont., shared ways to plan partner retreats to ensure success.

First, the executive committee – or the MP in a smaller firm – should develop the agenda and support it. The team should plan the best way to communicate the changes that are needed and why they will help the firm become more efficient and profitable.

“The worst disasters that I see are when the organizing of the retreat has been turned over to someone who is not involved in running the firm,” he says. “I don’t mean to sound harsh but when that happens it’s like rolling the dice, and you’re much less likely to have any positive outcomes. You might as well save your money. Having management organize it will help the partners feel more comfortable.”

Topics can range from financial to operational to strategic, he says. Common topics are better partner unity, ways to compete more effectively in the marketplace, new or expanded services, new technologies, future partners and improved marketing strategies.

“There really is not a top five list that is common among most professional service firms,” Allred tells IPA. “The firm’s leaders need to look at how the firm is doing from all angles and concentrate on ways they can best improve various types of performance.”

Firm leaders, spurred on by the recession, are holding partner retreats because they see the need to strike a better balance between short- and long-term growth and development. Allred recommends a two-day retreat with at least one evening social function. A retreat of one and a half or two days allows partners to digest the topics that were discussed on the first day, then come back in day two to develop plans on how to “move the needle in a positive direction,” Allred says.

“Very few retreats are more than two days because that can cause anxiety among the partners who need to do client work and may be missing opportunities for (billable) hours,” he says. “But you want to spend enough time to make it worthwhile.”

Allred also recommends that partners spend as much of the agenda on how to execute the stated goals as creating them in the first place. “You need to leave the retreat knowing what the next steps are,” he advises.

Some professional firm retreats will use guest speakers or very specific, social events that allow partners to interact in a formal way. While a dinner, round of golf or a trip to the bowling alley may be a fun way to end the retreat, the portion devoted to discussing improvements to the firm should remain focused on those subjects, he says.

Guest speakers are often a waste of time and money, as they can prevent partners from becoming engaged in the event, Allred cautions. Trivia contests or “game show” segments can result in partners losing their focus. Use your time wisely.

“Participatory elements or speakers can get in the way of the value of partners spending time together,” Allred says. “You see these events added to the agenda when a retreat hasn’t been properly planned.”

Retreats should be held away from the office, where ringing phones, needy associates and stacks of files can create powerful distractions.

The cost of a retreat can be significant, but the offsite location doesn’t have to be ornate. Consider an inexpensive conference center or chamber of commerce meeting room. Firms that have held retreats in the last several years are spending less on accommodations, food and refreshments.

“The reason to have a retreat is to get that dial moving in the right direction,” Allred says. “Even if you are growing revenue you may not be improving margins. Or your staff may be overworked and unhappy. There are always elements of your firm that require some level of improvement and this can be one of the best venues to communicate with each other.”

Partner Retreat Best Practices…

  •  Define a clear purpose. Spell out what you want to accomplish.
  • Plan the retreat to fit in with ongoing firm activities.
  • Carefully consider what information is required for partners to make necessary decisions.
  • Consider inviting senior associates who are likely to become partners. Their input can greatly enhance the retreat’s results.
  • Pick a retreat location close to the office. Less traveling means less stress for partners.
  • Identify each agenda item with a goal or objective, who is responsible to lead the discussion or exercise, and the beginning and ending time of the item.
  • Be there. Leaders must be present, physically and mentally. Establish ground rules and/or an attendance commitment.
  • Ensure that everyone understands that the retreat is simply one step in a continuous effort to improve the firm.
  • Emphasize that discussions are meant to produce concrete outcomes that will make a real difference in the firm. It’s not a time to simply “have discussions.”
  • Use smaller, breakout sessions to optimize participation and produce better, more creative ideas.
  • Set time limits for discussions.
  • Try consensus-building exercises, which often lead to effective decisions.
  • Record decisions or agreements.
  • Hold the executive or management team accountable for implementation and getting results.
  • Follow up. If you cannot commit the energy to ensuring effective follow-up, don’t hold the retreat.