Get Ready For Your Next Partner Retreat

Despite a sluggish economy, IPA’s Most Recommended Consultant Sam Allred says that more firms are organizing partner retreats to help improve firm results.

Allred conducted a keynote and breakout session at the first annual PRIME Symposium in November 2011. Allred is the founder and director of Upstream Academy, a CPA firm consulting practice in Helena,  Montana. At the first PRIME Symposium, Allred told guests that the most important reason that a firm will hold a partner retreat is to develop positive, lasting change in a firm financially, operationally or via relationships.

“The ultimate goal is to become a better firm and the partner retreat needs to be a catalyst,” Allred says. “It’s a big commitment on the part of the firm from a cost and time standpoint.”

For any retreat to be successful, its agenda must be developed and supported by the executive team, he says. That leadership group should decide what positive changes need to occur and how best to discuss or communicate the need for these changes during a retreat.

The topics that are part of the agenda can range from an array of subjects, from financial to operational to strategic, he says. There is a fine line between how detailed the topics get and how many are covered, but there is no reason why positive, lasting changes that come out of a partner retreat may have an array of components designed to help the firm become more efficient and profitable.

Some of the more common topics that are discussed during a retreat can include better partner unity, ways to compete more effectively in the marketplace, enhancing or adding new services, implementing new technologies, developing future partners and improving 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.”

But perhaps the most important consideration is that the topics and agenda should be developed by the executive team, or in a smaller firm the MP, he advises. Firms that have human resources or marketing professionals create the agenda, or administrative assistants providing the content typically do not benefit from such retreats.

“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.”

The recession has forced firms to hold partner retreats because many realize that there needs to be a better balance between short and long-term growth and development. And these retreats don’t have to be particularly lengthy, although retreats lasting one day are rare, he says. Allred recommends a two-day retreat with an evening social function at least one of the evenings.

The purpose of a two-day (or one and a half day retreat) is that it allows partners to digest the topics that were discussed on the first day, and then possibly come back in day two to discuss those topics and develop plans for executing on how to “move the needle in a positive direction,” as 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 partner retreats spend as much of the agenda on how to execute on 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 utilize guest speakers or very specific, social events that allow partners to interact in a formal way. While having a dinner or “fun” event at the conclusion of the retreat, such as a round of golf or trip to the bowling alley can be fun, the part of the retreat discussing steps to improve such things as productivity and profitability should remain focused on those subjects, he says.

Guest speakers in general are often a waste of time and money. They can prevent partners from becoming engaged in the overall event, he cautions. Trivia contests or “game show” segments can result in partners losing their focus.

“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 for. It’s really nothing more than fuller time. You want to wisely use the time that you have.”

It is a given that retreats should be held offsite, away from the office where phones are ringing, associates are requiring assistance and stacks of files reside.

The cost of a retreat can be significant. But the offsite location doesn’t have to be ornate. An inexpensive conference center or room can be the site of the meeting, in some cases even a local chamber of commerce meeting room or hall can be obtained. As the economy has struggled in the last several years, those firms that do hold retreats are often spending less money on them, including the cost for 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.

Best Practices:

  • A retreat should have clearly defined purposes. Spell out what you want to accomplish.
  • Retreat results must be carefully planned to fit in with ongoing firm activities.
  • Consider inviting senior associates who are likely to be future partners of the firm. Their input can greatly enhance the retreat’s results.
  • The executive or management team must be held accountable for implementation and getting the final results.
  • Retreats that are held close to the office will be less stressful for partners to get to and from.
  • A good agenda will identify each item with its stated goal or objective, who is responsible to lead the discussion or exercise, and the beginning and ending time of the item.
  • Everyone must understand that the retreat is not an end in itself. It is simply one step in a continuous effort to improve the firm.
  • It’s important to stress that discussions at the retreat are meant to produce concrete outcomes that will make a real difference in the firm. It’s not a time to simply “have discussions.”
  • As you plan the retreat, carefully consider what information is required for the partners to make necessary decisions.
  • If the group is large, use breakouts to optimize participation and get better, more creative thinking.
  • It is critical to the success of the retreat that the leaders of your firm be present – physically and mentally. Consider adopting an attendance commitment. Establish ground rules and or an attendance commitment.
  • Use time limits for discussions. Good consensus building exercises will lead to effective decisions.
  • Follow-up is absolutely critical. If you cannot commit the energy to ensuring effective follow-up, then it is better not to do the retreat at all.
  • The leader needs to ensure that decisions or agreements are recorded.