How to Take a Personal Leadership Offsite

Posted 11.30.2009

One of my coaching clients is taking his leadership team to Phoenix next week for an offsite planning meeting.  (He invited me to come and help out, but my schedule wouldn’t allow it. Too bad, Phoenix is nice this time of year!)  If you’ve been around as an organizational leader for awhile, you’ve no doubt participated in leadership team offsites. Whether they gather at a nice hotel in a warm place or someplace less exotic, it’s a good idea for an organization’s leaders to periodically change the scenery and step back to reflect on what’s happened and look ahead to future goals.

Here’s my question for you. When was the last time you took a personal leadership offsite?  I ask that question regularly of my clients and groups that I’m speaking to. Occasionally, someone will say that they’ve had one recently, but most people have not. This trend reminds me of the old line about the shoemaker’s children having no shoes. Leaders tend to give so much time and attention to the development of their organizations that they often leave little space for their own development.

I’m not exactly sure how we decided to start, but my wife, Diane, and I have taken an annual Fall/Winter retreat for the past 15 years. The first couple of years were at a $25 a night one room cabin on a farm in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Since then, we’ve held it at some places that are a little less rustic.  Whether it’s a rural or an urban setting, we’ve come up with a routine that works for us. Since this is the time of year when people are beginning to look back on the past 12 months and look ahead to the next 12, I thought I’d share some of our lessons learned about how to take a personal leadership offsite.

Schedule the time: 
We’ve found that a three day weekend – two nights and the better part of three days -  works best for us. It’s proven to be the right amount of time to wind down, have some fun and get in the frame of mind to reflect and look ahead.

Find a place:  It’s important to get out of your regular environment and away from the visual cues that remind you of the day to day routine. If your budget allows an overnight stay, pick a place that you can get to relatively quickly and that has some diversions that you’ll enjoy as a break from the regular routine.   You want to build in some breaks that will help you relax and get your creative juices flowing. If you’re staying in town, look for some publicly available spaces that will do the above for you.

Poster-offsite Do some prep: Before you leave for the offsite, do a little prep work that will help jump start your thinking when you get there. It could be some reading, a calendar review or some high level goal setting. As an example of the latter, Diane and I have both spent some time lately thinking through the big picture of what we want to accomplish in 2010. She’s a visual thinker and came up with a poster she calls a Treasure Map. I’m more of a verbal thinker and have recently done a simple mind map by clustering ideas on Post-It notes on a piece of poster board.

Frame some simple questions: Don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself to boil the ocean and figure absolutely everything out on your offsite. We’ve found that having a few simple questions to consider over the weekend can provide the structure needed to develop some insights with a minimum of stress. In our case, we use the Life GPS® model that we developed years ago and is outlined in chapter 3 of The Next Level. The Life GPS® is centered on these three questions:

  1. What are the characteristics that describe how you are at your best?
  2. What are the routines that, if you were to practice them regularly, would reinforce how you are at your best?
  3. What outcomes would you expect to see in the arenas of home, work and community if you were to consistently perform at your best?

Take some notes and keep them:  One of the things we’ve consistently done in our offsites is take some notes which we clean up and summarize within a few weeks of going away. As most people know, if you write your goals down, you’re more likely to achieve them. When you have your notes written up, keep them in a place like your planner so you can review them on a regular basis. That will help keep you on track. We’ve kept our notes from years past and have found them to be a nice record of our goals and priorities and how they’ve changed over the years.

That’s what’s worked for us. If you’ve been in the habit of taking personal leadership offsites, what’s worked for you?  What questions or comments do you have about the idea?