The Importance of a Board Retreat

Suzanne Lynch

Why hold a retreat? Board retreats are useful for addressing issues that arise outside of a normal Board meeting. The amount of regular business handled in a regular Board meeting tends to limit the Board’s ability to tackle overarching issues.

Why hold a retreat? Board retreats are useful for addressing issues that arise outside of a normal Board meeting. The amount of regular business handled in a regular Board meeting tends to limit the Board’s ability to tackle overarching issues. The structure of a regular Board meeting also inhibits discourse and the development of solutions. A regular Board meeting does not always allow for the introduction or discussion of special resources such as surveys, guest experts or evaluations.

A Board retreat allows a Board to meet in an environment that is unrestricted by routines or traditional approaches. If planned and facilitated properly, there should be more time for discussion, creative thinking and strategic planning. A retreat is a good time to introduce and discuss special topics.

The extra effort and investment by all of the Board members at a retreat will result in a shared understanding of the school’s needs, issues and opportunities. Hopefully, the Board will gain a sense of unity, and each member will have a better understanding and a mutual respect for the other members. A good retreat can be the foundation for more effective teamwork for the year ahead.

The first step in planning a Board retreat is identifying the main issue to be addressed. Topics can vary from the school’s mission to long range planning to governance. It is important to choose a single theme and concentrate on only one to two topics within that theme. For example, if the school needs to develop a mission statement, that would be the main theme. The primary issue in devising a mission statement would be the school’s core values. From there, the Board can write a vision statement. But the main theme of the retreat is developing a mission statement. By having a single theme or focus, the Board can be assured of achieving a resolution.

Proper planning will help the retreat be productive. It also ensures that the Board members will come to the retreat understanding the expectations and the desired outcome.

Try to determine the retreat date at least six to twelve months in advance. Give the participants plenty of notice. This will guarantee 100% participation. Make sure the facility chosen has the space you need for traditional and non-traditional discussion and exercises.

One of the keys to a successful Board retreat is an effective facilitator. The facilitator guides discussion, maintains the focus, directs the tone of the discussion and helps to keep time limits. The facilitator should not add his of her opinions to the content of the discussion or influence the outcome. He or she promotes opportunities for everyone’s opinions to be expressed and respected. A facilitator also ensures that disagreements are channeled into finding common ground or an acceptable resolution.

Ideally, a Board should hire an outside facilitator. That way, the Board can benefit from impartiality. Also, all of the Board members can participate and focus on the issue at hand. The Board receives the facilitator’s broad experience and expertise. The facilitator should understand the goals of the retreat and should have experience in the primary area being explored in the retreat. If the primary purpose of the retreat is to rewrite the school’s mission statement, a facilitator with broad financial expertise might be helpful, but might not be the best fit for the objective of the meeting. A good facilitator can also recognize the interaction style of the Board and develop methods that build upon the strengths of the group.

In addition to proper planning and recruiting a strong and pertinent facilitator, there are some additional guidelines to help make the retreat successful. First it is important to establish ground rules that encourage full participation and cooperation by all Board members. In addition, the school’s mission, values and program priorities should be the backbone of all decisions made. These should also frame all debate and discussion.

It is important to understand that one retreat cannot solve or resolve the school’s challenges or cannot recognize the school’s opportunities. However, by staying focused on a few key issues, the retreat can be successful. It is imperative that the Board follow through on all the issues raised at the retreat and complete any open tasks. The leadership of the Board should take all the good that arose from the retreat and carry it through the year.

How do you evaluate a retreat’s success? If there are written objectives on the front-end of the retreat, the Board can assess if these were met. The Board’s sense of accomplishment, smoother operation and its ability to identify and employ specific outcomes are also measurements of success. But in the end, it is the Board’s willingness and enthusiasm to have another retreat in the future that will signal success. ♦

Suzanne Lynch is the Board Chair at Addlestone Hebrew Academy in Charleston, SC. Suzanne can be reached at [email protected]
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HaYidion Board Leadership Winter 2007
Board Leadership
Winter 2007