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Why your leadership retreat is boring, unsuccessful and doesn’t deliver peak performance

By Dr. Abiola Salami
05 December 2023   |   4:05 am
Leadership retreats are usually less formal and unofficial, allowing staff members to let their hair down and relax in a fun atmosphere.
Abiola Salami

Salami

Having facilitated leadership retreats over the past 11 years, DR. ABIOLA SALAMI reveals the reasons organizations don’t receive commensurate returns on their execution of leadership retreats and what leaders can do about it.

Leadership retreats are usually less formal and unofficial, allowing staff members to let their hair down and relax in a fun atmosphere. For many organizations, leadership retreats are one of those things to be done at the end of the year; a box to be ticked off – something that has a statutory allocation. Often times, there is no intentionality to the execution of the leadership retreat, many things are allowed on the spur of the moment. Such events end up being flops owing to the discordant and incongruent nature of implementation. Perhaps, these annotated reasons could help decision-makers at corporations to right their wrongs when planning a corporate retreat.

1.There Is Little or No Intentionality
The idea that just because leadership retreats are informal, detailed planning should be ignored is comical at best. There is always a science to every madness. The management of human beings is both a science and an art. Desired outcomes should be matched with specific actions. What works for one organization might not work for another; you must develop a custom playbook based on the uniqueness of the organization you lead. The experience has to be well-curated; the activities should be designed to meet a specific need. It’s a form of counterprogramming; if the service culture in the organization is poor, games that foster courtesy could be used to subtly address that issue. Where certain members of staff have constituted themselves into rival groups, smart human resource managers can identify those in opposing camps and crossmatch them with one another such that each person is forced to partner with someone he or she wouldn’t ordinarily pair with if given a choice.

One of the tell-tale signs of the lack of coherence in a leadership retreat is the absence of moderators. Event hosts or comperes are not just faces that show up at corporate retreats, they are effectively executors of management’s agenda. Most of their utterances are not happenstance but a result of strategic debriefing on the objectives to be achieved. Many a times, we have seen comedians crack what could be terms an “inside joke” – a double entendre that on the surface appears innocuous but for those in the loop, they know it’s a subtle jab at a real-life situation. One of the perks of a third-party event host is the perceived neutrality; there would be less suspicious that the host is pandering towards any interest within the company. An event host can be one of the staff members but he or she mustn’t be too low on the corporate ladder so that utterances are not seen as disrespectful.

2.The Atmosphere Is No Different from The Workplace
There is typically a marked difference between the high-octane environment of the office and the ease of the great outdoors. Leadership retreats are not meant to be stressful or reminiscent of the rigours of the workplace. When activities or tone of communication connotes command or cohesion instead of consensus, team members, especially those that are the lower rungs of the corporate ladder tend to zone out. Why would anyone attend a retreat only to be constantly barked at by higher-ups? Titles and designations shouldn’t be so prominent in a leadership retreat, it makes people uneasy to, for example, crack jokes with their bosses. Nobody wants to get slammed with a query letter for going out of line. Leadership retreats are designed to ensure that the gap between team leaders and their team members is reduced not exacerbated.

When a leader is not self-assured, there is a very high tendency to use every possible opportunity at a retreat to remind everyone else that he or she is the boss. Thus, different antics that make others cower into their cocoons might be deployed. Also, when activities are seen more as tasks or chores, people begin to sense that there is a subtle power play going on. Such things dampen the mood and suck out the fun at retreats.

3.Toxic Work Culture
Most leadership retreats simply never work because the existing corporate culture disallows innovation. You cannot be promoting toxicity and expect a retreat to deliver value without addressing the elephant in the room. Are salaries being owed? Is nepotism driving promotions and opportunities instead of merits? Is there a prevalence of abuse of power or exploitation by higher-ups? Are the terms of service or working conditions at par or close to standard market rates? Do team members always engage in blame fixing? Are team members largely excuse manufactures?

Corporate retreats are essentially to get feedback from both sides; management getting input from staff members and staff members equally getting feedback from management. Organizing a lavish retreat should not be seen as a substitute for fixing the underlying challenges at the workplace. People would rather work for an organization that treats them well than for one that engages in what they would consider secondary issues. No discontent staff member would be excited to show up at a leadership retreat with the people responsible for his or her emotional state.

Next week, we will share the concluding part of the conversation.

ABOUT DR. ABIOLA SALAMI
Dr. Abiola Salami is the Convener of The Dr. Abiola Salami International Leadership Boot Camp and The Peak PerformerTM. He is the Principal Performance Strategist at CHAMP – a full scale professional services firm trusted by high performing business leaders for providing Executive Coaching, Workforce Development & Advisory Services to improve performance. You can reach him on hello@abiolachamp.com and connect with him @abiolachamp on all social media platforms.

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