Talking it out at Board Retreats

by Sherry Heuser

Board Retreat: Two words that can make even smart, creative, energetic people cringe. The date is scheduled, the announcement is made, and the dread begins. Why? Are we expecting to rehash the same, stale topics? Battle it out over divisive issues? Suffer through forced team-building exercises that don't actually strengthen our team? Maybe. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Board retreats should be open conversations about the organization, the big picture discussions that set the tone, moving the board beyond the nitty gritty that occurs during regular board meetings. Committees can fill in the details and staff can implement plans, but the board must figure out what the organization will look and feel like.

This begins with how the board members communicate with and relate to each other during the retreat. Relaxed, comfortable individuals are more likely to join in the discussion and respect their colleagues. Are they able to share ideas without being judged or squelched? Do they feel at ease bringing up concerns? Are they eager to participate? Although agendas are necessary to keeping everyone on track, having too tight a schedule or planning the outcome before encouraging discussion can result in members feeling railroaded into a decision or left out of the process altogether. Make sure the conversations about the issues are the focus of the meeting, even if it means that final resolutions are left for another day.

Knowing that a board made up of individuals from varied backgrounds makes it stronger, these distinctions can make understanding each other more challenging. Members do not join boards for the same reasons, do not have the same expectations of their role, and do not see the organization in the same way. Rather than create a manufactured exercise to learn obscure information about other members, provide an opportunity for members to share what is important to them about the organization and why they are committed to it. The organization is the mutual connecting point in the diverse group and the "team" is built through ongoing interactions, not in a game.

The goal is to keep the conversation moving forward in a productive, respectful, helpful manner. Board members can become "bored" members or resentful about how their volunteer time is being used if the pace and design of the meeting doesn't match the group. The logistics should be tailored to the members attending and the organization's circumstances. Offsite or in-house? Meals, snacks, or neither? Daytime, evening, or weekend? Outside facilitator or self-led? These decisions may seem extraneous, but they play a part in setting the stage for meaningful interactions. If board members are distracted, uncomfortable, or unable (or unwilling) to attend, the purpose of the retreat is defeated.

When it comes down to it, the goal of a board retreat is for the group to talk, listen, and think about the organization together. Encourage discussion and participation, and be aware of roadblocks that detour productive conversation.

Bottom Line: Creating an environment and encouraging the opportunity to "talk it out" is the real purpose of a board retreat.

Sherry Heuser is president of Capability Company Consulting, a Raleigh, N.C.-based firm supporting nonprofit organizations' searches for key hires.

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