Craig Dearden-Phillips: How to have a perfect (away) day

Chief executives might loathe the idea of a board awayday, but done right they can be both enjoyable and useful, writes our columnist

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

What do many chief executives dread more than a call from the bank manager? I’ll tell you what: the board awayday. The planning. The nagging fear that your shiny three year-strategy will be consigned to the dustbin, filibustered by trivial chit-chat or bent out of all shape by warring factions.

The trouble with awaydays is that they are bit like referendums. The result you get, if you are not careful, reflects what people are feeling on the day. This can range from a desire to air their great new idea (no, thanks, not now!) to long-standing grumbles that you’ve heard many times before. You end with little of substance discussed, let alone decided, and your hot new strategy has to wait for another day. In the meantime, you’re counting the cost of a day out of the office for your whole top team, a pile of posh sandwiches and at least one sleepless night.

So how do you make these things work? Having been a chief executive and a facilitator of other people’s awaydays, I believe there are three keys to a productive awayday event. The first I will call the arrangements. Find a spirit-lifting venue well away from your offices. Yes, it will cost money, yes everyone will have to find it on Google Maps and, yes, it isn’t always easy to find somewhere inspiring, but, boy, does it help blow away the cobwebs. Fortunately there are many more classy, interesting venues than there used to be. Find one and feel the difference.

The second is to use a facilitator. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Good ones are rare. A facilitator needs to be able not only to shepherd your board through a big agenda, but also to understand your organisation, its history, its strategic challenges and its foibles. Neither is it cheap. It's at least two days of work, including prep and write-up. But, again, the difference is profound. I started using facilitators when I realised that I was so busy, as chief executive, keeping things on track that I couldn’t participate in my own awayday! A good facilitator is gold-dust to the chief executive because he or she will unlock your own performance as a CEO and gently guide the board to their best possible contribution.

The third key to a successful board awayday is to keep it strategic. Organisations have lots of opportunities in business as usual to sweat the detail: team meetings, leadership forums, one-to-ones, ordinary board meetings. The board awayday is a unique opportunity to review the fundamentals: why are we here? How are we doing? Is the mission still right? Do we need to change? Are we still relevant? From these types of questions it is much easier to get to sensible answers on questions such as three-year goals, one-year plans and so on.

In the end, after some shockers as chief executive, I got to enjoy my board awaydays. I came to love going somewhere new for the day. I also found these events to be the right place to secure support for big change, when this was necessary. Major questions of growth, focus and purpose were played out in these sessions. I am not sure I could have got my board into all this without them.

The point on which to conclude is that your board awayday is an investment. Put rubbish in and you get rubbish out. If you stuff everyone into your office board room for a day while you and your senior team randomly carp on to them about this or that, yes, it will be poor. Whatever talent you have in the room, you will reap a harvest of disenchantment. Conversely, get them into a different place, physically and mentally, and the rewards will outstrip the costs many times over.

And, yes, you will grow to love your board awayday. How cool would that be?

Craig Dearden-Phillips (@deardenphillips) is managing director of Stepping Out, which exists to help third-sector organisations to grow their missions

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