Tips for Productive Partner Retreats

By Alexandra DeFelice
 
Partner retreats, while often taking place in relaxing atmospheres, typically are anything but relaxing. However, the importance they have to the firm and for those invested in the future of the firm cannot be underestimated. 
 
"It's about team building and reaffirming the marriage," said Allan Koltin, CEO of Koltin Consulting Group, during a session at the 2013 Association for Accounting Marketing (AAM) Summit in Las Vegas about how to facilitate a partner/leadership retreat. 
 
While Koltin serves as a third-party facilitator, and that may have been his target audience during the AAM conference, many of the ideas can be used internally, even among the smallest of firms. 
 
Following are only some of the ideas he presented.
 
In Advance
Pick a theme. Is it commitment to quality, expanded services? How long should the retreat be? (Most firms meet for two days.) Who will be invited? All partners or equity-only partners?
 
Have an agenda and break it into things you must talk about, should talk about, and are nice to talk about but not essential to the meeting. Outline one to three goals around what you're trying to get out of the meeting.
 
Survey the attendees in advance. Depending on what you're aiming to achieve, survey questions could be pretty sensitive, boiling down to how individuals feel about the managing partner or executive committee, for example. Allow the answers to be anonymous. Give survey results to participants in advance, but not more than a day or two prior to the retreat; otherwise, you risk participants starting the meeting before it's scheduled to begin (think watercooler talk).
 
Format
Someone other than the facilitator should be in charge of taking meaningful minutes and disseminating a to-do list following the retreat. Don't spend a lot of time on presentations other than perhaps a state-of-the-firm update. The format should be more about candid conversations and exchanging information. U-shaped seating allows for better exchanges. Watch your audience's body language and make sure everyone participates.
 
Topics and Questions to Consider
Sometimes the biggest retreat topic is the ability to make decisions versus having the same conversations and same to-do lists year after year, Koltin said. However, if the group is ready to move forward, following are some potential topics or questions to consider. Again, these can be survey questions in advance to help participants prepare.
  • What should be the two or three highest priorities for the next year (must have agreement).
  • Are there any existing areas of specialization we should consider adding or phasing out?
  • Prioritize the top three items that need improvement. This can get sensitive if the partners aren't on the same page or if there are too many unproductive partners. 
  • What and where and are the best growth opportunities in the next five years? 
  • How can the firm improve its profitability?
  • What should be the future image of the firm, and how should we brand ourselves?
  • What's the firm's most significant problem?
  • How do you feel about the firm's short- and long-term direction?
  • How does the firm rate against competitors? What are they doing well?
  • If our most successful client ran our firm, what would that client do better? 
  • What stupid things do we do that irritate clients and should be keeping us awake at night?
 
And while this may not seem related to the firm, Koltin suggested asking attendees about their favorite hobbies and outside activities  it is a retreat, after all.
 
About the author:
Alexandra DeFelice is senior manager of communication and program development for Moore Stephens North America, and a regional member of Moore Stephens International Limited, a network of more than 360 accounting and consulting firms with nearly 650 offices in 100 countries. Alexandra can be reached at adefelice@msnainc.org.
 

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