by L. Gary Boomer, CPA, Boomer Consulting, Inc.
I am sure your first question is "why a firm summit and not a retreat?" Retreat gives the connotation of looking to the past and moving backwards. Summit sounds "grander" and should involve a broader base of participants. It also is the beginning of the process that will differentiate your firm from the competition. The purpose of a firm summit is to bring leaders and members of a firm together along with outside expertise and facilitation in order to create strategies for improving the firm. Most firms spend too little time working on the firm and too much time working in the firm. This is especially true in firms where the governance is less defined. In those firms, everyone thinks they are in charge but are too busy to lead, so little happens that benefits the firm. Too often firms put the same people in a room year after year and call it a retreat. Don’t expect exciting and revolutionary results if this is your firm’s formula. I can almost guarantee nothing grand will happen unless you change your format, make the meetings fun and create some excitement. Break out of the CPA mold. If you don’t know how, ask your spouse! The following suggestions will improve the results of your Summit as well as make it an enjoyable experience for the participants.
- Select a relaxing venue away from the office.
Meetings in the office just don’t work. There are too many interruptions and participants have trouble focusing on strategic thoughts. You can’t get in the frame of mind for new ideas and change unless you are in a location that takes you out of your daily routine. The best results occur at an out of town location and preferably at a resort so there are leisure activities to incorporate into the daily events. One of the more creative ideas I recently heard of is conducting the Summit on an overnight sailing trip. If not sailors, try a ski lodge or sports arena.
- Encourage everyone to participate during parts of the Summit.
Participation by managers and staff will ensure buy-in as well as develop new leaders. Fresh ideas and new blood should be welcomed. Make the process inclusive rather than exclusive. As I mentioned in the introduction, don’t expect different results if you continue your same format. Transportation and lodging expenses are always a consideration when involving a large number of participants. Off-season rates at many venues make them affordable.
- Utilize a professional facilitator as your leader.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to facilitate a Summit for your own company or organization. An experienced facilitator will keep the participants focused as well as stay on the agenda. You might be surprised at how focused the participants become when an outsider(s) is involved. Selecting a professional facilitator also ensures the Summit will happen as scheduled and not postponed. Commitment and discipline are required in order to ensure success.
- Start your Summit with the positive focus exercise.
The positive focus is a powerful exercise that takes only minutes to complete but is generally overlooked by most facilitators. Instead of jumping into the agenda, take a few minutes to reflect on the most positive events that have happened during the past year, why they were important, and what if any subsequent action needs to be taken. Take time to celebrate and be grateful for your successes. This will increase the confidence of all participants and start the meeting on a positive note. Much better decisions are made when participants are confident and positive.
- Work from an agenda and stay on time.
Don’t surprise participants. Solicit agenda items in advance and distribute an agenda with meeting materials. Do the homework on the agenda items prior to the meeting. Keep the items strategic and stay on time.
- Avoid the numbers, stick to the concepts.
It is too easy for accountants to get caught up in the numbers. The tendency is to focus on tactical rather than strategic issues. Force participants to think in terms of the big picture. Initially tell participants to avoid restraints such as budget and time. It pays to dream. You will find the time and budget for great ideas and strategies. The chances of identifying great ideas and strategies are diminished greatly if you start with the premise, "we can’t afford that". Believe me; accounting firms will get to the issues associated with "cost" soon enough in the process.
Think in terms of who can "pull this off" or "whom do we know that can help us".
- Keep minutes of the summit and share with the entire firm.
Accountability is important and minutes document the process. They are valuable in avoiding later conflicts and keeping participants focused. They also can become very valuable as a resource in years to come. Remember the old saying, "What goes around, comes around".
- Think strategic rather than tactically.
This is easier said than done. An experienced external facilitator will assist and generally has more control than an internal facilitator. The agenda will also help in avoiding tactical discussions. It may even be necessary to remind participants of the benefits of strategic thinking when you announce the dates of your Summit and at the beginning of your session.
- Take breaks of 10-15 minutes every hour.
Strategic thinking is hard work. Most people and organizations avoid strategic planning for that reason. People need time to move around and interact in an informal manner. A good rule is to work for 45 minutes and break for 15. This will also assist in avoiding getting caught up in details.
- Mix the sessions in with activities such as golf, tennis, or boating.
Social activities require planning and should include those members who are more introverted. Team activities such as a scramble in golf are fun and allow those with less skill to participate and still enjoy the event. Every firm outing needs a driver for the "beer cart".
- Invite outsiders such as experts or even clients.
Outsiders bring a fresh perspective and generally command respect from firm members. Don’t expect them to provide answers to all of your problems. You can expect them to have opinions and ask penetrating questions. Some firms are just learning the benefits of including clients in their annual Summit.
- Name task forces for follow-up with a responsible person and due date.
Someone must follow-up after the decisions are made to commit resources to priority projects. Someone must be in charge and held accountable. Due dates ensure the chances of projects getting completed on time. Allow the responsible party (ies) the opportunity to agree upon due dates. This is all part of leveraging your firm’s resources. Administrative personnel tend to accept too much responsibility. Learn how to delegate!
- Conclude the summit with a brief statement from all participants.
Perspectives differ and Summits are no different than other business meetings. People attending the same meeting often leave with different perceived results. Take a few minutes at the end of the Summit to allow all participants the opportunity to voice their perspective of the most valuable aspects of the meeting and any changes they would like to see in the future.
- Create a One-Page Laminated Game Plan
A one-page laminated game plan is a key to success. Many people have great ideas, but few execute. The one-page laminated game plan allows you to easily communicate within the firm as well as with outside stakeholders. The one-page game plan should include the firm’s vision, mission, core values and strategic initiatives on side one. On side two, list the strategic initiatives with one or more measurement methods, key steps, due dates and responsibilities. Lamination is one of the keys. No one throws a laminated document away and they tend to keep it in a convenient location. Most strategic plans get put in a desk drawer. Review the game plan frequently and hold people accountable.
In conclusion, Summits can be fun and productive. Proper planning, facilitation and location contribute to the value. Delegate the planning if that’s not your unique ability. Every firm has or should have a social chairman. Give them a reasonable budget. Don’t wait; schedule your firm’s Summit today. You will thank yourself next year and be pleased at the positive results.
L. Gary Boomer, CPA, CTIP, CEO
Boomer Consulting, Inc.
Manhattan, KS 66502