Futurist John Naisbitt’s 10 predictions made in his 1982 blockbuster "Megatrends" all turned out to be astonishingly correct, including the prediction that our increasingly high-tech culture would require a counterbalancing emphasis on what he called "high touch" human contact. This reality is now very much with us.

Consider the impacts of cell phones, voice mail, e-mail, teleconferencing, virtual teams and all things Internet. These technologies support autonomy and interaction while minimizing face-to-face contact. At the same time, businesses are challenged with an increasingly complex and competitive marketplace in a difficult economy. We must find ways to dramatically increase our effectiveness. One of the ways to do this is to convene a gathering of key people with an out-of-the-ordinary agenda, format and setting. These meetings go by various monikers: conference, forum, off-site, summit, confab or, most commonly, retreat.

A retreat connotes a gathering that is qualitatively different from the usual meetings held on a regular basis for the purposes of information-sharing, coordination and trouble-shooting. To be sure, regular operations management meetings are a necessary organizational staple, an essential practice of good management. A retreat takes the benefits of a good meeting and multiplies them exponentially. Retreats are the province of leadership.

The primary benefit of a retreat is the opportunity to address matters of great importance, but which may not be matters of great urgency. Most organizations are geared up to respond effectively to urgent situations, but many underestimate—and therefore under-invest in—the value of dealing with non-urgent yet important matters that are on the more distant horizon. Like all investments, it’s an act of faith that requires time and effort now in order to earn the benefits later. This is one illustration of the important visionary role of a leader.

The value of being proactive cannot be overstated. Just a few examples: 1) anticipating and resolving dilemmas before they become complicated problems, 2) identifying new opportunities and developing plans to capitalize on those opportunities, and 3) exploring ways to innovate. In addition, the very experience of bringing people together face-to-face, for a purpose explicitly devoted to seeing beyond everyday operations, holds tremendous value. A retreat also can address issues among the participants that may be interfering with the organization's effectiveness, such as communication, roles/responsibilities/authority or teamwork and cooperation.  Interpersonal relationships need time and attention, just as do the other systems within an organization.

The experience of being together in person dramatically strengthens already good relationships. Getting to know co-workers on a more personal basis, having fun together, unwinding after a challenging discussion, are all aspects of building relationships. As a matter of fact, paying attention to the healthy functioning of interpersonal relationships helps build the strongest possible foundation for business success. Good leaders understand that developing a healthy, high-functioning company culture is one of the best investments a business can make. Retreats are an excellent method for enriching and shaping company values and culture.

Retreats are most effective away from the usual location, absent ringing telephones, knocks on the office door and familiar surroundings. Potential locations range from secluded conference facilities to hotel meeting rooms to someone’s living room. The most important aspects are comfort, privacy, quiet and pleasant surroundings.  Knowing your group and considering the nature and purpose of the retreat will help determine the appropriate setting.

Two common objections to holding retreats are “We don’t have time” or "We can't afford it." In contrast, the most common sentiment heard after a retreat is: “This was great. I can’t believe how much we accomplished!”  The quantum leap forward that happens at a well-planned and professionally facilitated retreat far exceeds its time and cost. When critical issues are resolved, relationships are fortified and agreements are made that will influence the future of the organization for years to come, the benefits are well worth the investment.

In short, retreats are an excellent method to address the aspects of the organization that need attention, whether those are strategic, interpersonal or a combination of the two. Retreats are an extremely flexible leadership tool that can be custom-designed to meet the specific needs of any situation. If your organization has never had a retreat, now is a good time to start planning one. If it’s been a while, it may well be time to think about what aspects of your company would benefit from some extra attention. Many successful companies make a commitment to regular retreats.

A good retreat can be a valuable tool in a leader's cache, helping to dramatically improve daily performance, foster group cohesion and company morale, and contribute to the long-term success of the enterprise.


Mary Luttrell is a business strategy adviser who helps companies turn challenges into opportunities. Known for her ability to create inspired yet practical plans of action, she is a specialist in strategic planning, marketing, performance development, meeting and retreat facilitation, and leadership coaching and mentoring. Ms. Luttrell is a certified management consultant with over 28 years of consulting experience, and her firm was named one of the "100 Leading Management Consulting Firms in North America" by industry analyst James Kennedy. To receive a complimentary copy of her white paper, "The Four Cornerstones of Business Success," contact Ms. Luttrell at thecoach@sonic.net or 707-887-2256.