Retreat to Advance: Strategy Matters

A how-to guide on creating a strategic plan using a board retreat

By John Braunstein and Anthony Knerr

Retreat to Advance: Strategy Matters

The advent of GPS has made old-fashioned maps nearly irrelevant but has not reduced the importance of answering the fundamental questions: Where are we going and how do we get there? Finding answers to those questions is at the core of strategic planning.

Strategic planning is fundamental to creating a successful future for an institution. Done right, it articulates the institution's competitive position and distinctiveness in ways that garner buy-in and build momentum among internal stakeholders.

A good strategic plan articulates what the institution is, its vision for what it will become over the next three to five years, and what it will do to reach that vision. Any effective strategic planning process requires full and engaged participation by both institutional and volunteer leaders.

When Nancy Zimpher became chancellor of the 64-institution State University of New York system in 2009, her first order of business was to embark on a six-week tour that took her to each campus—engaging presidents and senior leaders as well as faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community leaders. This feat of endurance (apparently never attempted before or since) not only introduced the new chancellor personally to stakeholders throughout the system but also banked credibility with them and provided Zimpher a firm grasp of the overarching strategic issues SUNY was facing, helping her jump-start the strategic planning process that generated The Power of SUNY.

Board members are responsible for the institution's ongoing health. Engaging the board in the strategic planning process helps build a shared understanding of the institution's current state, generates buy-in to the goals and strategies the strategic plan will articulate, and clarifies that the plan can be used by the board to create criteria for resource allocation decisions.

Even though new and emerging communications technologies allow for more inclusive, rapid, and transparent dialogue among institutional stakeholders, there is inherent magic in gathering institutional and volunteer leaders for a deliberate, focused, and productive discussion about the current situation and future direction of the institution. In other words: a board retreat.

Determining Goals

Identifying the right goals and desired outcomes for the retreat is critical to its success. Given the board's high-level and long-term oversight role, retreat goals and outcomes might include the following:

  • Raising awareness of the most significant forces in the education sector and the institution's competitive position in that setting.
  • Understanding the institution's identity—how it is perceived by various internal and external stakeholder groups, including potential stakeholders such as future students and donors.
  • Developing consensus on high-level strategic priorities—the areas where the institution should focus its attention, energies, and resources over the next three to five years.

When the University of New England in Maine collected data on how people viewed the institution, it discovered that its well-known, comprehensive programs in the health professions were overshadowing its nationally competitive initiatives in neuroscience and marine and environmental sciences.

"As a result," says President James D. Herbert, "we are reconceptualizing UNE's focus on ‘health' from that of individuals to the ‘health of our world'—its physical environment and communities as well as its people." With a set of new marketing messages reflecting these highly relevant facets, UNE has greatly enlarged its market of potential students—especially important in light of projected declines in the population of traditional-age college students in the northeastern U.S.

At this stage, successful strategic planning shouldn't seek closure with respect to these or similar goals. Instead, a retreat that kicks off the strategic planning process will allow board members to grapple thoughtfully with key questions and offer observations, suggestions, hypotheses, and initial guidance.

Designing the Retreat

A retreat has to be more than an extended board meeting with expanded reports from standing committees. Ideally, it will be held in an off-site location, allowing participants to leave behind the concerns of home and workplace. A day long retreat is generally the minimum necessary time. However, such a long stretch requires that retreat activities be varied enough to sustain the board's attention and interest and that there be sufficient break, meal, and social time to make the experience rewarding and fun.

With the retreat "sponsors"—generally the board chair and CEO—having determined the key goals for the retreat, organizers can now prepare an agenda. The overall goal should be to design an approach that maximizes board participation and encourages continued engagement with the strategic planning process. However, each retreat must be tailored to the specific circumstances and temperaments of the board members involved.

While most universities have employees who can handle the logistical responsibilities, an independent retreat facilitator can provide broad and deep knowledge of the sector in which the institution operates and bring a large toolkit of effective retreat activities. Sometimes an "outsider" perspective can suggest a new path through old obstacles.

One board composed mainly of older and loyal alumni believed that its institution's primary problem was obscurity. To hear board members tell it, the university was "the nation's best-kept secret," and all it needed was more vigorous marketing to garner more students, visibility, and prestige.

Knowing this, the facilitators provided extensive comparative information about the institution's peers and competitors in advance of the retreat. With an increased understanding of how similar their institution was to its competitors—as well as a picture the facilitators painted of current and projected trends affecting the entire education sector—board members were able to evaluate their competitive position more critically and identify the institution's truly distinctive strengths, upon which it could build to ensure ongoing stability.

Establishing the Agenda and Determining Roles

A critical consideration in shaping the agenda is to ensure that the retreat offers participants a variety of cognitive engagement modes—listening, contributing, debating, synthesizing. This will keep them engaged and help create a sense of progress and momentum. In practice, this means using a combination of presentations, facilitated discussions, small teams, reports from these teams, and various forms of synthesis and summary. The retreat should offer all these avenues.

To develop a substantive agenda, the institution's leaders and those planning the retreat should identify what they believe are the key strategic issues facing the institution, based on their experiences, data, and any analyses already completed. In doing this, it is important to distinguish strategic challenges from primarily tactical concerns.

For example, one strategic issue is the need to attract a greater variety of students—undergraduate, graduate, adult, domestic, international, first-time, transfer—in light of a projected decline in the number of high school graduates. How to reach such students and convince them to apply and enroll are tactical questions.

This isn't to say that the retreat would be limited to discussion of this predetermined set of issues. It is exciting and important when new or corollary strategic concerns emerge as participants explore the implications of the original issues. However, reaching agreement on a core set of strategic challenges will help focus the retreat and allow its planners to provide appropriate information to participants in advance to help them prepare, as we discuss in the following section.

Preparing Retreat Leaders and Participants

In the planning stages, make role assignments—both ceremonial and substantive—so the individuals who will fill these roles can prepare for them. Generally, the board chair will welcome retreat participants and encourage engagement from all of them. The institution's CEO will set the context for why the retreat is being held. Senior institutional leaders who have responsibility for academics, student life, advancement, or other functions will be involved if their area of responsibility is relevant to one of the strategic issues being examined. Outside experts may speak to the broader context of an issue that the institution is addressing, and facilitators take overall responsibility for managing the retreat itself, moderating major segments and ensuring full participation.

To help board members truly engage, they should be sent a briefing book in advance of the event. Relevant materials to include might be the most recent strategic plan and related performance metrics, reports or studies that assess the institution's environment and strategic position, a selection of current institutional marketing and branding materials—or donor outreach materials if the retreat focus is on advancement issues—and a few brief articles about the larger education context and current trends. All retreat participants should be urged to review the materials in advance, jotting down questions or ideas prompted by the information.

The Retreat Opening: Setting the Scene

After welcomes, introductions, and an icebreaker, it's time to dig into substance. This is best done by providing retreat participants with a common context for their discussions, taking no more than 60 minutes. Options include:

  • A moderated discussion of the briefing book materials.
  • A review of the institution's last strategic plan, including progress made on each of its goals.
  • Analysis of the institution's environment and competitive position, identifying areas of particular challenge or opportunity.
  • Presentation by an outside expert who can provide a provocative and informative perspective.

With this as context, it's time for a small group activity that will surface ideas from board members and allow them to truly engage with each other.

Breakout to Expand Insights

Breakout groups are key to a successful retreat. They change the tempo of the meeting and provide individual board members with an opportunity to offer their perspectives and connect with each other in a meaningful fashion.

The specific task of each breakout group (generally numbering four to eight participants) will depend on the focus of the retreat and the scene-setting that has already taken place. Sometimes these breakout groups might address the institution's mission and vision; other times they might focus on current identity and messaging or institutional readiness to engage alumni and other donor prospects in an ambitious campaign. The breakout groups can either be predetermined by retreat planners or assembled through a count-off process, primarily to ensure that each group includes diversity of roles, backgrounds, and perspectives.

Regrouping, Round One

At the conclusion of the breakout session, each group will report to the full retreat audience. The presentation should be a "synthesized" summary of the group's deliberations broken into common themes or categories. Each group will have up to 15 minutes for its presentation, including sufficient time for discussion.

Following the final group report, the facilitator should open the floor to the audience for additional questions and comments, in particular encouraging observations of similarities, common themes, contradictions, and gaps in the breakout groups' results. The facilitator should bring the session to a close with a summary that also identifies questions arising from the presentations that deserve further consideration.

Recap and Team Building

After interactive work in breakout groups and discussions, the retreat participants will be ready for something different. There are a number of options, depending on the focus of the retreat:

  • A presentation that will increase the board's understanding of the institution and the specific environment in which it operates.
  • A structured, interactive exercise that builds the group's sense of team and encourages creative thinking about the future of the institution.
  • A recap of the results of the earlier sessions, particularly if it synthesizes the ideas generated.
Setting Preliminary Strategic Goals

In this second breakout session, the groups will develop some initial overarching strategic goals that align with the purpose of the retreat. Board members will get a sense of the challenges involved with translating a vision into actionable goals. A pool of ideas will be generated that highlight common themes or priorities that might, in discussion subsequent to the retreat, be distilled into a small set of high-level goals for the institution's strategic plan.

The groups will generate as many goals as they feel are necessary to move the institution closer to its vision. Participants should be encouraged to think broadly about all the things the institution does (teaching, fundraising, enrolling students, providing a student life experience) and what goals these suggest.

During the breakout discussions, individuals will want to explain the thinking behind the goals they suggest. However, the group should push itself to articulate each goal in a single imperative sentence, such as: "Provide innovative, high-quality teaching and learning" or "Enroll a more diverse student body." A recorder should write these on a flip chart during the discussion without worrying if they are redundant, contradictory, too general, too tactical, or achievable. As the group discussion comes to a close, participants should take stock of the goals the group produced, combining like ideas, eliminating unexciting outliers, ordering them in terms of importance, and otherwise winnowing the list to reach consensus on a set of no more than six goals.

Regrouping, Round Two

The structure of this session is almost identical to that of the previous breakout group presentation and discussion. Each group's presenter should share the six goals on which the group reached consensus, as well as the complete list of potential goals it generated. The latter helps make clear the group's thought process and also allows other participants to see the many goals that weren't selected. This is important, as there may be goals not chosen by one group that were deemed important by another, or goals on several groups' lists that "almost made it" and are thus worthy of further consideration.

As with the prior breakout group reporting session, ample time should be left for discussion. The facilitator should once again encourage the audience to note similarities and common themes. He or she should also ask the group how it might reprioritize the top six goals based on the results of the other groups. It is not wise to ask the audience to "vote" on its top six choices, since doing so suggests a formal board position rather than guidance that will inform the strategic planning process.

Wrap It Up, Move It Forward

In a brief concluding session, ask participants to identify the most compelling, surprising, inspiring, or even troubling ideas from the retreat and what they suggest for the institution. The facilitator should seed this discussion from his or her notes and help the group distill its observations and identify open questions that remain. Finally, the board chair and president should describe the board's role going forward with respect to the strategic planning process, thank all participants, and conclude the event.

Afterwards, follow up with a concise summary document and inform those who could not be present about the retreat discussions. This will keep volunteer leaders engaged and ready to take the next steps in the strategic planning process. Because after the retreat, the institution will have some answers to the key questions—where are we going and how will we get there?—that launched the institution on this strategic journey.

About the Authors

Anthony Knerr is founder and managing director of AKA Strategy, a consultancy focusing on strategic planning, strategic counsel, and executive coaching in the higher education and nonprofit sectors.

John Braunstein is director of AKA Strategy.