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How to Get Action from Your Management Retreat

For annual retreats where the focus in on setting a strategy for the upcoming year, the first step is to review the initiatives set for the current year and assess to what extent these initiatives were met or failed to be met. One for the most important, if not the most important part of any corporate annual retreat is the identification of new or renewed goals and objectives and then defining the corresponding initiatives and priorities to accomplish these goals and objectives.


First and foremost, goals must be set using SMART criteria. SMART is an acronym and represents Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Time bound.

  • Specific – Identify a specific area that you target for improvement.
  • Measurable – determine how to measure success or failure.
  • Assignable – Who will oversee and monitor the progress?
  • Realistic – Considering the resources available, make sure it can be realistically attained.
  • Time bound – Define when this goal is to be achieved.

When setting these goals, you must apply these SMART criteria. You cannot say “We want to increase sales.” Using the SMART acronym, define the percentage or dollar increase in sales you are targeting. Include how you are going to accomplish your goal and by when as well as who will be responsible for overseeing the results. Instead of “We want to increase sales,” your goal could be to “Increase sales by 10% by the fourth quarter, by hiring 3 new sales reps in quarter one and expanding our channel sales program to the west coast.” Here we state specifically how much we want to increase sales, what resources are going to be hired to make it realistically possible to accomplish, who is monitoring the progress and when it is expected to be successful – the fourth quarter.

This is a simple example and can be applied on smaller companies. When companies have multiple divisions and lines of business the approach is usually a little different. They still apply the SMART acronym, but they come together as an entire company first to define overall corporate initiatives that are then supported by individual divisional or line of business SMART Goals.


Corporate usually sets goals as a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), or they should. The concept of BHAG is simple. You set a very high bar as your goal and you might actually hit it. When you set low or easy goals people are not challenged and may not exert the extra effort required. Since little effort is required, no effort is applied, and the results are that goals are not met. When you set a BHAG, there needs to be some effort exerted, some creativity applied, some ingenuity in design, and most of all effort. When all these come into play, chances are new systems and processes are defined, the business improves and the BHAG gets met.

Case Study

In one company I was working with, the new CEO said he wanted to increase revenues by 20% over the next two years, reduce expenses by $2 million, without laying anyone off, and double the bottom line profit. This was stunning to the 5 division leaders, because each of the past 9 years, the company showed a healthy profit, even though revenues were stagnant. To them, it seemed like everything was fine year over year so why fixed it if it is not broken.

With the division leaders still grumbling. We broke out the management team into their respective divisional break out groups and asked them to get creative and identify 10 things that they could do that could drive their revenue up by 20%. Each divisional group had a representative from Human Resources and Information Technology since they were not revenue generating departments and were included in each group to provide some perspective on resource allocation and technology innovation that could be used to assist them identify ways to set realistic goals.

Once each group had their top 10 list, they were asked them to identify the top 5 that were most important in order to accomplish their goal. “Focus was key,” he stated. With 10 well defined items on the list, we thought it was a little naïve to think we would only get 5 things done, but we narrowed it to the 5 most impactful items. Later in the afternoon of the second day of the retreat, each group made a presentation to the entire team about their top 5 objectives identifying how it was going to support the corporate goal. It was interactive with the audience and the interaction led to some better ideas and some reshuffling of the priorities on the lists. At this juncture we did not assign anyone to be responsible for each of these goals, but they were assigned in total to the entire divisional break out group. This was a big mistake, as I will explain.

While the feeling of despair existed when the CEO initially mentioned his BHAGs, after a day or working out the details everyone was on board with executing top 5 priority list and trying to hit the goals. As with many management retreats everyone walked away with a positive mindset and a clear set of marching orders and a gung-ho attitude. How long do you think that lasted?

Zero Based Budgeting

This meeting was in November, and we felt we were set for the next two years. When it comes to cutting expenses by $2 million dollars that was handled a little differently. I reviewed the budgets for the upcoming year for each of the 5 divisions and then I met with each divisional vice president. For the past dozen years, they have been preparing budgets based on prior year actual results and then simply bumping the numbers up by a small percentage. That is not the way to do a budget. Ideally, companies should use a Zero Based Budgeting methodology where each year they start at zero and define each and every project and expense and identify when it will be incurred and create a budget based on real anticipated projects, without regard to any prior year actuals. When I was working with the Divisional VPs, I focused on the vaguely defined expenses like marketing, advertising, consultants and professional fees. We are not a fan of cutting arbitrarily effective programs, but we are also not a fan of arbitrarily putting budgets in place without a plan of how that money will be spent and what the expected results will be. I looked at the marketing budget for example, and ask the VP what they plan to spend the money on? What projects or marketing campaigns are they planning to run? What quarter will they be run in and how much will they cost? I did not expect an answer at the time of the question, but I expected them to get with their individual marketing people and devise a plan of what they plan to implement over the next 2 years. It was an excellent exercise because when they came back to me they had a solid plan in which to move forward, AND they got everything they wanted to do. This exercise showed total projected costs less than the arbitrary budget that was set by applying a percentage to the prior year number. We were able to cut expenses by $2 million with this approach without actually having to cut any programs or projects, just by using zero based budgeting.

Reality Check, a Surprise Progress Update

6 months later I got a call from the CEO asking me to set up an emergency management meeting. He told me to tell everyone to clear their calendar for a half day next week in a “Must attend” meeting. He said he had the same facilitator flying in for this surprise meeting. But he told me not to tell anyone what the purpose of the meeting was except that we had some important announcements to make.

On the day of this meeting, we got into our divisional groups in a round table setting, and then each group proceeded to make a presentation on the status of the implementation of their top 5 items that were identified in the November meeting. Not one single group had progressed on one thing on their list over the past 6 months. That’s 25 items combined for 5 divisions and not one of them had shown any progress on any of them. It was quite embarrassing. However, it seemed like both the CEO and the facilitator expected it. They were not satisfied that we had made no progress, but I think it was to make a point.

Success is Focus Based

When each group was asked why nothing was progressing on any of the items, there was a collection of excuses which were merely that. After that meeting in November everyone just went back to work as normal without focusing on their high-level objectives. What happened next was even more striking. Each group was then asked to take one item from their list of 5 and choose that item to get done by the end of the year. Each group was to pick the one item that would have the greatest impact on the organization to meet the CEO’s goal. “One item, really?” the groups snickered. They each had five items, and none were even started so the focus was lowered to one single item.

Assignability Gets Action

The second point was regarding assignability. Since the 5 items were assigned to the entire group and not any one single individual, and there were no consequences for failure, nothing got done. As an incentive, or disincentive, the CEO said that the groups that do not get their one thing done or show significant effort, the entire division’s pay will be frozen for the next year. I don’t think the CEO would have frozen the payroll for an entire division, but it sure got the attention of the management team for each of these divisions. Now with a sense of urgency and some serious consequences for failure, the leaders of each of the divisions had regular meetings to discuss progress on their one action item.

Lessons Learned

As a result, by the end of the year, every single one of the divisions had accomplished their one item. Coincidentally, other items on their list of 5 were also getting done. Once they got out of the daily routine and into the creative problem solving mode, their perspective changed and the outcomes changed. It’s amazing with a little focus and some incentives will do. As you might imagine, after 2 years the company’s revenues increased more than 20% and their profit increased by 110%, meeting the CEO's BHAG goal.

This article answered the following questions:

  • How to make your Management retreats more successful?
  • How to run a Corporate Strategy Meeting?
  • How to implement SMART Goals?
  • Why do goals need to be SMART?
  • What is a BHAG?
  • What is Zero Based Budgeting?
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