The annual board away day – essential for board development, not a wasteful luxury

Many organisations organise an annual retreat or away day for the board. While some have been criticised as being a frivolous luxury, an away day can be just what the doctor ordered to develop an agreed vision, encourage fresh thinking, build morale and promote positive relationships.

So why do board away days have a bad rap? Often this stems from incorrect assumptions about what goes on. Board retreats are obviously the purview of the board, and often the senior management team. Unless staff and stakeholders know what their purpose is, there can be a perception that the leadership of the organisation is having a wonderful time at a hotel. The reality is far different.

Good board members are busy people. In the private and public sector they may get some compensation for their time, while in the charity sector board members are currently unpaid. Getting 10-12 volunteers in a room for a day shows an outstanding commitment to the organisation, and a savvy Chair will capitalise on this by planning the day carefully.

Location

Getting the right location is important. It is a good idea to get away from where business is normally conducted, as this helps stimulate new ideas and ways of interacting with your board colleagues. Choose a room with plenty of light, space, and adequate catering facilities. You want your participants to concentrate on what is being discussed, not on having to make tea and coffee! A hotel may work for some organisations, while others use community based facilities or even borrow a boardroom from a partner organisation.

Agenda

A typical board away day agenda covers items such as:

  • Development of an agreed vision for the organisation, and for the board
  • Agree and review the values that will be integrated into all processes to ‘set the tone’ for culture and behaviours
  • Review of the operating environment
  • Review of organisational strategy
  • Board roles and responsibilities refresher training
  • Board skills audit and recruitment plan (Questionnaires may be completed and analysed in advance)
  • Board self-assessment review. This should be carried out annually, and externally facilitated every 3 years
  • Preparation for board members’ review process and CEO performance appraisal
  • Update register of interests
  • Review and reaffirmation of board code of conduct
  • Review of governance manual
  • Any other business
Staff involvement

Board away days often include the CEO and other members of the senior management team, at least for part of the day. The board may wish to have executive members present in the morning but have time for themselves to work on building the team later in the day.

For other staff not directly involved on the day, it is important to make them part of the process. It is advisable to seek the views of staff on issues such as the operating environment and strategic direction. After all, those working at the coalface will have valuable insights on how to improve products and services.

Making best use of the time available

It is important to keep everyone productive and engaged throughout the day. The following tips might help:

  • Consider bringing in a facilitator to ensure the meeting runs smoothly. This should be someone from outside the organisation who is independent. Having a facilitator allows the Chair and CEO to participate more fully in the discussion.
  • Indicate timings on the agenda. As a guide, the reviews should take less time than the planning elements of the day.
  • Physically move people from time to time. A mixture of presentations, discussions, workshops and so on can keep things interesting, and allows for people to mix with others, and not just those sitting beside them. It also breaks up the day and keeps participants focused and energised.
Follow up

Be sure to thank everyone for their contribution to the board away day. This will include board members, the CEO, staff, facilitators etc. Let staff know the outcome, and that their views were represented and formed an important part of the planning process. Handled well, the board retreat has the potential to show how the board leads and sets the tone for the organisation.