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Transforming the Corporate Offsite to Inspiring & Participant-Owned

A Client Case Study

© 2019 Eric Wong, Exember Partner

Synopsis: A Fortune 500 company had a history of unproductive, top-down leadership meetings that didn’t move the dial on critical initiatives or address the elephant-in-the-room topics.

The company had been wildly successful at their core business where they are market leaders but were struggling to innovate in newer areas where they faced significant competition from more established players. As well, they were aware of the need to augment their culture from one focused purely on technology and top-down leadership, to one that also emphasized diversity of thought and interactive leadership, with openness to more candid discussions across leadership levels.

With support from meeting design consultancy Exember, a No More Boring Meetings consulting partner, the group experienced a 1.5-day offsite for 250 leaders in their “top 5%,” which was structured around the Adaptive Leadership model (HBS) to foster the right conversations about current challenges and how to reach new levels of performance.

When Exember first met with the client, it was clear that there was a lot on her mind after their last leadership summit failed to meet expectations:

“I just don’t think the last meeting cut it —
people were talking about
how the message was too top-down and how we never got down to the real stuff…”

Through their work with Exember, results included over 90% of participants in the post-meeting survey citing that the meeting provided them with insights and knowledge they could use back on the job, and 90% believing that they were likely to incorporate the discussions and content in their approach to leadership.

Details: 

250 participants gathered for a retreat for the company’s “Top 5%,” including a new CEO and executive team who collectively stood at the forefront of a pivotal new chapter— there were exciting opportunities on the horizon, but revenue had been declining over the past two years and key leader attrition was a major concern.

Given that context, the 8-person Design Committee recognized the need to create a balanced experience – maintaining a positive orientation to the evolution of the company, while being candid about the current state and imperative for change.

Exember identified these specific goals together with the Design Committee:

  • Create a shared reality of the organization: strengths and lessons learned
  • Foster debate and generate insights regarding the next three years, including how to bring “the best of our past into the future”
  • Explore insights about leadership mindsets to maximize the group’s performance
  • Reinforce the unique position from which this group can continue to grow, execute, and thrive
  • Inspire and empower more effective group leadership

As well, the Design Committee noted that the tenor of the meeting had to project inclusiveness and interactivity. The premium on top-notch production and top-tier speakers was as important as ever. But now, there was an imperative on interaction AMONG participants and to infuse personal implications into every session, to reinforce empowerment and leadership from every chair. Finally, the Committee agreed that the meeting itself had to be an integrated whole, rather than simply an IP showcase. So, each session reinforced the idea of a firm in transition and the key role of leaders at this level to making it possible.

Off-Site Design Details:

  • Three external professional speakers, executive presenters from within the company, great food, and the requisite creature comforts.
  • For a more “built-by-us-for-us” vibe (vs. the previously unsuccessful top-down approach), Exember prepared and mobilized a design committee of eight Senior Directors who led and facilitated all activities.
  • All five executive presentations were delivered “interview style” (design committee members serving as the interviewers) to foster more candid, authentic, two-way conversations. The audience used mobile polling technology to submit and “vote up” tough questions to executives during the last 15-20 minutes of each interview.
  • Collectively, the most crucial queries and concerns were aired and addressed.

Activities included:

“Tomorrow”

In 50 cross-functional tables of five, participants first imagined what a wildly successful “tomorrow” would look like in three years. And they answered three questions about what would make this an exciting place to be in three years, what specific customer outcomes they were delivering, and what was energizing about the culture.

Then they answered three “getting-to-tomorrow” questions about the path necessary to reach these new realities, including what evidence the organization would need to see, how they needed to transform operations, and—most importantly—the PIVOTAL role this group must play in this transformation.

Each table’s answers were posted (using branded sticky notes) on 7’-tall posters around the room, so participants could view them on a silent “gallery walk” where they walked around for 15 minutes taking in their colleagues’ candid perspectives like attendees at a new art gallery opening.

Then they reconvened to discuss themes, insights, and implications—all of which were visually recorded and summarized for executives who spoke later in the meeting, and for reporting out to the company’s operating group.

Adaptive Leadership

Exember and the client identified the Adaptive Leadership model as ideal for fostering conversations that this group faced in becoming more responsive to changing needs of numerous stakeholders. Exember wrote two short case studies (fictional but based on real challenges) to encourage tough conversations about five key attributes of adaptive leadership: calling out elephants in the room, breaking down silos, psychological safety, growth mindset, and making time for after-action reviews.

To create a sense of “why” for this activity, Exember again used polling technology for a live vote about how this group of leaders evaluated themselves on these five attributes. When it became clear that the group evaluated themselves as just “ok” to “poor” on many of the attributes (with a rare “good”), the case for change was clear: 95% of the 10,000+ employees in the organization looked up to this group as leaders and it was up to them to lead through change.

Exember took a “lighter” approach to the discussion questions. This was the first time many participants were seeing this content, so something like forcing personal commitments would have been far too heavy handed. For each case, participants discussed three questions, which took them from the case to 50 table discussions about implications for their respective roles:

  • What should the protagonist do?
  • What are the similarities to and differences from our organization?
  • What are the implications for how we lead?

Closing Activity: “My Personal Growth in 2020”

The Design Committee wanted the 250 participants to think through implications for their growth, given everything they had heard at the offsite about the trajectory of the firm and key aspects of adaptive leadership. But they wanted to avoid the risk of a boiler plate “development planning with coaching “session and instead created an engaging, aspirational experience.

With that in mind, pairs of participants were asked to imagine that they personally had a successful year and to speak in the past tense (as if it were 2020). Each person interviewed their partners to “draw out” and “color in” what made their year successful—what was challenging about your work? What was exciting? What did you try that you had not done before? What did you learn? What moments happened along the way? What made you proud?

Then, with each person posing as their partner’s “agent” or biggest fan, they shared their partner’s story, so others could hear about their tablemates’ wildly successful years.

The results:

Quantifiable:

Post-event survey results revealed how over 90% of participants said the meeting provided them with insights and knowledge they could use back on the job, and 90% believed that they were likely to incorporate the discussions and content in their approach to leadership.

Less quantifiable:

The meeting itself demonstrated palpable energy. Executive interviews – augmented by the “vote-up” capability – were dynamic and real, without fostering a “complaining” vibe. There was tremendous buzz in the room during each of the activities. Whether the topic was input about the future path, shared ideas about leadership or individual aspiration definition – it was clear that the individual mattered in each activity and that the firm was evolving with their help

Afterwards, the entire Design Committee was glowing on an email chain:

  • “I’ve had nothing but positive feedback around the meeting.  People are energized and really quite gushing about the meeting. It’s been a pleasure to be part of the group. Thank you so much.”
  • I’ve heard great things… and I think everyone did an amazing job!!! 🙂 Nice to meet a lot of you through this event! 🙂
  • Yes, I have heard only positive comments as well so agree it was a job really well done by the whole team.
  • I loved meeting all of you in person. You are a truly impressive bunch and your hard work paid off. So far, I heard 100 percent amazing feedback. Thank you all.
  • (Client) OK you guys are making me smile! You are an amazing team— and truly have the ability to do great things.  Thank you for staying the course, trusting the process and having fun along the way. Well done team!”