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A Recipe for Productivity

Are business board meetings getting stale? A company retreat may be the answer to pump up your team and get the creative juices flowing.

I just returned from a board retreat held at a remote camp in the mountains with spotty cell phone coverage and no TV, land lines or wireless internet in the cabins. We were unplugged for two full days--and it was an incredibly productive and fun time.

As an entrepreneur, it's important to connect with your colleagues and advisors, as well as yourself, periodically outside of the office. A change of scenery takes your mind off normal routines and patterns, opening you up for deeper and richer conversations. It also provides the downtime necessary to think and explore new ideas and possibilities.

If your days are anything like mine, you rarely have time to think and process information because you're busy answering calls, returning e-mails and making decisions. By turning off your cell phone and computer, you have the space and time to tune into more strategic and long-term issues with your board. For example, some of the items we've covered at these offsite meetings include expanding our operations, offering new products or services, and discussing the future of our organization.

If you've read any of the books by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, you know about the importance of having BHAGs (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals). It's impossible to carve out time to explore topics like this in a short meeting or conference call. Breaking your routine fires up your brain with a new energy and creativity. Spending time getting to know each other as both individuals and as a group creates deeper relationships among the team. You may develop a new bond with someone through a hike, tennis match or card game. Those new bonds help develop stronger communication in future company discussions.

At my company, the board retreat is a highly anticipated biannual affair. Attendance is key to ensure all perspectives are voiced and heard, and discussion materials are sent out far in advance so board members can prepare for each session.

The facility we chose is run by a general manager who's worked there for more than two decades. He's done every job at the place and knows what it takes at every level to get things done. He's instilled that same passion and commitment in his staff. With such an optimistic atmosphere, it's hard not to be productive.

We had physical activities planned for each day and meals timed so that people could linger over wine or coffee and debate current events or open agenda items. The fact that no one could check their BlackBerry or be distracted by ringing cell phones allowed everyone to focus. Once everyone realized they were basically out of touch with their offices, a feeling of peace and calm seemed to take hold. The ability to kayak, bike or hike brought back that childhood sense of carefree fun that busy professionals so rarely experience today.

It's important for groups to go offsite periodically to share information, have time together without distractions and bond as a group to set the culture for achieving joint goals throughout the year.

Here are a few tips to ensure your retreat is a success.

  • Plan the date well in advance. Be aware of religious holidays or events that might conflict with others' personal lives and schedules.
  • Send out background materials early so everyone can arrive prepared. Give people specific questions to think about in advance so they arrive with their wheels already turning.
  • Pick an inspiring venue with a first class staff. I've attended productive retreats in Lake Tahoe, Ireland, Brazil and the mountains of New Hampshire. Each location had something unique that made it memorable.
  • Build fun activities into the agenda so there's a balance between work and play. Everyone has different skill levels and interests so it's important to offer a variety of extracurricular activities.
  • Turn off cell phones and all electronic devices. Even if your venue is wired and has coverage, ask people to leave their BlackBerrys in the room to minimize distractions.

For best results, repeat this event every year or two. Getting out of your routines may be just what you need to take your organization to a higher level.

Paige Arnof-Fenn is the founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a strategic-marketing consulting firm whose clients include Fortune 500 companies as well as early stage and emerging businesses.

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