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Accounting Practice – Making Partner Retreats Effective

In a recent article on WebCPA, Make This Year’s Partner Retreat More Productive, Steve Erickson highlights the value of partner retreats.

“Firms must be able to make strategic decisions and then execute quickly and efficiently,” Erickson writes. “Unfortunately… many partners spend a significant amount of their time at retreats talking about the past and issues that cannot be changed.”

Erickson goes on to describe the unproductive use of time many partners experience on retreat and how many partners find it difficult to engage in authentic dialogue on the topics that matter most. This may be because partners lack training in group process. They rise based on their technical ability or their business development skills rather than their ability to manage human capital.

We also find many firms are partnerships in name only. They consist of four or five independent silos. Each partner works alone supported by common staff members. Partners share an office, a coffee pot and a Christmas party. But, sometimes that is about all.

Attempts to create economies of scale, synergy between specialties and shared goals – all of which increase profitability – have been frustrated by an inability to engage with one another in authentic dialogue.

So they meet for a partner’s retreat. They adopt many elements of a plan recommended by Erickson:

  • Focus on the future
  • Prepare in advance
  • Have an agenda
  • Adopt and enforce ground rules
  • Remember their conversations define their relationship.

The first three of the five recommendations are easy enough. It is the last two that frustrate real progress. They may adopt ground rules but enforcement is problematic. And although they try to remember that their conversations defined their relationships, when they get into the meat of a critical issue, relational habits kick in.

Despite everyone’s best intentions, a cycle of domination and avoidance results that undermines their agenda. Dialogue breaks down. It starts simply enough. An item has been placed on the agenda. It could be anything — partner’s compensation, marketing strategy, staff roles. At some point in the discussion, someone becomes anxious.

It may be that the issue is particularly sensitive. It may simply be that someone feels frustrated at the pace of the discussion. Whatever the reason, a partner begins to push. In reaction to the push, one of two things can happen depending upon the relational styles in the room.

1) Someone pushes back. The energy of the dialog escalates. It reaches a point of risk. Both partners withdraw rather than jeopardize the relationship. 2) No one pushes back. The energy of the dialogue fades. The result is the same in both cases. Real issues are not addressed. North American Bancard Agent

Partners will experience this cycle only a few times before determining that there is no value in a partner’s retreat. But the deeper truth is this: truth is, there is no value in a partner’s retreat that lacks process discipline.

Just as a CPA would never dream of attempting a complex audit without having first planned an appropriate strategy or process for the audit, neither should partners gather for an important meeting without first defining their process.

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