Why Construction Businesses Need a Strategic Retreat

These seven tips can help maximize a strategic retreat's effectiveness and prepare your leaders to think strategically

Brad Humphrey offers seven tips to help maximize a strategic retreat's effectiveness and prepare your construction leaders to think strategically.
Brad Humphrey offers seven tips to help maximize a strategic retreat's effectiveness and prepare your construction leaders to think strategically.

Staying competitive, planning for the future, considering needed change… These are all thoughts and concerns most construction leaders have.

Sam Walton once said, “You can’t just keep doing what works one time, because everything around is always changing. To succeed, you have to stay out in front of that change.”

Well, I don’t know if Mr. Walton had strategic retreats in mind when he spoke these words, but I know he was a huge strategic thinker. And that is what should be built in to any strategic retreat you conduct. However, the term “strategic retreat” can have an interesting impact on busy contractors who are working hard to make things happen!

Strategic retreats are critical to the growth of any healthy construction company. While some contractors might determine to hold an annual strategic retreat it has been my observation that the best organizations often hold a serious strategic retreat only once every two or three years. For the in-between years there might be “mini-retreats” in shorter duration that are focused on updating strategic plans.

Strategic retreats conjure different thoughts for different contractors. Some contractors view strategic retreats as an expensive waste of time that is spent arguing “should have dones” and “we’ll never do thats” instead of taking care of business today as we know it. Others often take a too blue-sky approach, wanting to dream about where we should be in five, 10, even 15 years into the future.

The two extremes of perspectives about strategic retreats are actually not that uncommon. But such polarizing viewpoints can greatly impede effectiveness at the actual retreat. While a strategic retreat often includes debates about what a construction company should have done or setting a path that has never been followed there is much more to a strategic retreat.

Before any strategic retreat is conducted (and I think you should have one at least every few years) you should help maximize the retreat’s effectiveness by preparing your leaders to think strategically. Consider a few insights that I have found successful when preparing my clients for a successful and profitable strategic retreat.

1. The key to a strategic retreat is to prepare leaders to think strategically. One of the greatest strengths of many construction companies is that they are led by very practical and tactical leaders. A problem or challenge arises and the leader is quick to troubleshoot, to solve the dilemma so that business can move forward. This ability to seize the moment and solve a problem is in fact many leaders’ greatest core competency.

BUT…strategic thinking is not tactical thinking! It is not tangible thinking. It is thinking just far enough into the future that one is left wondering, “Will we ever be able to get there?”

Future, used in this context, has two directions for our use in strategic thinking. In one direction it is very much time related, as in where will an organization be in three, five or 15 years. But it is the other direction followed that brings greater meaning to future.

Future, in strategic thinking, also has future positions in mind. That is, where will our people be, in their own thinking, in the future? Where will our customers be in their thinking in the future? So, future can be used to capture a time period moving forward, but it can also represent a development of opinion, ideas, solutions, development and attitudes.

2. For a more effective strategic retreat leaders must come prepared to set aside old arguments, old agendas, past failures and setbacks. Notice that the option is to set aside, not forget. It certainly makes little sense to discuss some issue that never panned out for our company due to advancements in technology or because of processes that are no longer accepted within our industry.

While healthy discussions, including the back and forth bantering that can take place in most strategic retreats, are needed these should be conducted without egos and positional negotiation in mind. Leaders who lock themselves into positions leave little room for important discussions about strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes.

3. Strategic thinking is discussing “out of the box” issues and ideas. What is being discussed might not be conceivable at the moment. This is where the “blue sky” can inspire some leaders and anger other leaders. However, it is strategic thinking that honestly asks the proverbial “what if?”

4. Strategic thinking is a process. It is critical that the process to leading a group of leaders to come together in what their company will pursue should be one that is methodical, allowing time for critical dialogue between the “yeas and nays” and for moving the leaders forward in developing future processes in concept. The practical and tactical will come later but for now strategic thinking entertains the unbelievable.

5. Strategic thinking is greatly enhanced when conventional thinking and past pathways to success are challenged in light of moving forward. The “baby” isn’t thrown out with the bathwater in this context but old sacred cows are seriously released for the sake of making the discussion totally free of any inhibitors that might prevent a team of leaders from seeking higher ground of future direction that needs to be claimed.

6. Strategic thinking is best accomplished when all designation of power and authority is stripped from the leaders. The role of president or owner is no more important than that of vice president or division manager. Title and organizational clout have no place in strategic retreats, and this must be understood and supported by those who are the senior ranking individuals — especially the owner. Egos must be checked in at the door!

This sixth suggestion does not encourage anarchy within the retreat. Instead leaders, no matter their role and job title, must be free to speak freely, challenge freely and brainstorm free of any possible repercussions from other leaders in the room. The presence of any fear by any leader will cripple the output of the retreat.

7. Have an outside facilitator lead the retreat. While leaders in the organization are capable of doing it, an experienced strategic facilitator can be focused on keeping a rhythm in the meeting, keeping the egos in check and moving the team toward some future arrival point. While some background preparation on the part of the outside facilitator should be conducted, it is ideal to use a facilitator that is not necessarily an expert in the same industry as the team of leaders involved with the retreat.

A final suggestion for an effective retreat and for better strategic thinking is to be aware of the expected output of the retreat. The output depends totally on what the expectations are for going into the retreat. Output can include the development of a vision statement or mission statement, in rough draft form, or output might be focused more on defining corporate objectives or strategic initiatives.

Every strategic retreat should provide some output but certainly the time needed to develop the output must be considered. To go into a strategic thinking mode and expect such critical pieces of information as statements of vision or mission, to produce three to five strategic initiatives in the span of a few hours is highly doubtful. While there must be some time constraints, the development of statements or initiatives can take 10 to 30 hours of retreat time.

When a leadership team is trying to prepare for the future can such levels of achievement be reached in only a day? Strategic retreats cannot be relegated to the normalcy of the traditional eight-hour work day. Strategic thinking cannot be easily scheduled so the realities of the retreat should be to allow enough time so that leaders are not checking their watches for fear of running out of time.

No matter the number of retreats held it is more critical that the strategic retreat is first prepared to be a place of strategic thinking. Following these suggestions will move you and your leadership team to experiencing a better retreat, holding more effective discussions and producing a result that the team will be proud to represent to the company.