Get the most out of your next staff retreat

Advisers discuss the structure of their annual meetings away from the office, which often include the top brass and mix a little social time with business

Apr 19, 2016 @ 1:40 pm

By Liz Skinner

Many financial advisory firms find getting together to talk business away from the office can spark innovative solutions to problems and make colleagues more cohesive.

“Being completely away off-site fosters creativity and helps you think more open minded,” said Natalie Pine, partner at Briaud Financial Advisors.

It is most common for firms to hold retreats with partners or owners each year, where they establish plans or goals for growth and discuss overarching human resource concerns.

Briaud hosts off-site retreats for management to plan strategically for the College Station, Texas-based firm. At their last retreat, the three partners focused on how to staff each client relationship and the roles each of the partners would play as the firm grows.

They slowly are presenting their decisions to their whole staff of 13 at weekly meetings, rather than having the entire team attend the retreat.

“The downside of having a retreat with the whole firm is that it would be hard to say no in front of everyone if someone presents something that we are not going to pursue,” Ms. Pine said.

Retreats also can get pricey. The cost of hosting them depends on the number of attendees, location of the venue, length of the meeting, meals, whether there are paid speakers/facilitators and whether entertainment is incorporated into the event.

“Some firms do it un-expensively and others lavishly; it depends on the culture of the firm,” said Joseph Tarasco, a facilitator who runs Partner Retreat Facilitation.

Figure on $1,000 a person on the low end, he said.

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Briaud uses outside facilitators — which can cost $10,000 to $20,000 per meeting — to guide the conversations and, importantly, to cut people off who are going on too long. Even though incorporating facilitators can get expensive, the firm always uses them because it has garnered the richest results from meetings where a good facilitator has challenged the owners and kept everyone focused on the real issues, Ms. Pine said.

During the annual retreat for Chicago-based RMB Capital, the partners typically discuss plans for organic and inorganic growth, human resources issues, firm culture and other such issues, said Frederick Paulman, the firm's co-founder and president. RMB's chief operating officer sets the agenda and leads the meeting. But retreats aren't all about business.

RMB's meeting of its seven partners in Indiana each summer incorporates about a day of business with one social day, usually golf.

“It's important for the partners to have time away together that's not business focused,” Mr. Paulman said. “I want to know what's going on with them and their family.”

The location where a retreat is hosted isn't the important part, advisers said. Being away from the office is the key.

But partner retreats should only last a day or two at most, because people are “just done” by the end of day two, Mr. Tarasco said.

The time away is worth it. Retreats allow professionals who work hectically all year to reflect on the past and plan for the future, he said.

“It also gives everyone an opportunity to speak their mind,” Mr. Tarasco said.

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Some firms do gather the full staff together for an annual business meeting, but those events are typically used to explain company-wide initiatives and build culture. At firms with employees spread around the country, regular retreats can be even more important.

RMB brings all of its 115 people and their spouses together annually for a December holiday party in Chicago. The firm uses the day of that evening occasion to meet with its employees as a group to discuss company business. It's really the only time that everyone from the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Denver, and Washington, D.C., offices are together with the Chicago office during the year, he said.

At that meeting, three employees whom RMB chief executive Dick Burridge secretly selects ahead of time share their “story.” Each takes about 15 minutes to describe their lives, how they landed at RMB and why the firm's culture has been a fit for them.

“Those are really the highlight of the meeting,” Mr. Paulman said. “It's very special what people share.”

Not all advisory firms believe it's necessary to go off-site to gather their owners in a formal retreat.

At Moisand Fitzgerald Tamayo, the firm's partners have strategic planning sessions in their conference room and don't use facilitators, said Dan Moisand, a principal of the Orlando-based advisory firm.

His 12-person firm also hasn't hosted a company-wide retreat, but they meet regularly as a group and “feel well bonded,” Mr. Moisand said.

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