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Jimmy Choo-Like Strategic Planning on A StrideRite Budget

Earnings are up yet improving the bottom line is still receiving a lot of attention. Some boards are getting into the cost-savings act, too. And they're right to do it because of the duty of care and of being in a partnership with management; leaders don't say do this, but I'm exempt. Well, OK, sometimes they do, but I'm talking about credit unions here.

One of the cost-conserving areas is the annual board retreat. Most often the board retreat is for planning. But many credit unions use it for more than that. I for one believe that the level of planning the board should be on does not need annual retreat attention. Those elements can be discussed on occasion at board meetings. That assumes that the governance structure has delegated operational issues that no longer use up board meeting time.

The planning elements I refer to that do not need annual attention at a retreat are the vision and the core strategy. If these elements need annual attention or are affected by events or trends in the short-term, they're not broad and far-reaching enough.

What then should a board do at an annual retreat if not those planning elements? From the credit unions I have talked to over recent years, activities center around board development. As society and government expects more from boards, it is incumbent on boards to expand their capacities, to learn more about reading the financials for example, and become more proficient at making decisions that last decades.

The ideal retreat is held miles away from the business. The benefits are pretty well known: no business-related distractions, and the ability to focus on the future is easier in a different venue. Retreat distances vary from about an hour's drive to up to three hours from headquarters.

As a cost-saving measure, credit unions are either forgoing the retreat or staying home. What are the implications of staying home?

• There's a potential for greater absenteeism. Family members seem to feel it's perfectly fine to ask you to give up a day at the office while hesitating to get in the way of an out-of-town meeting. It takes a high-level crisis to keep the family members home from a retreat, too.

• More Interruptions. Employees of the managers involved in planning have less compunction to interrupt the boss who is just the other side of the door (but they'll act on their own when the boss is hours away from the building).

• Rapid Departures. Participants seem compelled to leave as soon as a local meeting is over, to get home to the family. At a retreat, folks linger more; more networking and bonding take place.

In spite of those benefits and implications, there simply may not be sufficient funds to hold a retreat or the will to invest the money this year.

When conducting a planning retreat at home, in the home office, or in the HQ city, here are tips to making it nearly as effective as a retreat:

1) Eliminate all sources of distractions. Participant volunteers and staff should ask their work associates and family members to treat your planning day as if you were a three-hour drive away. If there are issues you must communicate about, you'll call them on a break.

2) Be sure to bring into the planning room everything you will need.

3) Avoid bringing anything unrelated to the planning. Do not bring a board meeting packet to save postage. Don't bring the e-mail you were going to send; send it later.

4) Plan social time into the agenda. You can't make up for all the bonding and social-time gained at a real retreat, but it's valuable time spent.

5) Make your expectations clear: meetings start on time and cannot be assumed will end early; plan your lives around the meeting accordingly.

6) If you are meeting in your credit union, take the phone out of the planning room. Act as if you were able to unhook that room from the building and move it. Since you are a virtual three-hour drive away, participants will not cruise the office building or stop by someone's desk.

These ideas may seem extreme, but, have you decided that this year's planning and development efforts are any less important or critical? No, you are only meeting close to home because you don't want to spend the additional money for a retreat.

If it is also necessary to facilitate the process yourself, and not hire an outside facilitator, here are critical factors to consider:

The best facilitation is totally objective. Whoever leads your meetings cannot contribute. Your inside facilitators must act as if they have no dog in the hunt, no stake in the outcome, no ideas of their own.

Your facilitator does not present information. Keep the roles clear. (With or without a facilitator, I believe the information upon which plans take shape should be in the minds of the planners before the retreat starts.)

Go back to prior planning events and pick out the pre-planning work that makes the most sense for this year's planning. Add additional that also makes sense. Distribute instructions for completing that work and include a deadline for it to come in to be reported.

Dan Clark is a board governance and strategic planning consultant based in Tallahassee, Fla. He can be reached at dan@danclark.com or 850-559-7094.

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