Firms who are serious about growth have several strategies in common. First, they take a strategic approach to planning and place a higher value on management. Second, they take the time to think about where they want to go and how they will get there. Third, they assess their firm’s dangers, opportunities, and strengths to focus on eliminating or reducing threats, making opportunities a priority, and leveraging strengths. The best firms host a “Firm Summit” to address all of the above.
Why a “Firm Summit” and not a “retreat?”
“Retreat” implies that you are looking to the past and moving backward. “Firm Summit,” on the other hand, suggests a more ambitious approach—one that incorporates a broader participation base that will distinguish your firm from its competition. The purpose of a Firm Summit is to bring leaders and members together along with outside expertise and facilitation to initiate strategies for significant growth.
Most firms spend too little time working on the firm and too much time working in the firm, especially where governance is less defined. In those firms, everyone in a position of authority believes they are too busy to lead—so little growth happens. Too often, firms put the same people in a room year after year, hold a retreat, and call it good. But you can’t expect exciting and revolutionary results using this formula. Accountability is the key to increased success. Who holds the partners accountable in your firm after your retreat? It takes a process, not a slogan, to ensure accountability and success.
Break out of the CPA mold
Now is the time to change your format, make these meetings fun, and create some excitement. If you don’t know how, ask your spouse! The following suggestions will improve your Firm Summit’s results and make it a more enjoyable experience.
· Select a relaxing venue away from the office
Get people out of their daily routine. Meetings at the office just don’t work. There are too many interruptions, and participants have trouble focusing on strategic thoughts. Choose an out of town location—preferably a resort—so there are leisure activities available.
· Encourage participation
Be inclusive rather than exclusive—fresh ideas and “new blood” should be welcomed. Larger firms generally utilize a task force representative of the firm. Management’s participation is also a must.
· Use a professional facilitator
Use an experienced facilitator to keep participants focused on the agenda. It is difficult, if not impossible, to facilitate your own Firm Summit. Most firms have partners who quickly turn tactical rather than strategic. A good facilitator will keep them from going off on tangents and diluting the focus of the meeting. You might be surprised at how focused participants become when an outsider is involved. Using a professional facilitator also ensures the Firm Summit will happen as scheduled.
· Start with a positive focus exercise
Take time to celebrate and be grateful for your successes. This activity requires mere minutes but is often overlooked. Take a little time to reflect on the most positive events during the past year, why they were important, and whether they need follow-up. Better decisions result when participants feel confident and positive.
· Work from an agenda and stay on time
Don’t surprise participants. Solicit agenda items in advance and distribute an agenda with meeting materials. Do your homework before the meeting. Keep each item strategic and stay on time.
· Avoid the numbers, stick to the concepts
Force participants to think of the big picture. The tendency is to focus on tactical rather than strategic issues. Tell participants up front to avoid restraints such as budget and time. It pays to dream. You will find the time and budget for great ideas and strategies. The chances of identifying great ideas and strategies are greatly diminished when you start with the premise, “We can’t afford that.” Think in terms of “who can pull this off” or “who do we know that can help us?”
· Keep minutes and share with the entire firm
Document the “who” and “what.” Accountability is essential, and minutes help you avoid conflicts later on while keeping participants focused. They also can be a valuable resource in years to come.
· Think strategically rather than tactically
Utilize your agenda to avoid tactical discussions. Also, highlight the benefits of strategic thinking when you announce the Firm Summit and again at the beginning of your session. An experienced external facilitator is especially helpful in maintaining focus on the “big picture” and providing references to best practices from leading firms and companies. Don’t be afraid to think 10X; it provides better opportunities, solutions, and excitement.
· Take breaks of 10-15 minutes every hour
People need time to move around and interact. Strategic thinking is hard work. Most people and organizations avoid it simply for that reason. A good rule is to work for 45 minutes and break for 15.
· Mix the sessions in with activities such as golf, tennis or boating
Plan for social events and make a special effort to include those who are more introverted. Team activities such as a scramble in golf are fun and allow those with less skill to participate and still enjoy the event. Every firm outing needs a driver for the “beer cart.
· Invite outsiders such as experts or even clients
Outsiders bring a fresh perspective and generally command respect. Don’t expect them to provide answers to all of your problems. You should expect them to have opinions and ask penetrating questions.
· Name task forces for follow-up with a responsible person and due date
Each person must be held accountable for his or her part. Allow those responsible an opportunity to agree upon due dates, increasing the likelihood of each project’s timely completion. This is all part of leveraging your firm’s resources.
· Conclude the Firm Summit with a brief statement from all participants
Take a few minutes at the end of the Firm Summit to allow all participants an opportunity to voice their perspectives. What was the most valuable aspect of the meeting? What changes would they like to see in the future?
· Create a One-Page Laminated Game Plan
A one-page laminated game plan is critical to success. It allows you to easily communicate vision to members inside the firm as well as to stakeholders outside the firm. Include your firm’s vision, mission, and core values on one side. On the other side, list strategic initiatives and measurement methods, critical steps, due dates, and responsibilities. No one throws away a laminated document. Review it frequently and hold people accountable, because many firms have great ideas—but few execute.
· 90-Day Game Plans and Accountability Reviews
Each partner and manager should develop a personal 90-Day Game Plan in support of the firm’s strategic plan. At the end of 90 days, an Accountability Review should be held for each partner and manager. No more than five people should report to any one individual. You will find this process reduces management time and forces people to focus on priorities. Underperformers will be immediately identified and should receive special coaching or be terminated.
Firm Summits can be productive and fun! Thoughtful planning, facilitation, and location contribute to their value. Delegate the planning if it’s not your unique ability. Every firm has or should have a social chairperson. Give that person a reasonable budget. Don’t wait—schedule your Firm Summit today!