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April 1993

A "retreat" - a way to advance.

by Weinstein, Stephen

    Abstract- Partners and owners of accountancy firms may need to take a retreat in order to address current and future challenges. A retreat is a planned meeting held away from the business setting once or twice every year. The opportunity to escape daily work interruptions, and the need for a more open communication and a longer period of time are all valid reasons for choosing a retreat setting for business discussions and resolutions. During such meetings, outside consultants may be hired to act as facilitators and handle administrative duties. A recorder, firm administrator and outside specialists may also be invited. The most important aspect of a retreat, however, is the follow-up stage wherein agreed-upon actions are implemented after the meeting. Failure to take actions usually result to demotivation. Evaluation of possible locations and timing of retreats are discussed and a follow-up action list included.

A retreat provides the opportunity for a firm to address its problems and goals as if it were its own client. The author shows how to plan, implement, and monitor this important firm function. The follow-up of the action plan developed will determine the success of the retreat.

Many local firms are struggling from the effects of the recession. Cash flow, owners' reduced incomes, and concerns over litigation are just a few of the bothersome issues facing many firms. As a result, owners are focusing primarily on short-term matters and forgetting their firms' long-term direction and plans.

"Survival of the fittest" describes the environment CPA firms are facing in the 1990s. The firms that have people who have outstanding personalities and skills, and can provide the right mix of services at the right price, will be survivors. Others will break up, merge, or see a decrease in profits.

The decisions made today greatly affect a firm's potential for future success or failure. The emphasis placed on reducing current costs without regard for how these decisions impact on the future can produce devastating results.

A classic example of this type of short-term thinking involves the decision made by many local firms to hire less or even no entry level staff. Unfortunately, because so few graduates will get jobs in public accounting during the early 1990s, the long range effect of this decision will be an unbelievable shortage of senior level accountants by the mid 1990's. This shortage will produce a far worse hiring market than the one experienced during the mid/late 1980s.

How can a firm properly prepare itself to be a "survivor" in the 1990s?

Owners need to stop running long enough to focus on their firm as if it were a cherished client. They need to allocate at least a day away from the office to take a close look at the challenges they are facing today and those likely to exist in the future.

The Retreat and Planning

The word retreat conjures up a variety of images, such as a place people go to get away from it all, to explore religious, spiritual, marriage or family issues. For a sole proprietor, or group of partners, the word retreat is used to describe a planned meeting attended by owners, generally held away from the office, in a variety of possible settings. The purpose and format of the meeting can vary considerably. Typically, the retreat focuses on significant issues currently facing the firm and those that have long-range significance.

Retreats are necessary because CPA's regularly dealing with daily problems, phone calls, and other interruptions cannot clear their heads to effectively discuss firm issues during the workday or after work hours when they are tired. In addition, many retreat topics require an extensive amount of time for discussion and resolution. Also, the relaxed atmosphere of a retreat setting tends to reduce tension and fosters more cordial discussions and communication.

Are there significant issues that clearly must be discussed and resolved? For example, communications among the principals may have deteriorated to such a point, due to personality or financial differences, that the firm must use the retreat to "air out" and resolve these differences. Alternatively, if there is no one clearly critical issue, each owner should be asked for input on what he or she feels are the firm's most critical short-term and long-term issues, concerns and problems. If possible, this input should be obtained in writing. Finally, the specific objectives of the retreat, and list of topics to be discussed, should be approved by all owners.

Who Should Attend And Who Should Run The Meeting?

Based on a clarification of the issues, objectives and topics, the principals should consider whether any non-owners should attend. The major question is whether to utilize an outside consultant as the "facilitator."

An outside facilitator can help plan the retreat. This might include obtaining confidential input regarding issues, problems, and topics directly from each principal and then, by utilizing this input, drafting the appropriate list of objectives and an agenda. For an example of a planning checklist see Exhibit 1. In addition, the format, location, and a variety of other administrative matters will often benefit from the consultant's experience and advice. One of the owners should play this facilitator role if a consultant is not utilized.

The facilitator usually runs the meeting. The facilitator will assure everyone participates, the discussion stays on the topic, the agenda's timetable is closely maintained, and the retreat's objectives are met.

Someone must play the role of recorder at a retreat. This consists of two TABULAR DATA OMITTED separate but related activities. One is to record important comments, ideas, etc., on a flip chart or other visual aid and/or take minutes of the discussion. The recorder should also prepare throughout the discussion a retreat follow-up or action list. This list would show the action step, the person assigned to complete the step, and the date it is to be completed. This list is very important and should be reviewed and approved at the end of the meeting.

A sole proprietor can benefit significantly from a retreat. He or she would require the services of a consultant or other third party since a retreat by its nature needs another person to help explore the issues, etc. Alternatively, two or more non-competing sole proprietors can play off one another at a retreat. Ideally, these sole proprietors would be practicing in different geographical areas.

Other participants, in addition to owners and a consultant, might be invited to attend all or part of the retreat depending on the firm and the agenda topics. For example, managers might attend, particularly if their input and support would be useful regarding an issue (e.g., a firm's new client service approach/program). Also, many larger firms have a firm administrator. His/her attendance might also be appropriate, particularly if administrative issues are a major topic.

Finally, if a technical or special issue is a key topic, an outside specialist might be asked to attend (e.g., a computer specialist or marketing professional).

Where And When To Have This Meeting?

The timing and location of a retreat are very important. To be successful, the participants should be relaxed and comfortable. The date of the retreat should be set far in advance to allow it to be properly planned. Also, time of year should be carefully evaluated to assure that follow-up actions can be completed on a timely basis.

The following alternatives exist concerning the location of the retreat:

* The firm's office;

* A nearby hotel/motel's meeting room;

* One of the participant's homes or vacation home;

* A quiet inn or facility located in a relaxing environment;

* A full service facility such as a conference center; or

* A resort facility.

Cost considerations, the nature of the topics, the need for enhancing the camaraderie and communications of the group, and the length of the meeting, all affect the decision regarding location.

Over the years, I have run retreats in each of these types of settings, and all have had generally positive results. However, I do prefer a setting that enhances the opportunity for success. Specifically, I recommend a casual, comfortable facility located out of town but within an hour's drive of the firm's office.

Everyone can dress in comfortable attire. The meeting room should be large enough and have windows and comfortable chairs. A conference table is not necessary, but might be suitable, especially for a larger group. Ideally, food service should be provided or easily available.

The timing of the retreat is extremely important. Since it takes about a month to adequately plan for a retreat and most CPA firms are quite busy through April 15th, the period from late May to early October is typically the prime period to hold this meeting. Try to avoid the period from late October through January because most firms tend to be too focused on year-end tax and other planning matters. Additionally, follow-up actions often do not get implemented at that time of the year. The period from late May through June 30th is ideal. Having a retreat at this time maximizes the potential for effective follow-up action.

Another issue involves the decision of whether to do an overnight retreat. Firms that want to minimize the cost should hold a one-day retreat, which would eliminate the cost of overnight lodging. The retreat might start with a continental breakfast at 8:00 a.m. and end at 5:30 p.m., possibly followed by dinner.

For the overnight retreat, participants would typically arrive late in the afternoon, get settled, have some casual time together over cocktails and dinner and then have a short two hour meeting focused on one topic. The next day's retreat would run similar to the one day retreat previously described.

The advantage of the overnight retreat is that it tends to provide a more relaxing environment and fosters participants' communications. This is particularly important if inter-owner communication problems exist.

Firms that extend retreats to more than one overnight, usually build in some recreation time and/or some team building or group activities.

The timing, duration, and location issues should be carefully evaluated and discussed. Cost considerations must not always overshadow the important benefits associated with improving the group's communications, morale, etc.

Principals should not hold a retreat on a weekend or holiday to avoid losing a productive billable day. If the owners can't recognize the value of treating their firm as important enough to devote one day to it, this attitude will likely impede the firm's success. Furthermore, it is likely that utilizing a weekend day will produce a negative attitude by one or more participants and their families.

Implementation and Monitoring

Many what appear to be productive TABULAR DATA OMITTED retreats can often end up being counter-productive. This happens where follow-up actions are not completed. Individuals begin to feel angry that certain other people did not perform agreed upon actions. Others become disillusioned and think the retreat was a waste of time.

Good retreats tend to "pump people up." They feel more motivated, directed, and team oriented. Accordingly, if the follow up fails to occur, this letdown can produce a totally opposite mood.

To maximize the value of the retreat, the following steps are critical.

Produce Follow-up Action List. A comprehensive follow-up action list along with a set of minutes must be produced soon after the retreat. Some firms also produce separate follow-up lists by person so that each individual receives their own action list.

Monitor Follow-up Actions. Someone must be responsible for monitoring the follow-up actions on a regular basis. In smaller firms, principals should review the retreat follow-up action list at their monthly meetings. Peer pressure should be utilized to encourage performance, and/or one component of partner compensation can be tied to the performance of goals including retreat action steps.

Some firms occasionally utilize an outside consultant to perform specific action steps or to act as the outside inquisitor periodically asking people what they have done.

Alternatively, sole proprietors could meet monthly or quarterly to remind each other to perform the agreed upon procedures.

Benefits Outweigh Costs

Retreats should be an annual or semi-annual event in every firm. In the highly competitive and stressful environment of the 1990's, it is absolutely imperative for owners to get together, out of the office to--

* Look ahead and take the time to do some longer range planning;

* Solve a specific problem or issue;

* Strengthen owners' communications and/or understanding of each other;

* Enhance the "one firm" team feeling; and

* Improve motivation/morale of owners and staff.

The objectives, formats, timing, etc., may vary considerably from firm to firm or year to year. The important thing is to get the owners to devote adequate time to focus on themselves.

Retreats can be expensive both in terms of out-of-pocket costs and in lost billing time. It is extremely important to assure they are adequately planned and properly run, and that follow-up actions are effectively monitored and implemented. The benefits of a successful retreat far outweigh all costs.

Stephen Weinstein, CPA, of Guilford, CT, is a consultant and advisor to CPA and other professional firms. He conducts retreats for many of these firms each year and is a frequent speaker at MAP conferences.

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