The Power of a Board Retreat

Apr 13, 2022

The first spring flowers are blooming here in Maryland, and the end of the school year approaches. It is time now for heads of schools and board chairs to be thinking about and planning for next year. Many schools choose to have a board retreat of some type in the summer or early fall to welcome new members, establish group expectations, and start the year. I applaud this practice. In my experience, boards that spend intentional time focusing on group dynamics, learning, and planning together are more successful, satisfied, and effective than those who do not pause their normal routine to address these topics. Board retreats, although sometimes daunting to prepare for, can have remarkable results in supporting and promoting the work of a board.

When structured well, Board retreats can accomplish a variety of goals. These include:

  1. Developing feelings of camaraderie and partnership among board members.
  2. Establishing groups norms, expectations, and behaviors that are agreed upon and upheld throughout the year.
  3. Providing board professional development.
  4. Establishing priorities and goals for the upcoming year.
  5. Establishing a calendar of board focus and activities.
  6. Enabling board members to feel a sense of purpose and direction that will lead to accomplishment.

Yet not all board retreats are created equally. Some schools try to merely extend a regularly scheduled board meeting by an hour or so, add more meeting topics, and call it a retreat. This rarely allows for the accomplishment of the above goals and rather, can make board members feel more stressed and overwhelmed. 

A better practice is to schedule a longer timeframe and incorporate the following elements:

Team-Building and Norm-Setting

In a recent Forbes article, Brian Scudamore wrote that “team building is the most important investment you can make for your people. It builds trust, mitigates conflict, encourages communication, and increases collaboration” (May 9, 2016). When you spend time allowing people to get to know each other and develop a shared vision and purpose, it provides the foundation and trust on which they will be able to work together.  Also, spending intentional time establishing group norms - expectations regarding how you will engage with one another and what behaviors you agree to uphold - sets the stage for a positive culture that is agreed upon by all.

Professional Development

Our independent school boards serve educational institutions that promote lifelong learning, and yet so often boards don’t prioritize their own education. Independent school governance is unlike most any other role in our everyday lives and asks us to engage in a different kind of leadership. There is much to learn about how best to govern a school. Scheduling sufficient time during a board retreat to engage in board professional development, and then following up that work with other opportunities for learning and practicing new governance skills will enable your board to grow in capabilities and be a more effective governing body.

Annual Planning and Goal-Setting

One of my favorite quotes is by Steve Maraboli who said “If you don’t know exactly where you are going, how will you know when you get there?” I am a big fan of explicit goal-setting - especially for boards. Yet, the most effective goal-setting takes time in order to fully consider data and options. When structured well, a board retreat is a great time for board members to consider all of the goals they may have for the school year and articulate them in ways that will be meaningful and achievable. The annual board goals will then, in turn, inform committee work and will help them establish committee goals. The next step is to create an annual calendar and schedule exactly when you will address topics and accomplish goals. 

Establish Committees

A board retreat can also be used to establish and even start committee work. When I was head of a school, our committees met for the first time during our board retreat. They reaffirmed their committee charges, established committee goals to support the accomplishment of our annual board goals, and decided upon meeting frequency and times. Committee members were always grateful to have this time together to kick off the year with clear expectations and a plan.

Some Things to Consider When Planning a Board Retreat

  1. Carefully consider timing. Make your retreat long enough to accomplish the above. I recommend at least a day-long retreat; more if possible! Schedule it as far in advance to accommodate board members’ busy schedules. Many boards have their retreats in the summer or early fall to begin the school year. Others hold retreats in the middle of the year. Whatever works best for your board members and will allow you to achieve your goals is fine!
  2. Make it special. Please do not merely extend a typical board meeting and call it a retreat. Hold your retreat in a special location (even if it is in a different place on your school campus), include special foods, and create a different pattern of the day with special activities.  These touches honor the fact that this retreat is an important aspect of board work and also helps board members to feel appreciated.
  3. Weave connections and norm-setting throughout the day. Plan for opportunities where board members can learn about one another in unique ways. Perhaps you can ask folks to sit with someone they don’t know well at lunch and give them some question prompts. Or you can create activities for breaks where people have to ask one another questions. Be creative! Additionally, plan for a time where you explicitly discuss group norms and agree upon behaviors you will all uphold. Examples include meeting attendance, arriving on time, cameras on when meeting virtually, etc. Establishing these expectations at the beginning, with everyone (or most) present, helps minimize problems and frustrations later. Make sure you share your agreements with those who are not present.
  4. Minimize regular business. Some regular updates and reports may be necessary at your board retreat. However, plan on spending most of your time during this gathering engaging in the activities that will enable you to be better governors throughout the year and that prepare you for regular board meetings. Again, make this a special, different kind of engagement. 
  5. Leave with clear goals and expectations. Articulate clearly what you have accomplished and what your plans are for achieving your annual goals. This will help board members to know what is expected of them throughout the year and will help enable them to leave the retreat with a sense of accomplishment.

With forethought and planning, board chairs and heads of schools can craft a meaningful retreat experience for their board members that sets them up to be connected, knowledgeable, focused, and engaged in the months to come. The time spent in a board retreat can be incredibly valuable and enable the continuing work of the board to be more effective, goal-oriented, and satisfying.

Are you interested in learning more about facilitating a board retreat? Contact me and we can schedule a time to talk!

Brooke Carroll is the principal consultant and coach of Acies Strategies and the author of the forthcoming book Governing the Small School: Strategies for Boards.

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