Rethink your 2020 partner retreat with coronavirus in mind

Accounting

There is not a person in business today who thinks we will come out of this COVID-19 crisis as we were before. We all recognize that as we slowly bring our economy back it will be through a “new normal,” and whether that “new normal” is a bridge to the “old normal” or a pathway to a new “business model” is anyone’s guess. Regardless, every firm needs to think about what their annual partner retreat should focus on and why it needs to be different than any in the past.

To begin with, you might want to consider holding the retreat by Zoom while partners are uneasy about gathering in big groups before a vaccine is available.

Every firm and many businesses are going through a crisis like none that anyone could foresee, or one that any of us have had to ever navigate before. There are and will be tons of articles and even books written about this crisis and how it will change every business forever — we just don’t know what that means. What we can say with certainty is those firms and firm leaders who acknowledge there will be a “new normal” and put forth the effort to create a successful roadmap to navigate the future will return to success quicker and more significantly than those firms and firm leadership who just react to what the “new normal” delivers. The question is do you want to respond to or react to this crisis?

It is clear that firm leadership is critical to how each firm will respond to and rebuild from this crisis. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy and neuroscientist Abhijit Naskar, in every crisis there is an opportunity, in this case an opportunity to become a better firm than you were before.

So, where do you start on this road to recovery? One critical place on that road is your annual partner retreat. So many firms hold annual partner retreats and talk about a bunch of things, make some good decisions about the future and then leave the retreat and it becomes business as usual.

What should be different about all 2020 partner retreats? There are a few things to consider as you plan your retreat.

First, appoint a team (or a single person if you have a smaller firm) to assess the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the firm (clients, partners, staff, systems, cash flow, financial impact, etc.). Firm leadership should review the output from this assessment to ensure understanding and agreement on the impacts. As part of the assessment, there should be input obtained from the broader firm, some key clients as well as key vendors and “centers of influence.”

If you’re in a larger firm, appoint five team leaders around the following major buckets: growth, profit, talent, leadership and organization. If you have a smaller firm, you can combine buckets into a structure that reflects your firm’s size.

Once the assessment is complete, the assessment team and firm leadership should review and discuss the output from the assessment and categorize each finding in the assessment into one of the five buckets above.

Assign each retreat participant to a specific team (growth, profit, talent, leadership or organization) based on their skills and ability to contribute. Let’s call these teams “Strategic Impact Teams.”

The retreat agenda should completely focus on the re-calibration of the firm to create a strategic roadmap to navigate from the “new normal” to the new business model. The agenda should include:

1. Review with all attendees in a fair amount of detail the assessment output including the thought process in terms of how each impact was categorized into the five buckets. It’s important to have a structured, comprehensive presentation on the assessment and the impacts identified and some Q&A with the entire group to get to a common understanding of the assessment output. If new impacts are defined based on this Q&A, add the impact to the appropriate bucket.

2. For the first breakout session, break into the five strategic impact teams and charge each team with evaluating the various impacts from the assessment, and add further points if the team believes there were additional impacts. Charge each team with developing a plan of action (with strategies) that the firm should implement to address the negative aspect of any of the impacts.

3. Bring everyone back together and have each team leader report the thinking of their team from the breakout session. Have a full group discussion and finalize the strategies to deal with the negative impacts.

4. For the second breakout session, the focus will shift to opportunities where each team will be charged with identifying opportunities that the firm should address going forward and what the strategies should be to successfully take advantage of each identified opportunity.

5. Repeat step 3.

6. For the third breakout session, the focus will shift to creating a high-level action plan that defines what major steps should be implemented in order to successfully execute each strategy.

7. Repeat step 3.

8. As a final step, the firm leader needs to clearly communicate what the expectations are post retreat.

To have a successful 2020 retreat, you will need to allocate three days to effectively implement the above agenda and to ensure that the output is a clear roadmap for the firm to move from the “new normal” to the “new business model”. Managing partners of every small and midsize firm need to champion this approach to the 2020 retreat, lead the way, and make the commitment to provide the leadership, training, coaching and support to everyone to ensure the successful execution of the retreat’s output.

It takes courage to face a crisis and to not let the crisis define you but to find the opportunities that every crisis presents. It may be the first time for many firm leaders and partners to challenge themselves to think outside the box. So many aspects of what we did, how we did it, what clients want and need, and what clients are willing and able to pay for, will require firm leadership and partners to think differently. Firms leaders should understand that the thinking post COVID-19 can’t be tweaking around the edges, but re-thinking most of what we have done for the past 50 years. Great leaders will define the future for their firms and lead the way to successfully navigating past COVID-19.

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