By Glenn Gutek, Senior Practice Advisor
Herman’s Hermits had a humorous song entitled, I Am Henry VIII I AM. The song is about someone named Henry who marries the widow next door. This widow was previously married to seven other men named Henry. The main point of the entire song is summarized in a little phrase that comes between the first and second verse. “Second verse, same as the first.”
A law firm, large or very small, will become like the next Henry. It will buy into the deadly assumption that next year will be like last year, which was like the year before. “Second verse, same as the first.” If there is one thing we have learned from the past year is that; in the life of any business there are forces that work on the business that tell you business as usual will not work.
The system and practice and regular firm retreats allow you to gather key players, get in a helicopter, hover above your day-to-day operations, survey the external landscape in the marketplace and plan your internal strategy for conquering new territory. Firm retreats will protect you from becoming the widow’s next Henry.
The primary objections to firm retreats typically revolve around time, money and attitude. “We are too busy to take a day or two and not get any work done.” If that objection does not stop a retreat dead in its tracks someone will say, “right now cash flow is way too tight for us to spend money on a frivolous retreat.” Finally, in many firms there is one person who may be quietly thinking, “I am not sure I want to be shut up in a room with these people for a day.” No matter what the objections are, they point to the very need for a retreat of some sort.
If you don’t have time to work on your business, the value of a retreat could prompt your team to examine how to improve the efficiency of production. Looking at your systems can produce greater clarity on client selection, work flow and client services. A failure to get in the helicopter will promote the continuance of the same inefficient work process. “Second verse, same as the first.”
If cash flow is your objection, then when do you intend to gather the right people around the table asking the right set of questions to move beyond this dilemma? Have you recently gathered your “braintrust” together to examine services that have been commoditized, or where your most profitable work is coming from? In light of ongoing cash flow challenges you must ask big questions and explore options or the problem will continue. “Second verse, same as the first.”
The real truth of why many firms avoid retreats the way my children hate going to the dentist, is because of the perception it will be too painful. Many do not like sitting in a room for eight hours where they are not in control. The other painful reality is that often there are “unspoken” frustrations with team members or partners they want to avoid addressing. One attorney told me in advance of a retreat, “I am afraid of what I might say.” Is the solution to this reality to keep sweeping frustration under the carpet? Do we honestly believe that these frustrations will magically go away? Consider some retreats as a romantic get-a-way with your partners where you go and work on your partnership for the purpose of improving the health of the firm. If this does not happen, your firm could be the widow’s next Henry. “Second verse, same as the first.”
OK, Now What?
If you have been convinced that the regular practice of taking retreats is something you need to build into your firm, there are many logistical questions that arise.
- Do we go onsite or offsite?
- Facilitate ourselves, or bring in a facilitator?
- Who needs to be around the table?
- Do we build in play or get right to work?
- What about spouses?
- One day or two?
- Over a weekend or during the week?
- How do we determine what must be on the agenda?
- Burger King, McDonalds or Taco Bell?
What I would like to accomplish here is to help you think systematically about firm retreats.
The end result of any retreat should be a clear action plan with roles, assignments and timelines. If you are putting together a three year plan, your retreat should be complete with a document that articulates the goals and objectives for the next three plans. If you want to improve your productivity, you may leave the retreat with a flow chart or process checklist. No matter what the purpose of the retreat, you want to be sure to leave the room with a document that maps out what is happening next.
Much of the process of designing and completing a firm retreat is shaped by the questions that we will address in the Atticus® Graduate Network Call. What I will offer here is a brief outline of a step by step process for thinking about a retreat. Before I map that process, I would suggest that you think of your retreat system in a larger way than just an event. Think about it as a larger process. Many of the firms I work with build their retreat into their calendar every year, with quarterly reviews in their partner meetings. Some firms have their retreats in a two year cycle. Every other year the partners get away for an extended three day meeting. During the off year they do a more casual retreat and include spouses, with a brief meeting that covers the “State of the Firm.” The point here would be to think about it as a system.
- Step 1. Diagnose the needs of the firm!
- Step 2. Craft a firm retreat purpose statement.
- Step 3. Design an agenda that allows you to focus exclusively on crucial issues.
- Step 4. Produce a document that captures critical actions to take.
- Step 5. Establish an interim meeting to monitor results.
May the primary input that drives your willingness to work on the practice (not just in it) be that you do not want your firm to be the next Henry. Your desire to see your firm succeed, to grow the profits of the practice and to enjoy leading colleagues into the future should be the primary input for making this crucial investment.
In this competitive marketplace you know that “second verse, same as the first” thinking will determine the tragic fate of your firm. It may be time, and it may be necessary, to overcome all objections and retreat.
Firm retreat information can be found here.