Saturday, August 29, 2015

Jim McCutcheon

The author is CEO of HighGrove Partners in Atlanta.


Time to Retreat

Cover Feature: Winter Planning Guide

The team at HighGrove Partners needed to get away to get together.

December 4, 2013

Sixteen years ago I was very frustrated with our company’s performance. The team was not working together well, our work was not great, many clients were unhappy and we were not making money.

The old saying is that when you point a finger at someone there are three pointing back at you. We needed drastic change and it had to start with me. What I was doing was not working. I began to develop a new vision and strategy and it was going to be kicked off with a serious look at our team.

I told everyone we were leaving town for a couple of days and that we were going to air out a lot of issues. It was not a happy crowd that I found in the parking lot on departure day. I still remember one holding his pillow under his arm as he pouted.

There were eight people in that first meeting and we jumped into the issues quickly. Being out of town allowed for serious focus and few distractions. The two days turned out to be wonderful and created a great starting point to building a strong company. The retreat was born – even though we didn’t call it that back then.

HighGrove Partners has organized an annual retreat every year since and it is an extremely important part of our culture. We will always go no matter what type of year we are having. It is that important for us. Here are some questions that I typically get about the event:

Who goes?

We take everyone except the field teams. We identify six to eight up-and-coming crew leaders to join us as well. This means we will have approximately 50 people. We will also have about six to 10 sponsors attending.

When do you go?

The retreat takes place in August. There is still a lot of work going on at that time of year but it bridges the long, hot summer and the beginning of fall. I always joke that it is about an hour and a half before everyone is ready to strangle each other.

Where do you go?

There are several resorts within a couple of hours of Atlanta. We try to find places with accommodations that don’t require us to be in a big hotel building.

How do you pay for it?

We have very generous sponsors that look forward to being involved in the event. They are there with us for all the work and fun. They build great relationships with our folks. The funds from the sponsorships pay about two-thirds of the cost.

What is the schedule like?

We typically arrive on a Thursday and work from 1-5 p.m. On Friday, we work in the morning until 1 p.m. and then the afternoon is for fun – either structured team building activities or free time for all. Saturday, we work until 11 a.m., give raffle prizes and everyone heads home.

What do you focus on?

We make sure that we are very strategic in these meetings. Some years we have a speaker for one session and others we may have someone facilitate the entire event depending on the focus. Themes have ranged from “What will HighGrove look like in 2029?” to “Fundamental building blocks for success.” It is really dependent upon what is needed to continue to drive our vision.

The last couple of years we have had one day focused on the individual and another on the company. For the individual days we have had a fitness trainer come in to discuss diet and exercise (we have subsequently started a fitness program in the company with his help) and had a financial expert come in to talk about personal finance.

This year has been a particularly challenging year with weather and the team was worn out.

We developed a fake agenda for Friday morning along with breakout teams and assigned seating. It consisted of some of the most boring things to focus on. After about 15 minutes the ruse was revealed and we surprised everyone by loading them on a bus for a day of fun. We went to an arcade with bowling and go-carts, then off to a state park and finally to a local winery for a tasting. You can bet that was a day they will remember.

Team building.

We have developed many traditions over the years and this has a lot to do with the culture building. Some examples:

1. Rookies. All new employees since the last retreat are considered rookies. They are required to sing a HighGrove song on Friday night. The theme for the rookies and tune for the song are determined secretly by the previous year’s rookie class.

These are unveiled at the end of Thursday’s meeting and we have had some really funny choices (Flintstones, Duck Dynasty, etc.) The rookies will then wear their costumes for the rest of the retreat (including meals at the resort restaurant) and begin working on the words and dance for their song.

They get to have fun too.Since they have to humiliate themselves, they get absolute freedom to take verbal shots at anyone and everyone in the song they sing.

2. Friday night is Band Night. We have several members of the company that have formed an excellent rock band. It is quite a party and we have been shut down by security more than once. It turns into quite a late night, so Saturday’s meeting starts a little later.

There have been many other examples over the years. Some continue every year and some come and go. It is these types of things that have given the retreat a life of its own.

While the HighGrove Retreat has evolved over the years it started out very simply. It is really not important as to how you do it or what you focus on or where you go. What is important is that you do it!

The team that arrives on that first day is worn out and, in some cases, not working together like they should. By the time this event is over, we have a team that is reenergized, focused and ready to take on challenges and opportunities that will lead us to success.

For owners and senior leaders, this provides you an opportunity to really get to know your team on a personal level and vice versa. Culture is critical to the success of any company. You invest in vehicles and equipment regularly. Why not invest in your most important resources, your team?


The author is CEO of HighGrove Partners in Atlanta.

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