TEN THINGS: HOW TO PLAN A LEGAL DEPARTMENT OFFSITE
A common tool used by businesses to develop strategy, refine plans, set goals, energize the team, enhance teamwork and cooperation is the offsite, i.e., where a group in the business goes “off site” to meet as a team for one or several days in remote location. Some offsites can be elaborate affairs involving hundreds of people at a 5-star resort with “name” guest speakers and entertainment. Others are small – just a conference room at a local hotel with a handful of executives and some white boards. Successful offsites of any size have one thing in common: they require a lot of planning to pull off.
While the business side of the house uses the “offsite” tool frequently, many legal departments do not. This might be because of budget constraints, logistical issues (i.e., all the lawyers are gone?!), or just lack of a good reason to host one. None of these are a good excuse for not hosting a legal department offsite on a regular basis, i.e., every year or every other year. A legal department offsite is a valuable tool and if utilized correctly can bring big benefits to the department and the company. I have planned several legal department offsites and, for the most part, they were very successful – though there were things I would “do differently” at the next opportunity. The edition of “Ten Things” discusses how to plan and host a successful legal department offsite:
1. Planning/Setting the agenda. An offsite will be as successful as the amount of planning that went into it. It is not something you can toss together at the last minute, or even the last “month.” You need to start the planning at least several months before the offsite is scheduled to happen. First on the list is “what do you hope to accomplish by hosting an offsite?” Once you know the goal(s), you can start to put the pieces together, including how many days you want to dedicate to it. You also might consider whether to hire a third-party planner/facilitator. There may be times when a third-party is the right way to go, but for today’s purposes I am assuming you want to plan the offsite within the legal department. Here are the three key things you need to decide up front:
- What is your goal? Is it to inspire the team, energize them, get buy in on the company’s business strategy and plan how the legal department can help? Is it a potential reorganization, to build teamwork and cooperation across the department, or go through the results of a survey? Maybe it’s all of these or something else entirely. Potential goals are only limited by your department’s situation and your imagination. Your offsite can focus one, two, or several things but it’s important to have clarity upfront on what you are trying to accomplish. Regardless of the goal, all offsites need time built in to i) reflect on the past, ii) discuss the present, and iii) plan for the future.
- Where/When? Where to host your offsite depends primarily on budget issues. If you have the money, host it truly “off site,” i.e., everyone away from the office. It can be at a hotel in town or out-of-town, but the further away from the office, the better in terms of getting people to focus on the mission at hand. If, however, you have a number of people who have never been to HDQ, then hosting an offsite there can have a lot of positive benefits, e.g., giving those people a chance to visit the home office and a chance to see and be seen by people they may only know by phone. Hosting an offsite at or near HDQ will also give you better access to company leaders who can make the trip down the hall or across town a lot easier than flying to a different state. As to “when,” my advice is to schedule it in the first quarter of the year because i) you are still in the “planning” and “goals” stage to some extent (and feedback from the prior year is fresh) and ii) the offsite is less likely to get canceled because of budget issues, i.e., as you near year-end you are more likely to get the cut back on “unnecessary spend” message. You will also want to plan early enough so that the dates are open for everyone. Regardless, it may will be impossible to find a date that works for everyone for some reason (big transaction, trial, etc.). Do the best you can to make it work for the most people.
- Who attends. This depends to some extent on the size of the department. If your department is small and you do not include everyone, there may be some bruised feelings. If your department is big, it may not be practical to include everyone, especially if travel for all is involved. An alternative is to include everyone, but host special breakout sessions for certain groups, e.g., just lawyers, or just section leaders, and so forth. Who attends also depends on your goals and agenda (along with the size and politics of the department). Consider if anyone outside the department should attend. You may want speakers from the business or outside the company, or you may want other professionals in the company who support the department to attend (e.g., HR, Finance, tech support). As to the latter, building those intra-company relationships can pay-off down the road when it comes to budget issues, hiring and salary needs, tech support, etc.
2. Delegate. As you develop the plans for your offsite, keep one crucial thing in mind – delegate as much of the work as possible. Find someone senior in the department and ask them to “run” the offsite and be in charge of planning and execution, much like a Chief Operating Officer. If you’re not the person in charge of the department, look at this as an opportunity to volunteer for something big and visible. Delegation will give your team a chance to learn valuable skills and show you what they can do (or can’t do). In turn, they should look to delegate tasks as well, as delegation is an important skill to develop and practice. Additionally, create an offsite “cabinet” made up of different attendees across the legal department (different countries, lawyers, paralegals, etc.) to give feedback, help plan, and execute the offsite. Consider getting input from everyone attending on subjects for discussion and on things to do. You can delegate this to your managers or via a survey. All of this will help ensure that the offsite is vetted from different viewpoints and it does not become solely the vision of what one person thinks is important or interesting. When everyone has input or a chance for input, there is more excitement about the offsite and more interest generally.
3. Logistics. A key part of a successful offsite is planning the logistics. Start with your budget and go from there. At a minimum, here some things you’ll need to focus on:
- Travel planning. Flights, hotel, ground transportation, and any special needs/accessibility issues. Do you have a guest speaker and any special travel needs for them? How will you handle payment (one big bill or everyone pays their own and then seeks reimbursement)?
- Meeting room. Will you need just one room or multiple rooms? Do you need a breakout room or work room(s), a place for meals?
- Food and beverages. What food and beverages do you want? Which meals are covered at meeting (breakfast? Lunch? Dinner?) Any snacks? How often are beverages in the room replaced? Any special dietary needs?
- Equipment/Supplies. Audio visual equipment, Internet access, extension cords, multi-outlet strips, white boards, office supplies (pens, markers, paper, flipcharts, post-its, tape, stapler), speaker phone, microphone, screens, podium, printers, etc.
- The room. Seating arrangements/set up of room. Remember that how the room is set up will foster discussion or turn everything into a lecture.
4. Company resources. The first offsite I planned, we did everything ourselves within the legal department. Later, while attending an offsite for one of the business units I asked how they put everything together (it was fairly elaborate). They told me that they used the company’s dedicated events planning team. Wow, I thought, how did I miss that? From then on I always checked to see what resources the company had available to help plan offsites. For example, a travel department or dedicated travel agent can handle the travel arrangements for large groups and have or can negotiate discounts on flights and hotel rooms (and other things). Also check to see if there are resources that can help you with programming. Our HR department had professionals on staff who could lead teambuilding and other exercises, and provide books and other materials, including assessments and surveys. Be sure to ask around the company about what resources already exist and are available to you.
5. Programming. Once you know your offsite goals and the schedule (i.e., how many hours, days, etc.) you can start to build the actual program. This is your opportunity to come up with engaging topics that advance your goals. Remember, an offsite is a rare chance to get everyone together to discuss issues and ideas important to the legal department, so don’t make your offsite seven hours of back-to-back “PowerPoint” droning. Think about ways to break up the day, either through different speakers and topics or activities. Be sure to build in plenty of breaks, especially if you have a “no smart phone” policy” as people will be anxious to check their email and messages. More breaks also means people will not get tired as easily and will stay more engaged. Start at a reasonable hour (e.g. 9:00 am) and have the last presentation of the day end by 3 or 4 pm. Don’t go all the way to 5 or 6 pm as that last hour will feel like 20 to everyone attending. If you want to talk about company strategy, invite leaders from the business to present on key company initiatives. Ask them to tell the audience what the legal department can do to help the company reach the goals and to pass along any constructive criticism of Legal. Similarly, you might wish to have members of the legal department present on key issues or facets of the department that may not get that much attention. At one offsite, our head of government affairs discussed what they do and “how things work” in Washington. It turned out to be one of the best attended and most liked programs we offered. Outside counsel are a good source for speakers, especially if their presentation involves a transaction, lawsuit, regulation, or other legal issue that directly impacts the company. Finally, if you have some money to spend, a guest speaker can be a really good way to mix it up and make things more interesting. Whomever you engage as a speaker (in-side the company or outside) be sure to invite them to join the department for any social events that day. It’s a nice gesture and they will greatly appreciate it – even if they cannot attend.
A few more things to consider. If you want a debate to take place, e.g., whether you should you restructure the department, don’t expect everyone to magically speak up just because you’re at an offsite and you are encouraging open communication in the “trust tree.” The people who do not generally say a whole lot will not transform into spigots of insight just because you’re no longer at the office. One way to handle this is to assign people roles in advance. This takes pressure off of them as they are “playing the role” of advocate or Devil’s advocate vs. having to venture forth opinions in a manner they might not be comfortable with. Consider using a tool like “Poll Everywhere” which allows you to get instant feedback to poll questions from participants using their smart phone. The results can be projected on a screen and are anonymous, which encourages people to “speak up.” You can also use the tool to allow people to ask questions anonymously on screen as well – which may encourage the shyer ones to speak up. It’s free for up to 25 participants and inexpensive for levels above that.
6. Social time/Teambuilding. Almost all offsites incorporate some type of teambuilding exercise and social time. Both are as important as a discussion about how to better deliver services in a global company. You may wish to have a more “formal” teambuilding exercise take place during the day time portion of the offsite. We did this and engaged our HR department to help put one together and facilitate it. For less formal teambuilding (“social time”), identify things that have broad appeal to all attendees and that don’t involve excessive competition between attendees (like a soccer game we hosted once that went off kilter). Don’t plan activities that force people to do things they are not comfortable with, like singing. Things like working for a local charity, attending a movie (just watch the “R” rated stuff), bowling, a play or musical, touring a local landmark, a baseball game, cooking a meal together, painting class, etc. can be enjoyed by everyone. You can also come up with ideas and then ask people in advance what they would like to do. It’s possible to split things up and have one group do “X” and another group do “Y” (though you want to be sure to also do things that involve everyone). Make sure you leave in plenty of “unscheduled” time during your offsite so you do not run everyone ragged, and allow time for people to mix and mingle, during day (e.g., breakfast or lunch) and at night during a social outing. Getting to know your fellow department members better is a great benefit of an offsite. Take advantage of your location, as many people probably have not been there before. We had plans for an offsite in Washington DC one year (which got canceled by the end of the year budget freeze). Besides many of the obvious tour ideas, we planned an event at the embassy of one of the countries where our company has a big operation. We hosted an offsite in Las Vegas one year (our best one ever!) and we attended a Cirque du Soleil show one night and a very nice group dinner the next, but we left plenty of time for people to do other things (and we even provided a list of suggestions). If the budget is tight, sometimes a cocktail party at someone’s home is just as much fun (or more fun) than a dinner at a restaurant. Finally, be sure to assign a “buddy” to anyone attending from a remote location, i.e., someone to make sure they feel part of the team and work them into conversations, etc. You don’t want anyone to feel left out at your offsite.
7. Pre-Offsite. Once you have your agenda and schedule together, picked the location, secured the meeting space, and all of the other basic tasks, there are several things you need to do to build excitement for the offsite and begin to engage the participants. Unless you want to keep everything a surprise, release the agenda and schedule, and let people know the different topics and speakers. If there are materials you want people to read, get them out with plenty of time to spare. If you have pre-read materials, don’t overwhelm people. Keep things short and relevant, e.g., a chapter of a book (not the entire book or books), or an article or two, or a list of potential strategic options you will be considering so people are familiar with things before they get to the offsite (giving people a heads-up on topics and issues you want discussion on in advance will greatly enhance the debate during the actual offsite). Let everyone know about the “fun” and social events and get RSVPs early so things can get locked down. Be sure to set up the “rules of the road” for your offsite and get them circulated. For example, what expenses and meals the company will pay for and when people are “on their own,” whether smart phones need to be checked at the door, as well as expectations around behavior and alcohol (yes, some people do need reminding). Lastly, be sure to keep promoting the offsite at opportune times, i.e., emails, at staff meetings, etc. The goal is to build excitement and energy so when the offsite arrivals your team feels enthusiastic about the programs and eager to participate.
8. Your role. If you are the General Counsel (or the senior leader) putting on the offsite you need to be cognizant of your role in the process. There are three things to focus on: a) you need to lead the planning and shaping of the agenda and programming. While it’s important to delegate the day-to-day tasks, you cannot abdicate leadership. As the “Boss,” you need to ensure your vision and goals for the offsite are clear and as the offsite comes together, and it is done so in a way that matches those goals and that vision; b) be present and attend everything. Unless there is a true emergency, you cannot plan an offsite and then be a “no-show.” If the offsite is important enough to plan, pay for, and disrupt the normal operations of the legal department, you need to make it a priority and be sure to attend the substantive events and the “fun time/social” events. If you blow things off it sends the message that the offsite and/or the people attending are not important. Either is a bad message to send; and c) don’t pretend that all voices are equal. As the “Boss,” if you weigh in early on a discussion about strategy or direction you will (intentionally or not) send a clear message about the strategy and direction everyone should line up for. Unless that’s your plan, hang back and let others talk and advocate, help foster discussion, and be aware that when you weigh in and what you say will have a disproportionate impact on the discussion and on viewpoints.
9. Create a check-list. There is a lot going on with your offsite. Don’t rely on memory, emails and post-it notes to keep track of everything that needs to be done. Start a check-list with every key task and sub-task that needs to be done. Not only will it make planning easier, it will be a tool to use for future offsites and can be handed down from person-to-person so that anyone stepping up to plan the next offsite (or a portion of it) will not be starting from ground zero. Be sure to have the check list with you at the offsite and then you can add and edit it in real-time as issues and new/unexpected tasks arise.
10. Follow-up and feedback. It’s very important to follow-up on any of the ideas, promises, initiatives, etc. that came up during the offsite. If, for example, you promised to set up a team to look at the department’s document management system, but sure to follow through. Likewise, keep your team up-to-date on progress on any such initiatives. I would update my department at the monthly staff meeting with a chart of key “Offsite Initiatives” and our progress on each item. This reinforces that the offsite is important, as is the input of the team. You don’t always have to “solve” every problem or issue that people have. Sometimes it’s enough just to show that you heard them and you are trying. At the end of the offsite, get feedback from people about what worked, what didn’t work, what they would want more of at the next one, ideas for the next offsite, etc. An anonymous survey is the best way to encourage honest thoughts, though finding a “neutral” person to interview offsite attendees can be useful as well, e.g., your HR person is a good choice to do this. Once you have the feedback, share it with the team so they can see generally what people thought about the offsite and be sure to discuss any steps or plans you have to address the feedback in the future.
There is way more about planning a successful offsite than I can put down in the limited space I have here. Any offsite can be great if you spend the time upfront planning the goals and agenda, and dealing with the logistics. Hopefully, you now have a framework and some ideas to start planning your next/first offsite. If you have not hosted an offsite yet (or it’s been awhile), now is the perfect time to start planning for 2017. Once you announce it, I guarantee it will generate a ton of excitement. As always, I am happy to share more ideas and answer questions. Just drop me a note.
About the Author
Sterling Miller: 20+ years of in-house legal experience as General Counsel, Corporate Secretary, and Chief Compliance officer of Sabre Corporation (NASDAQ: SABR) & Travelocity.com. Prior to going in-house, I was an associate at a large St. Louis-based law firm. I now serve on several advisory boards and board of directors, consult with corporations and law firms, and am Senior Counsel with Hilgers Graben PLLC.