Denise Kingsmill: Survive awayday season

January is often the month for corporate off-sites. The best ones are small, with precise goals.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

January is the time to get away. The month has very little to recommend it, in the UK at least. February is not much better, but at least it has the virtue of being short. You don't have to be a sufferer of SAD to long for escape. The weather is awful and there is a post-Christmas slump in the spirits, not helped by the five-pound average increase in weight we are all estimated to acquire in the winter months.

There are the sales, of course, but in these recessionary times, they hold less appeal than in the boom years. We should be doing our patriotic best to spend our way out of the downturn, as for many retailers the January sales are make-or-break for the year. But it just doesn't feel like the time to buy more stuff, especially the leftover tat that didn't excite us in the pre-Christmas discount period. Gym membership may surge temporarily and people may give up alcohol for the month, but this just seems to make everyone miserable, and then even more depressed when their New Year resolutions fail.

It's no coincidence that this is the time when the glossy brochures for glamorous resorts and holiday destinations start appearing in letterbox and inbox. Turquoise seas, golden sunsets and pristine white beaches are the ubiquitous symbols of paradise promised by these purveyors of escapist dreams. Caribbean islands, Thai beaches, African safaris and Australian odysseys tempt us as we sit out what is officially the coldest month of the year in the Northern hemisphere, longing for our own little bit of global warming.

In the business world, however, this is the time for a different kind of awayday. The calendar sets the agenda: a time of new beginnings, the time to plan, the time to decide on corporate direction. January seems to be the most popular month for the strategy awayday. A refreshed game plan and a rejuvenated management team is the goal, but so often - as with the desert-island dreams of the holiday brochures - the reality can be different.

I shudder when I remember some awaydays - or off-sites, as they are known in the US - that I have experienced. Flip charts, coloured pens, breakout sessions and death by PowerPoint epitomise for me the classic awayday experience. Trapped in the tacky 'conference wing' of a rundown golf course and organised by some control freak of a 'facilitator', you soon lose the power of independent thought, if not the will to live. This may, of course, be the whole point. Deprived of family, friends and decent food, plied alternately with copious quantities of alcohol and management jargon, you begin to develop a corporate version of Stockholm Syndrome. You start to love your jailers and end up pledging undying loyalty and unquestioning acceptance of corporate diktats.

I'm told it can get even worse. I have never engaged in the sort of corporate activities that some organisations seem to think necessary for team-building, but I have heard the stories of the survivors. Sharing a near-death experience is regarded by some companies as a good way to encourage bonding. White-water rafting, abseiling down cliffs or bungee-jumping are some of the activities that are supposed to build trust in your colleagues, which will then translate into better performance back in the office. Sounds unlikely to me, but maybe I am just not constructed of the right stuff.

Of course, there is a case to be made for getting away from the day-to-day routines and pressures and spending time with colleagues thinking about the business and planning for the future. Most management teams are too busy fighting the fires of the everyday to look beyond the immediate horizon. It has to be a good thing to enable executives to move outside their functional areas of responsibility and take an organisation-wide perspective. Fostering relationships, encouraging creative and innovative thinking and promoting better communication are all desirable goals. It's just that it is usually done so badly and is often a waste of time and resource. Companies spend millions on awaydays every year but rarely do they make much difference to the way the business is run. A whole industry has grown up around the design and facilitating of awaydays but, as with 'diversity consultants' and 'leadership gurus', there are many purveyors of snake-oil and few who genuinely know how to add value.

The most likely formula for a successful awayday is to keep it small - perhaps no more than 20 participants - and to have precise but limited expectations. There should be an opportunity for wide-ranging, out-of-the box thinking and conversation, but mostly the time should be spent in a structured and constructive discussion of a manageable number of key decisions or initiatives. There should be some social activity to foster relationships, preferably co-operative rather than competitive. I think golf should be avoided at all costs as it is both elitist and sexist, but I recognise that this will elicit howls of derision from some of my nearest and dearest.

If the event is going to involve sleeping away from home, it should be in surroundings as comfortable as the organisation can afford. Discomfort does not encourage a sense of corporate commitment. Outsiders may bring new perspectives, and this is where non-executive directors might usefully be asked to participate, but the essential requirement is that their expertise is relevant to the objectives of the awayday.

Getting away from it all in January should involve warmth and sunshine, and if some corporate creative thinking and decision-making is also involved, this could kill a number of birds with one stone. California, here I come.

Baroness Kingsmill CBE has been a non-executive director of various private and public boards. She is a non-executive director of British Airways and Korn/Ferry International.

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