When CEOs Meet

Large-scale conferences with thousands of attendees and extensive education menus provide myriad benefits. But CEOs with limited time and strategic imperatives need a more focused approach.

“CEO retreats offer a wonderful opportunity not only for formal learning, but also for valuable informal conversations with peers about the challenges and opportunities we all face,” says Lawrence Kutner, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which works to provide promising high school students with scholarships and grants for higher education. “They’ve helped me build relationships that I draw upon to this day.” 

Kutner is speaking specifically about the annual retreats organized by the Council on Foundations (COF), an association for nonprofit organizations which hosts approximately 25 top-ranking member executives for an intensive annual two-day meeting. Kutner’s observations, however, could be applied to a wide range of executive-only events that are becoming a popular way for those at the top to take some time to think more deeply about vital matters.

“These days, leaders, no matter what field they are in — business, politics, non-governmental organizations, or even academia — have too little time to dig deep,” says Erik R. Peterson, managing director of the Global Business Policy Council (GBPC), a part of global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, which has been running exclusive CEO retreats since 1992. 

By scaling down the number of attendees and shifting from a classroom-style session to an exchange of ideas between peers, these events can offer a rich experience for executives eager for some engaging debate. 

Indeed, executive retreats can serve as a template for any meeting that needs to accomplish goals requiring lively discussions and deep thinking, whether by exchanging best practices or gaining a more informed understanding of a marketplace or industry. “The real meat of these experiences is the time you get to engage privately with your peers. When you get to know another company head a little better, you can ask questions and learn not just the good news, but the not-so-good news,” says Glenn McGonnigle, general partner at TechOperators, LLC, who has attended CEO networking events hosted by the Atlanta CEO Council (see sidebar).
Stringent Admissions Policy
While keeping the number of attendees down to a few dozen is a key element of most top-notch executive retreats, ensuring that the right kind of attendees are taking part is just as important. 

For annual retreats organized by the COF, attendees are selected based on specific criteria that vary from year to year, ensuring that participants will share similar, or at least related, concerns. A recent retreat focused on brand-new foundation heads, inviting only those with less than a certain number of years in the CEO position. For 2012, the retreat is aimed at CEOs for large foundations.

“Because they have staffs of similar sizes, they may be dealing with issues like grant-making or portfolios of a certain magnitude,” says Renée B. Branch, the COF’s vice president of professional development, diversity, and inclusion, who develops the group’s events and programming. “We’re bringing folks together who can share in the discussion and work within those limits.”

Retreats also can be themed to a particular industry or job function. For example, the Supply-Chain Council (SCC) holds several annual executive summits around the world, including the Executive Summit North America, Executive Summit China, and Supply Chain World Europe. 

At the Executive Summit North America, which takes place this month, about 75 executives will gather at the Miramonte Resort & Spa in Indian Wells, CA, to discuss issues affecting global operations. “It’s small so we can keep it noncommercial and nonintrusive, so people attending aren’t bombarded,” says Melinda Spring, the SCC’s director of global member programs. This year’s opening speaker is Denise Layfield, vice president of global supply chain planning and customer fulfillment for McCormick & Company, who will discuss “Surmounting Supply Chain Disruption to Evolve Growth.” Other presenters include executives from Barnes & Noble, Lenovo, and Zurich Financial.
A Stimulating Environment
Also essential is selecting a property and destination that are conducive to the kind of focused learning and exchange of ideas the event aims to offer.
In 2011, the COF held its retreat at the Westchester County, NY-based Pocantico Center, which is affiliated with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The space is made available to groups that, like the COF, share in that fund’s philanthropic mission. The three-story stone complex is connected to the grand John D. Rockefeller Estate, as well as a vast park. “It inspires collegiality and creativity,” says Branch. “It’s the perfect setting for big-picture thinking and collaboration.” 

This year, the COF’s retreat will be held at the Penrose House Conference Center in Colorado Springs, CO. Affiliated with the El Pomar Foundation, the historic building, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, includes eight rooms and meeting spaces that can accommodate up to 75 people. As with the Pocantico Center, Penrose is steeped in culture and history. It’s also located near the upscale 744-room Broadmoor Colorado Springs.

The Global Business Policy Council (GBPC) chooses world-class cities as meeting sites to reflect the business interests of its members and the nature of the program content. Not only are attendees based all around the world, but the programming and destinations are developed to provide a global, macro-level viewpoint. This year’s retreat took place in Istanbul, Turkey. Last year’s was in Shanghai, China, and the year before in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“We try to find a place that has great access, a kind of magnetism that is involved in the theme that we’ve developed for the conference, or some link to the issues that people are thinking about,” says GBPC’s Erik Peterson. “We try to amplify it as best we possibly can.” This year’s theme, “At the Crossroads,” related to Turkey, since that nation is facing a time of significant changes, as well as the fact that the country historically has been at the crossroads of major shifts in the cultural and political landscape of Europe and the Middle East. With most attendees either running operations in the country or considering future expansion there, it offered a compelling destination for the retreat.

One attendee who agrees is a senior European business leader who has been a part of A.T. Kearney’s CEO Retreat for years. “You could not have picked a more compelling location for the conference,” he says. “I have found that these few days provide a terrific mid-year perspective on the broader range of forces that we must address in our planning. The content and timing of the discussions are perfect.’”

Robert O. Sanders, Jr., general manager of meetings and events at Ovation Corporate Travel, has planned a number of CEO- and executive-only events, and emphasizes that “the venue needs to be very private, maybe not a mainstream hotel but a smaller boutique-type venue. You’re creating an environment that’s conducive to getting business done.”
A Focused Agenda
The type of program developed, including speakers and activities, is also a key factor that helps make the difference between a run-of-the-mill meeting and a high-level retreat. “It’s not simply to have a set of short discussions or cursory treatments, but to be able to do deep dives on the leading issues of the time,” says GBPC’s Peterson. “By design, our retreats are anything but big, and anything but general — we try to keep it extremely well-defined and personalized.”

For example, this year’s retreat included a discussion of water as a critical resource, with the director of the Global Water Council giving a presentation on related economic issues and factors such as hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking). 

“People really like the early-warning kind of things that we do — we talk geopolitics, look at the global economy, talk cutting-edge technologies,” says Peterson. To ensure attendees get the most out of the experience, the GBPC sends them detailed briefs about the speakers and topics before the event, and formal presentations are limited to relatively short time periods. Focus is then shifted to questions attendees may have or points they would like to discuss with one another on the topic.

The programming runs for a day-and-a-half, typically kicking off on Sunday night with a welcome reception, with the following night left open for participants to have a night out with other attendees or whatever else they prefer to do. “We make sure not to program too much, so that our CEOs have a chance to talk with one another,” says Peterson. 

To ensure that the programs for its retreats are relevant, the COF reaches out to participants to assist in developing the itinerary. Organizers interview each registered attendee in depth, posing a set of questions aimed at learning everything from what issues concern them most at the moment to what books they are reading. Based on what they learn, retreat planners select the speakers and design the agenda so attendees will be sure to find the program relevant. 

“The design is very organic in that way,” says Branch. “The agenda is literally shaped by attendee interests.” 

The COF also runs three larger-scale conferences each year, which offer specific CEO tracks within the broader programming. Since boosting their investment in these executive offerings, employing volunteers knowledgeable about CEO concerns, and developing the education offerings, the Council saw CEO attendance increase by 96 percent from 2011 to 2012. 

But while these programs have value for attendees, with peers sharing hallway conversations or meeting over coffee at a traditional conference, Branch emphasizes that the retreat allows for another level of sustained interaction, as attendees share meals and engage with a topic over a longer period of time.

In addition to its main speakers, the SCC’s summits usually feature economists or other experts on risk management, procurement, or operations, who can offer an engaging perspective on supply-chain issues — and the discussion can get passionate.

“They really like a good debate,” says SCC’s Melinda Spring. “They don’t want to sit there and be bored; they want to have a good discussion where they can explore an argument or whatever is being presented. If you have those types of speakers, the audience gets really involved as well.” She cites an economic panel held at last year’s summit, where one economist was bullish on where the economy was headed and another was “all doom and gloom.” Members of the audience took issue with the negative economist and questioned her viewpoint throughout the Q&A section, and continued the debate into the reception afterward.

Even lunch is productive, with a roundtable discussion between groups and facilitators. Networking breaks are included throughout the day, as is a more intimate “Fireside Interview” with some of the day’s speakers.
Similar to other executive retreats, the SCC keeps the programs short — just a day and a half — so that attendees won’t be pulled away from the company for too long. The final day ends at noon, so those who need to fly back right away can, although attendees are welcome to extend their stays.

But with these kind of executive-only events, leisure is low on the priority list and has recently moved even lower. “Back in the day, I might be factoring in a round of golf, or working on a wine-tasting tour, but we don’t see that as much anymore,” says Ovation’s Robert Sanders. “These guys are meeting eight, nine, 12 hours a day — they aren’t looking for fun as much.”
Sanders adds that there is a similar attitude toward personal technology. While CEOs might be expected to be typing away on their BlackBerrys or checking their smartphones throughout a traditional conference session, these devices tend to disappear during the more focused, smaller-scale retreats.

Whether aimed at company leaders from a specific region, size, industry, or country, CEO retreats are proving effective ways to get those at the top time to step away from their daily workload and think on a broader level. And their ability to do this may be more important than ever.

“Even though, 20 years ago, there was an incredibly good rationale for bringing together a group like this, these days, under such disruptive circumstances, this kind of consultation is invaluable,” says Peterson. “If leaders are really committed to an authentically strategic vision of what they do, they have to break away from the day-to-day and do these types of things.”