Managing Director - East Africa
As surprising as it may sound, we had never done any management retreats at Sistema.bio in Kenya. I run monthly strategy meetings with the senior leadership, hold annual end year parties, but nothing in between. This year, I decided to change that. I ran a January management retreat, and a June mid-year retreat. I worked hard to prepare them, asked for help, compared venues with a tight budget, and made it work. The magic that happens when people come together is real, energizing, and humbling.
Below are the most important things I learned in the process:
- Be vulnerable and set the tone as a leader: at the beginning of each retreat, I committed to myself to talk to each colleague on a personal level, and get to know them better. I also focused on being myself, peeling off some of my shells, and being vulnerable. I shared some mistakes I have made, gave examples of when feedback helped me to grow, and explained that I, like everyone else, sometimes (often!) doubt myself.
- Create a trusting environment, and let it flow: beyond the no phone / no laptop rules, I cared a lot about others opening up too. Once I had set the tone that it was fine, or even expected, to be true, open, and vulnerable, the team took it seriously. We were able to have deep work sessions, to give and receive eye-opening feedback to each other.
- Connect people around our mission: most of our team members do not work together on a daily basis because they operate in a different region or team. Ensuring that they all got to know each other was crucial. I set up a simple exercise, where each participant shared a picture that represented a moment or an action they were proud of that somehow linked back to their daily work with farmers or in the office. I was taken away by the depth of the messages shared and the pride that the team takes in their work on a personal level. We all got to discover sides of our colleagues that we did not know about.
- Dare to share sensitive company information to provide context: during 2020 and the pandemic, a recurring topic that came to everybody’s ears was that we needed to reduce costs, watch our spending, be cost-effective… During the January retreat, I decided to show a summary of our financial statements over the last few years to all participants, to give them perspective on our sales revenue, cost of sales, and operating expenses. This information had only been shared in closed circles. It was a groundbreaking moment for many team members, who were grateful to understand the bigger picture, and felt trusted and empowered.
- Bottom-up ideas get implemented the fastest: before the June retreat, I organized remote virtual workshops across teams and regions, focusing on improving our customer satisfaction. What were the main challenges? Solutions? Crazy ideas? Each group had to brainstorm, document and prioritize ideas, in order to present them in the June retreat. Neither I nor senior managers got involved. Two months later, I found out that some of the main solutions that everyone agreed on had already been implemented, with strong coordination among the team without my involvement – I loved it!
- Be strategic about the composition of groups: I spent days preparing for each one of these retreats, but once we were there, my work was basically done and I could lean into the experience. Part of what made this possible was thinking through each detail, up to the composition of each smaller group during break out sessions. Mixing sales people with credit and technical, field offices with Nairobi HQ… all these details created an opportunity for each participant to connect with colleagues they don’t work with on a daily basis, to share and learn from each other.
- Be generous about who you invite, while creating time for specific groups to meet: during the January retreat, I had chosen to focus on the management level, and we were 15 participants. In June, we had hired new managers, promoted other team members, and I had to think of a fair mix. We ended up being 30 people, including senior technicians who mainly work in the field, our operations officer, and loan recovery officers as well. Not only was it a great opportunity to recognize them for their high performance, but also opened up their perspective, and allowed me to take in their invaluable contribution. The larger group required more organization and planning, and I made sure to also create space for more senior leaders to meet during specific work sessions where it made sense.
- Mix the hard work with games and fun: every day was intense, with a packed agenda. I learned to include games, switch from indoor to outdoor, large group sessions to smaller groups, stand in front of a flipchart or presenting slides. On top of all this, short games and group movements were crucial to maintaining energy high, and getting to know each other from a different perspective. I never knew it was possible to mime a milking machine until one of our colleagues did it on the first evening!
- Delegate and involve: in January, it was my first time holding a retreat, and I did a lot of the facilitation, presentation and logistics myself. Learning from this first experience, I decided to delegate and involve more team members in June. One colleague was in charge of games, and others led workshops, or shared content through presentations. It felt great to see them thrive and make an even better job than I would have.
- Create individual time to think, write, and then share: in group settings, extroverted people might talk more, or even too much, while introverted people will struggle to even say one word. Groups also exert influence on people’s opinions, and I wanted to avoid repetition to favor genuine reflection. Every time it was possible, I made sure there was individual reflection followed by writing down individual thoughts before sharing with the group. This created time for personal reflection, and adapted to different personalities.
I used to underestimate the power of bringing people together, and prioritized getting things done in smaller groups. It is impossible to measure the direct return on investment of these retreats, but I am convinced it played a significant role in employee satisfaction and business results. Sales have been growing every month since March, August was the month we broke a record of digesters installed, and our loan portfolio is back at its healthiest point. Most importantly, customer satisfaction is at its peak, with a net promoter score of 86.
And you, when will you hold your next team retreat?
I want to share a special thank you to Daniel, who has been extremely supportive in facilitating logistics, as well as Madrin, Florence, Wilfrida and Adams for co-leading sessions with me and advising me in the process. Finally, none of this would have been possible without the support of Yvonne and Patrick, two excellent management consultants and Sistema.bio fans.