Retreat to Advance: Annual Staff Meeting Key to Business Success

Each year CFM stages a staff retreat. A PowerPoint serves as a visual guide through the day's agenda.We rarely ask our friends and clients to step inside the CFM tent, but come on in for a look at one of our keys to success — our annual business retreat.

CFM highly recommends that organizations engage in a yearly self-assessment and goal-setting retreat. If given a good deal of thought about desired results, an annual retreat may be a positive team-building experience.

As a CFM staff member since 1992, I hope to participate in my 20th retreat at the end of the year. Despite being smaller in the early days, the core elements of the retreat mostly have been the same. What we do at these one-day events represents the reasons CFM remains on the list for the “100 Best Companies” to work for in Oregon.

“CFM retreats are models of transparency. Every item that’s important to the company is shared with every member of the firm, from senior partners to the admin staff,” says Holly Paige, principal of the Wave One Group, one of the few non-staff observers invited to participate in recent meetings.

“The retreats also are valuable for professional development," she says. What has impressed me the most is the way partners and staff work together as a team of equals. It’s a recipe for success that works because of the mutual respect and camaraderie that is shared by every member of the firm.”

Every December the retreat is held at a location out of the office, followed by appetizers or dinner shared with spouses and partners. Some years the settings are cushy and other years the ambiance is more austere. The typical agenda includes:

Financial year in review:

Throughout the year all employees receive a graphic quarterly summary of the firm’s fiscal standing. A detailed year-end review is shared with staff at the retreat. As one of the wags in the TV drama “Mad Men” might say, CFM is an "open kimono company” when it comes to discussing our P&L. CFM is a profit-share company and it is important everyone understands our business environment and their role in contributing to the bottom line.

Business line updates:

Some time during the day a progress report is given of each of the firm’s lines of business. CFM started out doing only state lobbying in Oregon and federal lobbying by a small staff in Washington, D.C. CFM now offers public affairs, marketing public relations and research. Clients can hire CFM for a single service or a suite of integrated services.

Sharing staff attitudes:

Prior to each retreat, all staff members are asked to complete a survey or undergo personal interviews conducted by CFM President Gary Conkling. Survey results are shared during the annual meeting. We learn about the staff’s perspective about the firm’s top accomplishments and most disappointing moments. We also gain insight about desired improvements and the best business development opportunities, among other issues. The survey also helps determine employee satisfaction levels on various benefits and procedures.

Professional development exercise:

Some form of professional redevelopment on timely topics takes place, either delivered by individual staff members or by small panel discussions. Often there are group discussions based on reading assignments done in advance. Assigned reading has included:


  • “The new Rules of Marketing and PR,” by David Meerman Scott;
  • “Made to Stick,” by Chip Heath and David Heath; and
  • “Switched: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” also by the Heaths.


Team building exercise:

We are a diverse staff in terms of roles, experiences, age, skills, geography and political orientation. A variety of different exercises have been staged to help staff members get to know each other better.

My favorite was the year each staff member was asked to identify three significant moments in CFM’s history – either a business success or memorable act by another staffer, noting these recollections on a post-it. The post-its were placed on a large timeline on the wall. It was a great way for older staff members to talk about company history and for younger professionals to say what was important in their view.

Roasting the rookies:

A favorite team-building tradition is the mandate requiring all first-year employees to deliver a low-key self-introduction. Embarrassing questions are allowed. Through the years we’ve learned how to speak like a carnival barker and discovered the best way to look foolish at wedding parties.

Fun Team events:

To keep the day light, a Fun Team is drafted and challenged to stage mocking skits. One year the walking styles of senior staff members were replicated and analyzed.

Goal setting and strategies

The format may differ from year to year, but the day’s final activity focuses on collective goal setting and on reaching consensus on activities for the following year. The day is not so much about divining financial targets, though that is an outcome, and more about tactical steps we agree upon to reach our goals. The goals session helps CFM sharpen its brand and business persona in the market.

Says CFM’s Gary Conkling, a good deal of preparation goes into making the one-day annual meeting rewarding for the company and its staff members. “Retreat results go a long way to determine the next year’s branding, marketing and internal cultural actions,” he says. “The retreat is one of the pillars of CFM’s success.”