What is the leader’s role during a strategic planning retreat?  Should the leader be in the room?  And if the leader is in the room, should the leader speak?

Let’s start by taking a look at the strengths and weaknesses of having the leader in the room.

Strengths of having the leader in the room

  • Demonstrates support and commitment for the effort.
  • Provides history and rationale for decisions made in the past.
  • Prevents the group from wasting time on potential recommendations that have obvious problems in terms of the “big picture” for the organization.
  • Understands, first hand, the issues discussed by the team and the reasons for its recommendations.

Weakness of having the leader in the room

  • The leader’s presence may inhibit discussion and creativity.  The participants may not feel free to make comments about the existing situation.  They also may restrict themselves to bringing up potential solutions they feel would be acceptable to the leader.  
  • The leader may dominate the discussion and squelch ideas that she deems unacceptable.
  • The leader’s presence may hinder the team from taking ownership of the work. Team members may decide their “work” is to make suggestions to the leader.  It would be the leader’s job then to decide which suggestions to undertake.  Contrast this with when the team takes ownership of the work and makes a series of specific recommendations, each backed up by supporting data, with documented benefits to be achieved.  A team that has taken ownership of the work typically has invested time, energy and faith in its recommendations.  Such a group usually wants answers if the recommendations are not implemented.

Based on these strengths and weaknesses, we at Leadership Strategies believe the leader’s presence is essential when the leader is a key implementer or driver of the solution, but not essential when the leader is simply an approver. 

Since for most organizations, the leader is responsible for driving the strategy, we recommend that the leader be present and participate in the session.  But how then do you prevent the leader’s presence from inhibiting discussion and squelching creativity?

Here is a simple approach.  During the pre-session interview with the leader, ask the leader to agree to participate in a specific way as follows.

Sample Dialogue: Leader’s Role in the Session

Facilitator:             During the session, I think it would be very helpful if you would permit your people to state their opinions first before you state your views. On any particular issue, please avoid being the first, second or even the third person to speak.    If you can add support to a position, feel free to state the support and indicate why.  If you can add support to multiple positions, this is even better because it encourages the team members to look at all sides.  But again, allow others to state their opinions before giving yours.  If the group seems to be missing an idea, after several have spoken, please feel free to add your ideas.  The key here is that we want the group to know that you are participating, but not driving.  Will this work for you?

Executive:              It will indeed.  I am very interesting in seeing who speaks up and who doesn’t.

In most cases, I have found that these comments are well received and are enough to provide guidance to the leader.