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Retreats that work: Everything you need to know about planning a successful strategy retreat

Why strategy retreats fail

A study was conducted of five hundred companies to better understand what causes successful organisations to struggle financially for extended periods of time. The researchers found out that 87% of these companies suffered one or more “stall points” – a term for the start of a prolonged financial decline.

When the researchers pored through the data to uncover the cause of the stall points, they found that 70% were attributable to poor choice about Strategy. While it is convenient to blame the economy for one’s misfortunes, the data clearly shows that most financial decline was well within management’s control.

According to a Harvard Business Review survey, on the average, companies deliver only 63% of the financial performance their strategies promised. More discomforting is that most executives surveyed place the figure at less than 50%. A lot of them attributed this failure to proper planning and execution.

Even though strategy retreats or strategy planning sessions are an effective leadership management tool, they are commonly abused. The reason for this is not far-fetched; many executives have been part of many questionable gatherings in the name of strategy sessions or retreats that had nothing to do with strategy or did not have the desired level of impact that a strategy session should have.  Don’t get me wrong: If done well, retreats can be a powerful way to bring about innovative ideas and growth. However, when done poorly, retreats are a waste of time and resources for the organisation and can have devastating consequences such as leading the organisation in the wrong direction.

A basic reason for this is because a lot of executives see strategy as a grand plan thought up by great minds where Leaders envision a desired goal with everyone talking about some divine, mystical way of changing the way they work overnight. But that is far from the truth. Strategy is about defining a set of choices for winning; in business, in industry or even in wars, competitions and in life. Look at it this way, strategy is “I have thought long and hard about this, I have considered various options, based on my abilities and the environment I think this is the best way for me to win.” How does that sound? Simple enough is the guess.

Strategy Development – A Question-based Approach

One of the methodologies we deploy in strategic planning retreat projects for clients is the “Playing to Win” methodology developed by Lafley and Martin which identifies strategy as a question-based approach that seeks to answer the following interrelated questions:

  1. What is your winning aspiration?
  2. Where will you play?
  3. How will you win?
  4. What capabilities must be in place?
  5. What management systems are required?

So where does your strategy retreat come into all these? That’s where you start to proffer answers to these questions. The purpose of your strategy retreat is to guide executives through a deliberate process of answering questions such as the above and create a purpose driven plan to ensure the solutions/answers are implemented.

Developing your strategy

Please note that developing a compelling strategy will not be based entirely on the conversations at the retreat. There are a lot of requirements to be put in place before and after the retreat for a complete and effective strategy development process.  The following are key requirements to consider:

1) Market Place Data: Since strategy is about making choices on the best way to win in the market place, no input to the strategy development process is more important than market place data. Having enough data will ensure that conversations at the retreat are informed and robust. Your SWOT and PESTLE analysis are examples of critical strategic analysis tools that will help you get the relevant data required.

2) Preparation: You do not want participants to just walk into the retreat ground as if it is some business-as-usual 10 am Monday meeting. Ensure that you build consensus across your organisation and involve those that will be at the retreat. This can be done through surveys, interviews and pre-read materials before the retreat.

3) Deliberate Designing: Another critical element to guarantee the success of your strategy retreat is to deliberately design and plan the retreat from start to finish. Do not leave anything to chance. Pick a retreat theme; make sure it is one that captures the essence of your intended discussions at your retreat. Select case studies and sample topics that will be discussed at the retreat. These should be circulated before the retreat. Decide on how the retreat will be coordinated, what sessions will be holding, the objectives or takeaways from each session. There should be no loose ends.

4) Document Retreat Outcomes: Here’s one thing to keep in mind during the retreat – make sure all the outcomes and insights generated from your discussions are captured and translated into action plans. There is simply no excuse for intelligent business heads and senior executives to be gathered in a meeting and not articulate strategic next actions. Part of this should include how they want to communicate the organisation’s strategy to their team and how they will track progress on an on-going basis.

10 Steps for a Successful Strategy Retreat

Take a look at these ten simple steps to discover how you can help your organisation derive value from those long tedious strategy sessions.

  1. Start with the end in mind – Define what success will look like
  2. Appoint a competent and experienced strategy facilitator – External or Internal
  3. Prepare a retreat agenda
  4. Conduct in-depth analysis (internal and external)
  5. Build consensus throughout the process and engage in rigorous strategic thinking
  6. Plan implementation/execution as part of your strategy
  7. Assign roles and responsibilities
  8. Agree resources required to execute strategy
  9. Develop a communication plan to cascade the outcome of the retreat to the rest of the organisation
  10. Ensure you have a monitoring framework


Below is our tried and tested five-step framework for planning and correctly executing a successful strategy retreat:

When planned and executed correctly, an offsite strategy retreat can be an incredibly effective, energising and engaging tool. To achieve success, you need to ensure:

  • Level of preparedness of the attendees
  • Data Quality
  • Facilitator’s expertise in strategy formulation and execution
  • Quality and rigorous debate
  • Time allocated to complete action planning

Remember these critical success factors when next you plan to hold your strategy retreat. And if you were not planning to hold a strategy retreat, it is time to reconsider, especially if you want to create competitive advantage for your organisation.

At Workforce Group, we help organisations develop and execute a strategy that is best suited for their business context. We are a Management Consulting firm focused on helping individuals, teams and organisations succeed. We are consultants to some of Nigeria’s most important and interesting companies, delivering value across diverse areas such as Strategy, Learning, Human Capital and Outsourcing Services.

If you have any contributions, questions or enquiries about this publication, please contact:

The HR Community Manager

Olugbenga Gideon
Telephone: +234 903 194 6744

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