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Executive Team Building Mini-Guide

Published Date: December 16, 2020

Executive Team Building Mini-Guide


I first wrote this in 2003 and everything I predicted has, unfortunately, come to pass.

Based on 20+ years in designing and facilitating executive retreats and team building, here are some tips to ensure that your executive retreats and team building contribute to the bottom line.


Why Companies are Cutting Team Building

What ever is silly, frivolous, and, at times dangerous, is becoming the “flavour of the month and dubbed as “team building”.

It’s simple. Too much focus on the activity, not enough focus on results, tie-in to the business, and return on investment. It’s happened in organization after organization. One day the money is flowing freely.

Eventually, someone new in the executive suite says “Hey wait a minute, we’ve spent $1 million dollars (or $5 million and even more when one factors in the indirect costs like salaries for the participants) for drumming, hot air ballooning, paint ball, or grape stomping that was featured on The Apprentice.

Fast forward to 2017 and it’s escape rooms, rage rooms, axe throwing, and mud obstacle races.

  • Where’s the value?
  • How much time is spent debriefing these activities and drawing links to your business?
  • Are business or planning exercises part of these sessions? How do they further the business?
  • How do they improve company performance or team interaction?

There is a time and place for fun and team recreation. In fact, our bias is that, whenever it is appropriate, team building should be fun. BUT, a recreational activity by itself is NEVER a substitute for team building. “Fun” can never move the yardstick in terms of team and organizational performance.
Make your choices based on “fun” and, eventually, the money for team building will disappear from your company’s budget as it has in other organizations. It’s guaranteed. “After all, it’s a discretionary item and we can easily cut it or shelve it for a while.”

On the other hand, if you really want team building to be a value added, give careful attention to clarifying your objectives. Allow sufficient time for defining your team building strategy, planning and implementation.

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Team Building Planning Considerations

Once you are clear about your objectives, it is important to determine:

  • number of participants
  • roles of participants in the organization
  • budget
  • timeframe
  • if you will require assistance with location scouting

If you are interested in using an external team building consultant, here are some reasonable expectations for a decision making process.

  • Before contacting prospective consultants, ensure that you can clearly state your objectives, identify a clear decision making process, establish decision making criteria and set a budget
  • It is also important to have an idea of other agenda items that your company is planning to include on the agenda
  • Ensure that you have an approved budget and sufficient time on your agenda for team building
  • When you contact vendors you should be prepared to share this information with them and indicate the size of the group, indicate group demographics and state your preferred dates
  • You should give team building consultants about a week to get back to you with a proposal
  • You should be in a position to make a decision no more than 2 weeks after you receive proposals from prospective vendors.
  • Ideally, you should allow 5 – 6 weeks, preferably 2 months for adequate planning of your session


It is not reasonable or acceptable to:

  • Contact vendors and indicate that your request is urgent unless you know for sure that you will be making a decision quickly
  • Contact consultants on Friday afternoon or during the weekend indicating you urgently need information for a Monday meeting and then just disappear
  • To ask consultants to spend time preparing proposals, contacting potential venues, etc. before the budget and time have been allocated for team building
  • Take more than 2 weeks to make a decision after you get proposals or quotes
  • Disappear without contacting suppliers who have taken the time to submit a proposal and let them know your decision

It’s never okay to give a proposal created by a consultant to a less expensive consultant or to your team to execute internally.

It is just plain unethical to:

  • Skim off the best ideas and have the retreat using internal resources without paying a consulting fee
  • Use the location that a consultant provided without paying a location scouting fee
  • Contact other consultants and ask them to prepare proposals when you KNOW that you have already selected a supplier and you are just trying to meet your company’s 3 quotes minimum requirement. Instead, Google the words team building and use information from company web sites.

Download and Print Chart with Tools to Assist with Planning Your Team Building Session and Summary of all of our Programmes

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10 Tips for Getting the Most Value from Team Building

1. Clarify Corporate Team Building Objectives

Before you plan your corporate team building session or executive retreat, it is important to be clear about your objectives. Clarity and focus are key success factors. It’s an organization you’re running not a social club so keep that in mind when determining the best course of action. Far too often, companies end up disappointed in team building sessions and corporate retreats because expectations were not clearly identified and articulated. Remember you need the steak first and then the sizzle.

Examples of Team Building Objectives

  • Brainstorm and generate new strategies to resolve business issues and overcome challenges
  • Manage projects more effectively even within tight timeframes
  • Forge stronger alliances between geographically dispersed teams
  • Break down silos and improve cross-functional teamwork
  • Improve communication between teams and departments
  • Fine-tune your marketing and sales strategy
  • Improve your decision making process
  • Identify strategies to reduce red tape and duplication of effort

2. Delegate fact-finding but NEVER decision-making.

If you want to ensure that your budget for team building gets cut, treat it like a commodity. Suddenly, “poof” the money will be gone and suddenly team building will be something your company used to do.

Give the most inexperienced person in your team the responsibility for contacting prospective suppliers. Give them very little guidance.

After all you’re busy right? They’ll focus strictly on the activities and shortlist based on what sounds like the most “fun”. They won’t be able to answer questions like:

  • What are your objectives for this session?
  • What major challenges is your team facing?
  • What specific improvements do you want to see in organizational and team performance?

They’ll present you with options based what’s “fun” or what’s cheapest. When making your selection, go for the latest fad, what’s hot and the flavor of the month.

Depending on what activity your select, yes, most of your team will have fun. The impact on team performance will be zero, zip nada.

What’s a better option?

Best Practice: Delegate fact-finding. Provide the member(s) of your team tasked with fact-finding with a clear brief about your objectives. Have a brief conversation with each faciltiator. Then, make your decision.


3. Select the right facilitator.

Without a facilitator your team may flounder, issues may not get surfaced, and introverts who have a lot of value to contribute may remain silent.

Whether it’s an internal or external facilitator, the right facilitator can help you keep the team building session or executive retreat on track and achieve your objectives.

The benefit of an internal facilitator is that they won’t need to be brought up to speed on team dynamics. An external value adds value by being completely impartial, viewing your challenges through fresh eyes, and bringing best practices from other organizations and industries.

The right facilitator can guide you as you make decisions about your theme, timeframes, venues, and, if appropriate, activities to support your objectives.

4. Choose Your Theme.

One of the best strategies for “spicing up” your team building sessions and corporate retreats is to come up with a theme. Based on your theme, you can select an appropriate venue, energizers, session starters, music, video clips, graphics for slides and handouts, and menu items. The key is to let your objectives and content drive the theme.

To come up with your theme, create a mind map or an idea chain. (You can delegate this task to a couple of team members and let them come back to you with ideas. Put your content and topics in the centre and come up with as many themes as possible that relate to your topics.)

If you want to fine-tune your sales and marketing strategy or prepare your team for “uncharted territory” and change, one of our Survivor team building sessions would be the most appropriate choice.

If you want to hone your team’s project management and leadership skills or help them improve their effectiveness in pulling projects together within tight timeframes, we recommend:

If the team is in the process of charting a new course, check out our:


Survivor-Inspired Team Building series

If the team is in the process of charting a new course, check out our survivor inspired series. These highly customizable business simulations are usually delivered face-to-face integrating facilitated themed exercises and outdoor team challenges to bring the theme to life. While the pandemic continues, we can facilitate the exercises virtually in a series of sessions. We can do follow up exercises in combination with the outdoor team challenges once COVID-19 levels subside.

If your team needs to improve its ability to cope with a fast paced environment, our surprisingly affordable polo teambuilding sessions would fit the bill.


5. Reach out to Venues & Identify Options for your Dates

A common team building pitfall is for companies to pick the dates for team building out of the air. This is a very bad idea for many reasons.

  • Flights may be full. As a result participants and facilitators may have to travel via a convoluted (and exhausting) route.
  • Hotels may be sold out.
  • Meeting space may be booked.
  • Airline and hotel rates fluctuate based on demand patterns. Pick your dates without the following information and you may pay a premium for airfare and accommodation:
    • high, low and swing seasons at your preferred destination
    • major events like trade shows, conventions, and F1 events that are taking place at the destination.
    • public holidays in countries that send a lot of tourists to your preferred destination.

Picking your dates out of the air is one way to guarantee that you pay top dollar for airfare and a venue that is not ideal for what you are trying to accomplish.

A much better plan is to set your objectives, select your facilitator and theme. Contact venues that meet your requirements and get them to identify value dates and avoid dates when rates are inflated. Narrow your options down to 2 or 3 choices. Ask participants to save the dates and indicate any conflict. THEN make your select your dates.


6. Set a Realistic Time Frame

Sometimes, companies are totally unrealistic about the time frame for a retreat. It is surprising how many people think that they can do a full blown simulation with debriefing, application exercises, and a presentation by a member of the senior management team in half a day. Let me stress this in bold. A half day simulation with adequate time for debriefing and business application exercises is just not doable. Yet, fast forward to 2017 and many companies are asking for 2 hour team building.

The only way that it can work is if the simulation or activity is very simple, short (15 minutes) and focused and you have one very clear and specific objective or core message that you want to convey.

A facilitated and focused brainstorming session is also doable in half a day. Of course, you can always find teambuilding companies that will take your money and promise you the moon within a half day or even 2 hour timeframe. Buyer beware. Of course, if your goal is strictly recreational, that is doable in half a day or two hours.

To determine an appropriate time frame, you also need to consider if there are other items that you need to include in your agenda. A number of the companies with which we work have included vendor and client presentations, departmental presentations, and presentations about plans for the upcoming year into their corporate retreats and team building sessions. The key is to determine the content THEN select the appropriate timeframe, venue and recreation, not the reverse. So, what are some realistic time frames and formats for teambuilding? Here are some ideas:

7. Select the Right Location

Your choice of location can make or break your corporate team building session or executive retreat. Let your objectives and theme drive the location selection decision and not vice versa. I recall a time when a prospective client contacted me. They had blown most of the budget on a top of the line location and there was little left for a facilitator.

Determine if you will require assistance with location scouting. An experienced team building firm should be able to help you find a location to fit your budget. However, it does take time to call around, check availability and come up with just the right fit.

It is not kosher to expect consultants to do your location scouting for free or to do the event on your own or use the location suggested by one team building service provider (for free) and give the business to another. For this reason, location scouting is now a service we provide as a stand alone or to organizations that have decided to engage our team building services.

If your budget is limited, scout around. You may be able to find some unique and cost effective locations for your events. You can stretch your budget by using children’s camps during off-peak season, amusement parks, acting studios. the catering department of community colleges to save on the cost of refreshments, movie theatres, camp sites, and conservation areas.

When companies are looking to save money on location, it’s important to book your session WELL in advance…..3 – 4 months in advance. To book a group camp site and shelter, you would need a 5 – 6 month lead time.


8. Select Your Teams

There are a number of factors that you should take into account when you select your teams:

  • mix departments
  • mix geographical regions
  • mix organizational levels
  • form team based on learning styles (inventories can help)
  • give team members who don’t get along with each other an opportunity to work together
  • give the newer or more inexperienced members of your team an opportunity to serve as team leaders

To ensure that you get value from the time and money invested in each session:

  • Clarify what you want to get out of your team building session or corporate retreat BEFORE you contact prospective facilitators or vendors.
  • Don’t schedule your session to end on a Friday. Like it or not, focus will become a challenge as the day wears on.
  • Do allocate more time for your session if your group is highly analytical. They need more time to debrief and apply the session to your specific business challenges or they will leave feeling frustrated and that the session was a waste of time. “What was that?” will be a frequent comment on your feedback forms.
  • Don’t splurge on food and accommodation and scrimp on facilitation fees. You need an experienced facilitator to execute a session successfully. I remember a company that contacted us in a panic. They had blown most of their budget for a top of the line conference facility with all the bells and whistles. They had little left to pay a facilitator. We suggested a couple of cost affective facilities for accommodation and meetings but eventually had to pass on that booking too as they insisted on the high end facility and could not afford a facilitator.
  • Don’t just go through the motions of team building. Team recreation is important. If your goal is a day off work, then schedule a picnic or recreational activity. Don’t go through the charade of calling it “team building”.Luxury Corporate Events
  • Get your priorities straight. We thought we had heard it all when we were asked “Can you cut your simulation down to half a day so that we can have more time to go shopping?”

9. Alcohol: Don’t Let it Flow Freely

Speaking of tough crowds, watch the booze. Again it comes down to priorities and liability. I remember doing some location scouting with a prospective client. I should have known we were in trouble when one of the first questions they asked was “Will there be a fridge where we can store our beer?” It was downhill from there. We discuss this case in our Tough Crowds issue. Many companies are not aware of the fact that if they allow the liquor to flow freely before an activity that involves physical exertion, your company could be held liable if there is an accident.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with a glass of wine with dinner. However, if participants will be driving after your corporate event, hire a smart serve bartender who is trained to detect potential problems and turn off the tap when appropriate. (In the USA, some states have their own systems of training and licensing bartenders.) You might also want to have a backup plan and provide a taxi or hotel accommodation for any participants who do become inebriated.

Some corporate retreat facilities now prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol due to concerns about safety and skyrocketing insurance premiums

Even if there are no legal consequences to allowing things to get out of hand, the negative publicity would not be worth it. A simple Google search will reveal a number of companies that experienced negative publicity because they let alcohol get out of hand at a corporate meeting or event.


10. Put a Leash on the Libido

During some corporate retreats, excessive consumption of alcohol can lead to poor judgement and sexual indiscretions. Some companies don’t realize that they are skating on thin ice when they turn a blind eye to dirty jokes, sexual innuendo and employees skinny dipping in the pool on a corporate retreat or at a sales rally. If even one employee decides to file a sexual harassment suit (US) or human rights complaint (Canada).

Astra USA, the American subsidiary of Astra AB, a Swedish pharmaceutical company, agreed to pay nearly US$9.85 million to approximately 80 former employees complaining of sexual harassment and retaliation on the job and at corporate retreats and sales rallies. They admitted to fostering a hostile work environment, including requests for sexual favours in exchange for favorable treatment on the job.

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Corporate Team Building: The Bottom Line

teambrainstormingTeam building sessions and corporate retreats can be enjoyable. Teambuilding simulations, accelerated learning programmes and corporate events can be loaded with the “fun factor” but there has to be value in terms of bottom line results. We don’t subscribe to the philosophy that one has to get wasted or tell off-color jokes in order to have a good time. There is something to be said about relaxing around a bon fire, getting to know your co-workers while you pitch a tent or start a fire, cooking your meals outdoors, learning a new sport like polo, and the many other activities that we make available to our clients. From where we see it, THAT’S fun.

Hot off the Press!

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For a fraction of the cost of a consulting session, this 55 page e-book is designed to stimulate discussion and an exploration of how team building can, once again, be used by executives to produce bottom line results. You’ll walk away with tips, tools and proven strategies to improve the effectiveness of team building and executive retreats.

Download a Preview (PDF)

Purchase the E-book (PDF)

Remember, venues can also be virtual.

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Anne Thornley-Brown, M.B.A. @executiveoasis is the President of Executive Oasis International.

Executive Oasis International

Survive, Thrive, & Grow
Even in the Midst of Turbulence

Executive Oasis International, a Toronto team building and management consulting firm, designs and facilitates virtual team building, executive retreats, team building retreats, and business team building simulations for organizations facing rapid change.

Services are available globally including Canada (Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa), USA, Dubai, Oman, Caribbean (Jamaica, Barbados, Dominica, Anguilla), Europe (Germany, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Italy), Japan, Singapore, Malaysia.

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