Avoid These 3 Mistakes to Have an Unforgettable Kick-Off Meeting

Don’t waste company time and money with a multi-day meeting no one will remember. Employee Engagement Consultant, Bryan McWilliams, weighs in on how you can avoid three common pitfalls, and help attendees get the most out of your kick-off.

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Don’t waste company time and money with a multi-day meeting no one will remember. Employee Engagement Consultant, Bryan McWilliams, weighs in on how you can avoid three common pitfalls, and help attendees get the most out of your kick-off.

There’s a reason your company is pulling entire departments – or even your whole organization – away from their desks for a multi-day meeting. The information your team is presenting is important.

In fact, the details that project leads, department heads, or guest speakers share are likely crucial to helping your business move forward.

So, when it comes to planning a kick-off, there can be a lot of pressure to organize a successful and effective meeting. This expectation may have left you wondering: exactly how can you ensure attendees are absorbing all of the important details?

Our team recently sat down with Bryan McWilliams, Employee Engagement Consultant at Outback Team Building & Training. In the interview, Bryan discusses how to plan an epic kick-off meeting, and the things it would be a mistake not to consider, such as:

  1. Setting a Relevant Theme
  2. Having the Meeting Off-Site
  3. Including Interactive Sessions

Listen to the episode of Outback Talks: The Employee Engagement Podcast below to hear directly from Bryan, or keep reading to learn more.





3 Entirely Preventable Kick-Off Mistakes

The main goal of any kick-off is usually to communicate new ideas or information to employees. Don’t let these three mistakes stop your team from getting the most out of your meeting.

1. There’s No Theme

“I think that one of the most important things that you can do is come up with a conference theme, or a meeting theme that’s going to resonate well with the attendees,” says Bryan.

Without a cohesive theme, your kick-off may feel disorganized and pointless to attendees.

Your theme should be a unifying message that helps employees better understand the purpose of the meeting, and walk away feeling confident in what they learned throughout the sessions.

Many companies choose their meeting theme based on things like their…

  • Current focus for the business, such as “Leading the Pack” to showcase the launch of an innovative new product
  • Goals for the new fiscal or calendar year, such as “To Infinity and Beyond” for reaching a previously unmet financial target
  • Core values or key business messages, such as “Stronger Together” to represent collaboration and teamwork

Bryan recommends tying your theme into all aspects of your meeting. Everything from your opening session, to the guest speakers you invite, to your team building activity should all relate back to your overall theme.

For example, one of Bryan’s tech customers wanted to roll out three leadership principles at one of their annual kick-offs. So, they made these pillars the theme.

Through a custom program, “Mindful Mandala,” this group created beautiful mandalas which they eventually added random letters to. The end result was one cohesive art piece that spelled out the three new principles.

“It was that ‘Aha’ moment where they learned about it, and they got to put the leadership principles into action through that art activity,” says Bryan. “And then they had the lasting image moving forward to really embed it within their organization. That was quite a powerful one.”

2. The Kick-Off Is at Your Office

It may be tempting to save costs and cut out travel time for your multi-day meeting.

But getting your team out of the office is one of the best ways to help employees focus on the information that you will be presenting. It helps attendees spend time away from the distractions of their desks, while also offering an exciting departure from their everyday routine.

Bryan agrees that attendees are likely to be more engaged if you pull them out of your regular office environment. He says that an off-site location can offer more clarity and help your team focus on the task at hand.

“A lot of the sessions will be keynote speakers, planning sessions, team building sessions,” says Bryan. “So, to remove your staff from the office and the distraction of the office is usually a positive, to focus on the actual conference or kick-off itself.”

Your meeting location doesn’t have to be expensive or hard to get to in order to be effective. For example, you can take your team to a:

  • Local hotel or conference facility
  • Lodge or cabin in a nearby resort town
  • Library or community center

3. You Haven’t Included Interactive Sessions

Sessions where you simply present information to your group will definitely have their place at your kick-off. However, if your entire multi-day meeting consists of ones where employees do nothing but sit and listen, odds are they’ll start to check out.

Interactive sessions give your team the opportunity to really engage with what they’re learning.

“A lot of my clients, if it’s a multi-day conference, they like to kick things off with a high-energy experiential team build event just to get everybody energized,” says Bryan. “A bit of ‘rah-rah’ to get the ball rolling.”

You can also intersperse interactive sessions between “heavier” ones that require a lot of sitting and absorbing information. Bryan recommends, “A nice 45-minute ice breaker to get up, interact with your colleagues, stretch your legs, get the blood flowing. Specifically, if it’s in between a fairly heavy planning session or keynote.”

Here are a few ideas of interactive sessions that you can include at your kick-off:

  • Interdepartmental Discussions – Does your meeting have more than one department in attendance? Use the opportunity to get them better aligned by having them meet to talk out new ideas.

  • Team Building Activities – Allow your group to blow off some steam or re-energize with a fun and exciting activity. Choose from taking employees outside to explore your location with an outdoor option like The Amazing Chase. Or, participate in an activity right in your meeting space with something like Minute To Win It.

  • Brainstorm Sessions – Looking to tackle a particularly tricky problem or challenge at your kick-off? Break into teams to brainstorm creative solutions, and have employees present their ideas to the rest of the group.

  • Quizzing & Polling – You can use different tools and apps, such as Slido and Evenium ConnexMe, to make traditional speaker sessions more engaging and interactive.

  • Experiential Learning Programs – Help your group get hands-on with your kick-off theme or new skills by offering attendees a training program that’s interactive and fun. For example, your team can put their leadership skills to the test with a program like Authentic Leadership, or more clearly define your company’s goals with a session, such as Creating Mission, Vision And Values.

“In the 10 years of doing this, the one thing that still blows me away is how, so often, people are so hesitant to do something a little out of their comfort zone,” says Bryan. “But once people get into the activity, literally two to three minutes in, they’re rolling up their sleeves, they’re heavily involved, and the biggest naysayers, by the end, are the ones with the biggest smiles on their face, laughing, high-fiving their colleagues, and just having a phenomenal time.”



Learn More About Planning Epic Kick-Offs

Check out An Event Planner’s Guide to Epic Company Kick-Off Meetings for more expert advice. Simply click the button below for access to your free copy of this all-in-one PDF document.

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Don’t forget, you can also tune into Bryan’s interview above, or download the episode by subscribing to our podcast, Outback Talks: The Employee Engagement Podcast, on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

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If you’d prefer to read Bryan’s interview, see below for the full transcription of the podcast episode.

Kara Sy (KS): Hi everyone, and welcome to “Outback Team Building & Training Tips,” a monthly audio resource for HR and business professionals. This podcast is produced by Outback Team Building & Training, a leading team building, training, and consulting provider for organizations across North America. I’m your host, Kara Sy, and this month I’m joined by special guest Bryan McWilliams, Employee Engagement Consultant at Outback Team Building & Training. Thanks so much for joining me today, Bryan!

Bryan McWilliams (BM): My pleasure! Thanks for having me.

KS: So, our topic this month is how to plan an epic annual kick-off meeting, and Bryan will be sharing his insight and expertise on the topic. But before we begin, let’s start out with our quick tip of the month. Each month, we begin the episode with a quick tip for our listeners. Bryan, what’s the most important thing planners should do to make sure their kick-off meeting is a success?

BM: I think that one of the most important things that you can do is come up with a conference theme, or a meeting theme that’s going to resonate well with the attendees.

KS: Right. And so, when you say “theme,” can you give me an example?

BM: Yeah, for sure. So, a lot of times the theme could be something relevant to the focus of the business, or to the new fiscal calendar year. Some themes I’ve heard in the past, for example, could be “Growing Together” or “Stronger Together.” So, something that’s kind of a key business message that’s going to drive the business forward.

KS: Great! Well, with that, let’s get to our main interview. Alright, Bryan. So, generally, what is the purpose of an annual kick-off meeting?

BM: Typically, the purpose of an annual kick-off meeting would be alignment for key employees or key leaders, key managers within an organization to come together for the start of the year and just get aligned with the messages and the purpose for the business that year. Any new core value shifts or any key focuses to business to try to drive forward that year, and just make sure everybody is behind it – everybody is energized and aligned moving forward.

KS: And the people that you are talking to – do you generally find that it’s entire companies, or is it by department?

BM: That’s a good question. I think it would depend on the company size. Small-to-medium-sized companies, we find it would be the whole organization, but for larger Fortune 500 companies, it would definitely be done departmental or regional.

KS: So, people – it’s generally a couple of hundred? Or do you see ever up to a couple of thousand? How big do these get?

BM: I personally haven’t seen up to a couple of thousand. I would say anywhere from 20 to 30 people, up to 400 to 500 people is the standard I typically see with my clients.

KS: Okay, and where are they usually taking place?

BM: Wide range. All over North America but, typically, at an off-site conference facility or hotel, retreat facility.

KS: Okay, so for someone who’s planning a kick-off meeting, it wouldn’t necessarily be at the office.

BM: No, usually people like to pull their people out – or pull their employees, sort of, out of the office environment so they can take a bit of a break and get to a nice off-site location where there’s more clarity and they can focus more on the task at hand. And a lot of those sessions will be keynote speakers, planning sessions, team building sessions. So, to remove your staff from the office and the distraction of the office is usually a positive, to focus on the actual conference or kick-off itself.

KS: So, that’s just getting people away from their desks, their computers, trying to encourage them to actually focus on what the kick-off meeting is about, rather than emails or customers – not that they are neglecting their customers by any means, but…

BM: Yeah, exactly right. Just to have time away from the office. And most of my clients, when they plan these off-site conferences, they will schedule in work breaks for their employees, so that they actually have time to keep up with client communications or other pressing business-related tasks that they have to participate in. But what we find is one of the big objectives for these off-sites, on top of the alignment and business-focused goals, educational goals, is also to build collaboration and kind of a sense of community among your staff. So naturally, if you can pull them out of their daily routine or the grind of the office and go to a nice off-site location, you’re going to get everybody meshing together and then building camaraderie in a more efficient way.

KS: Yeah, really putting the focus on building those relationships.

BM: Yeah, absolutely.

KS: So, other than a work break, what would a kick-off meeting consist of?

BM: A lot of kick-off meetings, I’d say, the main four or five things that my clients work in are any keynote speakers. So, there’s an industry-specific topic or expert that they want to bring in for a keynote. Planning sessions, so key leaders within the organization might organize or facilitate a planning session to talk about the vision for the department or company moving forward into the new year. And there’ll be professional development sessions, so, any type of soft-skill training or learning. For example, it could be a session on improved communication or a topic like emotional intelligence or advanced coaching. Something that’s going to add a new skill to these managers’ tool belts to help them manage their team moving forward. That happens a lot. And, quite often, there’s fun activities that could be entertainment, could be outings or adventures. And then, quite often, experiential team building activities as well that can layer in some of the key conference themes or the lessons around collaboration and teamwork that really is a big purpose to these off-sites.

KS: Right. And so, in your experience, are your customers putting these team building sessions in between the more serious or heavy sessions? Or, are they happening at the end of the day? How are those structured?

BM: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think a bit of both. A lot of my clients will like, if it’s a multi-day conference, they like to kick things off with a high-energy experiential team build event just to get everybody energized. A bit of “rah-rah” to get the ball rolling. And then, to your point, absolutely, in between sessions. Quite often, a nice 45-minute ice breaker to get up, interact, stretch – interact with your colleagues, stretch your legs, get the blood flowing, specifically, if it’s in between a fairly heavy planning session or keynote. Those team building programs can slot well in between those sessions.

KS: And you mentioned some of your customers are having them over multi-days. Is that common?

BM: It is common to have multi-day – a trend I noticed. I’ve been in the business for about 10 years now and, when I first started, there were a lot of three or four-day conferences. But I think, as a rule of thumb, companies have tightened that up a little bit just to budget, and things are getting busier and busier in the corporate world now, that having your key people out of the office for almost a full week can be a lot. So, I’m not saying companies don’t do four or five-day conferences. They still do. But, for the most part, the trend I’ve seen is one to three days is the most common. And, yeah, probably a two-day is the most common, actually.

KS: Okay. So, is it fair to say that putting a team building activity, or something like an experiential learning session that’s a bit more hands on, somewhere in a two-to-three-day session could really help make information stick a bit better for these participants?

BM: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s one of the main reasons why our clients bring us in to do team building events, is – quite often – going back to what we were talking about off the start of the podcast here, around a conference theme – a lot of times it’s easy to talk about that theme and bring that up, but it’s another thing to bring it to life and have it actually stick. So, quite often, what we’ll do is, we’ll work with our clients to incorporate the conference theme, and layer it in and unpack it in the team building experience so that people understand the theme and the messaging and the importance of that on an intellectual level, but also on an experiential level through the team building exercise. It actually – it unpacks and unfolds through that two to three-hour team building experience.

KS: Do you have any fun examples?

BM: Yeah, absolutely. So, I was working with a tech client of mine, and they’ve got three leadership principles that they wanted to roll out at one of their yearly kick-offs. And what we did was we created a custom program – “Mindful Mandala” – where, basically, groups worked together to do an artwork project where they formed, with different colors of sand, these really beautiful mandalas. Basically, they’re made by Tibetan monks…

KS: Right, yeah…

BM: …and what we did, after each group spent about two hours creating these beautiful mandalas, we got them to superimpose one letter in white sand on top of the mandala. And then we took individual photos of each of those mandalas and then our graphic designer put it together in one beautiful piece of art, and the superimposed letters spelt out their three leadership principles. So, it was kind of a surprise to everyone at the end. And then we made a giant quilt that went on their wall at their office after the retreat, and then we showed it on a huge image to wrap up the two-day conference. So, it kind of, to my point earlier, it kind of was that “Aha” moment where they learned about it, and they got to put the leadership principles into action through that art activity. And then they had the lasting image moving forward to really embed it within their organization. So yeah, that was quite a powerful one.

KS: I mean, something that you can see on a daily basis back in the office. It reminds you of this great time that you had with your colleagues. You’re absolutely right, there’s something so different from actually having that hands-on experience and having that piece to remember the experience by, versus just seeing it on a PowerPoint presentation…

BM: Exactly!

KS: …and, you know, it kind of just flies right out of your head a week after the kick-off meeting.

BM: Exactly!

KS: So much more impactful.

BM: Yeah, absolutely!

KS: So, how far in advance should people be looking into booking things like a team building activity, or an experiential learning or skill development program for their kick-off meeting?

BM: Yeah, it would kind of depend on the size of the group and the scope of the work. If it’s a fairly large group and there’s going to be some custom elements required, such as the example I just shared, I would say at least two to three months in advance is a good rule of thumb. The more time, the better though, just to guarantee date availability, and then give everybody ample time to do the creative work and do a bit of back-and-forth idea generation to develop the custom content for the team build. And if it’s a smaller group and it’s a fairly basic, standard program, usually about six weeks is fine.

KS: And what about – for that planner who’s had this, sort of, thrown on their desk last minute and they’re like, “In three weeks we’re doing this kick-off meeting. We realized we don’t have anything fun for people to do.” Can they still come to you?

BM: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. We love last-minute requests and we can turn events around with two to three weeks’ notice. So, that’s very, very achievable and very doable.

KS: So, can you take me through the process of what it would be like to help someone find the best solution for their kick-off?

BM: For sure, yeah. So, normally, we would have one of our Employee Engagement Consultants work with the client and just take them through a bit of a consultative process where we always like to find out a bit more about the group dynamics, who are the participants that are going to be in the room. Get a feel for that. What types of things or exercises they might like or dislike. What might resonate with them. Definitely a bit of clarity around what the objectives are. Really, why they want to do a team building event. Why it’s important. We always love hearing about conference themes or kick-off themes – see if we can tie that in to an existing team building event or create a custom one to really bring that theme to life. And then, just a bit of a feel around logistics, right? If somebody wants an indoor event, an outdoor event, how long do they have, what type of budget they want to spend. Because we’ve got options anywhere from 20-dollars-a-head, up to 300, 400-dollars-a-head. So, usually, we’ll go through that consultative process that might take 10 to 15 minutes, and then work with the client to brainstorm some suitable options.

KS: And, have you ever had a customer come to you thinking they wanted something, and then, you sort of, hear what their objectives are and think maybe they’re not quite, you know, going in the right direction? Does that happen often?

BM: Yeah, it can happen for sure. I mean, a lot of clients – it’s kind of a mixed bag. Some come to us with a very clear vision of exactly what they want, or because they’ve done it before or with a different company, or they’ve seen it on our website. And, quite often, they’re spot on. They know their group really well and know their objectives, and they’re spot on with what they are looking for. Sometimes, clients come to us with a completely blank canvas with no ideas and they kind of say, “Hey, you guys are the experts. What can we do?” And then, sometimes, it’s sort of in between, yeah. Where they, to your point, where they might have a vision for something but once we lift up the hood, so to speak, and kind of figure out exactly what they are trying to achieve, we might find out that a different style of program might be a slightly better fit to meet those objectives.

KS: Yeah, I’m sort of thinking of those last-minute planners who maybe got the task, sort of, short notice, and they’re thinking, “Oh, I have to come to you guys with an idea.” But they don’t necessarily…

BM: They don’t. Yeah, exactly. I would say, honestly, I’d say probably 70% of our requests that we get, it’s a blank slate. Where people just, kind of, to your point, say, “Hey, my boss came to me and said that we want a three-hour team building event on day two at a conference, and we’ve got ‘X’ amount to spend. 150 people. Go find something.” And they’re a little bit lost or they’re scrambling for ideas and they don’t know what would fit at the venue, or fit within the budget they have. And they can come to us, and that’s really where our expertise comes through because we typically plan about 1,200 to 1,400 team building events a year, and we’ve heard it all. So, any type of request, we’ve heard, and we’ll have good solutions for any group size, any budget, any location. Yeah.

KS: So, for the planners out there, do you have any final tips?

BM: I would just say, come into it with an open mind. I mean, anything’s possible and you can get pretty creative with this type of stuff. And I feel sometimes people have assumptions about what team building means, and I would just say, come into it with an open mind and there’s some pretty creative solutions out there that are really engaging. And one of the things I’m always surprised at is – I’ve been to a lot of these off-sites myself from a participant’s stand point, and also helping to facilitate and run the events, and in the 10 years of doing this, the one thing that still blows me away is how, so often, people are so hesitant to do something a little out of their comfort zone. To do a team building event, to do something a little experiential, and there might be a negative association with team building…

KS: Trust falls…

BM: Trust falls, exactly. But once people get into the activity, literally two to three minutes in, they’re rolling up their sleeves, they’re heavily involved, and the biggest naysayers, by the end, are the ones with the biggest smile on their face, laughing, high-fiving their colleagues, and just having a phenomenal time.

KS: Providing that great feedback.

BM: Exactly! And providing phenomenal testimonials and 10 out of 10 feedback and really, really get out – get a lot out of it. And they’re asking us what they can do next time. So, that would be my one final tip, is just come into it with an open mind and I think that you’d be surprised what we can do for a team building event.

KS: Great! Alright, thanks so much for joining me today, Bryan! That’s it for this episode of Outback Team Building & Training Tips. Outback Team Building & Training helps organizations across North America build relationships through memorable team building, training, and consulting experiences, and our team has been recommended by over 14,000 corporate groups in the United States and Canada. For more tips and expert advice on putting together a successful kick-off meeting, visit the Downloadable Resources section of our website at outbackteambuilding.com to download your free copy of “An Event Planner’s Guide to Epic Company Kick-Off Meetings.” And don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you may listen to your podcasts. Until next time! Thank you for listening.