How to Survive the Offsite Meeting

conference.jpgby Liz O’Donnell (Boston)

When news of AIG’s $440,000 executive retreat hit the press just days after the federal bailout, the corporate boondoggle became an endangered species. But corporations will still continue to schedule “working” offsite meetings for their top managers.

The offsite retreat is usually a mix of work and team building sessions. Companies plan these events to strengthen teams, build mission statements or hold strategic planning sessions.

Says one banking executive, “I never get invited to the events with the entertainment and golf. I go to the ones that are all day in conference rooms without windows. And it is work, then presentations and then a group dinner.”

Nonetheless, she believes these trips are very important for team building and planning. “They get everyone on the same page as to what the unit or division is trying to achieve,” she says.

The savvy woman will head to these events with more than her department’s budget draft and growth objectives on her portable hard drive. She will go armed with a plan to advance her career skills and build key relationships with her coworkers.

Beth McHugh, Vice President of Policy Development for Fidelity Investments, views these events as an opportunity to educate herself on what is happening in the industry and to reconnect with former colleagues.

“Approach groups of people you do not know and avoid just hanging out with coworkers,” McHugh advises.

Show up prepared to talk business. Prior to attending, read the industry headlines, review your department’s financials, and know what your goals are. During the meetings, speak up. It’s not okay to hang back at the coffee bar and just listen. “Too many judgments can be made if one sits silent and contributes nothing,” says the banking executive.

Participate, but don’t hog the meeting. There is a common saying at off-sites, “You have two ears and one mouth. Use them accordingly.” Remember you are there to learn as well as shine; and you won’t learn if you don’t listen.

When there is free time scheduled, is it better to hit the golf course or the spa? The answer depends on your personal preferences. Diane Mullen, a former Mercer management consultant, says “It’s still all about the golf. That’s table stakes for professional services.”

But McHugh prefers the spa. “I usually sign up for an activity that I enjoy — a tour or spa — versus the one that provides the best networking opportunity.”

Says the banking exec, “I am not a spa person and I hate how women are directed that way. My advice is to relax or participate in the sporting events.” That being said, she does believe that strong relationships and good business leads can come from the spa, not just the greens.

Perhaps the most daunting part of the executive retreat can be the dress code. Many businesses reward their employees by allowing business casual, or even full casual, dress at offsite events. For professional women, packing can be like navigating a landmine.

Most executive women caution against dressing too casual. For example, if the events call for shorts, opt for capris instead. After all, the main focus is work, regardless of the setting.

Says McHugh, “I err on the side of professionalism – capri pants if shorts are permitted and sometimes a light jacket. I have noted that often women raise the bar and are more conservative with respect to how they dress for work functions.”

Mullen’s wardrobe rules are even stricter. “Do not go anywhere near the pool in a swimsuit in front of your colleagues,” she says. For evening events, Mullen opts for dressy clothes similar to what she would wear to an office holiday party. “The safe bet,” she says, “is to stick with dark colors. You are not trying to seduce anyone at these events.”

Finally, McHugh advises that women also pack water, caffeine and layers. “One never knows the degree of engagement by the speakers or the temperature in the room,” she says.