My organization had its third staff retreat last week, and I think it was a success!
The first one (in January 2015) was about getting to know each other and individual projects that contributed to the larger vision. We learned some training content, wrote professional bios for each other, and selected and started on Ship It projects.
The second one (in January 2016) was something some our staff had to fight for. We were in a real nose-to-the-grindstone phase and it was hard to stop to come together for a couple days to hash things out. But we had to. We were growing, and we needed to change some things in order to keep up. I shared The Logic of Task Pursuit from Robert E. Quinn’s Deep Change. During that retreat, we talked about what was broken and proposed and adopted fixes. It remains one of my best memories of my career there so far.
Last week’s retreat was centered around rallying our troops to support the implementation of the changes and initiatives we decided on last year. We’re making great strides (and by “great” I mean both large and wonderful), and we’re in another nose-to-the-grindstone phase. But this time, no convincing needed to be done; we all understand the value of the retreat now.
While I’m proud of the progress we made on our work last week, I’m particularly proud of a team building activity we incorporated. In planning the retreat, we looked to nonprofit leadership consultant Joan Garry’s blog post on nonprofit staff retreats and I borrowed this activity from her:
Ask every participant to write a two-page bio.

These are the guidelines:

  1. This is a personal bio, not your formal professional bio.
  2. It cannot be longer than 2 pages.
  3. If it takes you more than 2 hours, you’re overthinking it.
  4. You must include at least 1 photo, which cannot be a professional headshot.
  5. There must be some reference to the roots of your commitment to the work of the organization.
  6. The format is entirely up to you. I’ve had a finance staff member prepare his in an excel spreadsheet. I’ve seen a board member make a collage with statements under each image. One program staff member wrote a spoken word poem.
  7. Let folks know there will be a quiz. This is important. Make a joke about it. No grades, no judgment. But it ensures that folks read the book. What book? I’ll get to that in a moment.
  8. I always include an example when I send out the assignment. Give folks a frame of reference about how they might approach it.

Garry’s version dictates that the bio be submitted 3-4 days before the retreat (so that you can make the book and write the quiz). Because we didn’t want staff (beyond team leads) to have to prepare anything in advance, I modified the guidelines:

  1. This is a personal bio, not your formal professional bio.
  2. It cannot be longer than 2 pages (single-sided).
  3. You must finish by 1:45pm. (We started at noon)
  4. There must be some reference to the roots of your commitment to the work of the organization.
  5. The format is entirely up to you.
  6. This will be shared.

I provided sheets of paper and markers and colored pencils, but we also had access to our computers and a printer. When folks finished, they hung up their bios in a designated area. Everyone read each other’s throughout the remainder of the retreat.
The result was an amazingly diverse collection of off-the-cuff personal stories (and drawings!). Lots of them were funny, some were somber, and all of them were incredibly touching. I learned something new about every single one of my teammates–even the ones I’ve spent a lot of time with, driving across midwestern states.
If you decide to try this with your team, I highly recommend giving folks a limited amount of time to work on their bio in real time (not as an assignment to do on their own time). While some people finished the task in less than an hour, others took every single second allotted. Because a lot of people tend to overthink and aim for perfection, springing this activity on them (hopefully) forced them to go with the flow and settle with what they had–in a good way!
Since Joan Garry is generous–and brave–enough to share her bio as an example, I’ll share mine, too.
And please share your best staff retreat memories and favorite activities in the comments!

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