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A recipe for a great team retreat - Culture Series

A Recipe For A Great Team Retreat

Retreats, off sites, team building days: they may conjure up excitement - a day off and time to relax and recharge - or dread - just more work, in a different place, with people you don’t know that well. As CEOs, Founders and Leaders we have a sense that retreats are a powerful tool, but often aren’t sure how to make them work, and work effectively. So why do we do them? And how do we do them well?

At BluLever our culture is central to everything we do. As co-founders, Adam and I are super intentional about how we build culture, what it looks like, and where it lives. BluLever is not always the easiest place to work: we’re an impact driven start up, we have a huge mission and a lot of work to do to get there. We work hard, push ourselves to be better, and sometimes take on too much because we are so passionate about our work. Because of this, our culture needs to be robust enough to carry us through.

We see retreats as an opportunity to create a “culture centre”, a space where culture lives, where memories are made that solidify who we are, and why we do the things we do. We’ve run 3 team retreats so far, and have made mistakes and learnt some lessons along the way. We now have a solid recipe for a great retreat, which I’ll share with you, using our latest retreat as an example. As with all great recipes, there are just a few simple ingredients, added in the right order, with care and attention - and a little bit of something personal to round it off.

A team photo at our latest retreat
A team photo at our latest retreat

Ingredient One: Starting with Why: As much as people love to hate him, Simon Sinek got it right when it came to Starting with Why - and retreats are no exception. The first ingredient to a great retreat is to really understand and be intentional about WHY you are doing it.

When planning a retreat, we always think about why we want to have a retreat (in general), and why now specifically. We start this process by creating two lists: what we want to achieve (bonding, motivation, able to work together better, connected to the mission), and how those outcomes translate into feelings (“I feel valued”, “I feel connected”, “I know why I’m here”, “I’m excited to get to work”, “I’m at home here”, “I’m changing lives”).

Next, we think about the overall experience. What do we want it to feel like? Should it be fun, or serious? Should it feel like something special, or be low-key?

For this latest retreat, we wanted to create an opportunity for our team to step back, lift their heads and take stock while reconnecting with our core purpose and impact. We set about doing this by designing an experience that felt intentional and structured, but also relaxed and engaging.

Nolwazi Qwabe leads us in a yoga session
Nolwazi Qwabe leads us in a yoga session

Ingredient Two: Curate for Purpose: At retreats there’s often a temptation to do things for the sake of doing them: because they seem cool, or because we’ve done them before. Ingredient two is about not falling into that trap but rather curating your activities for a purpose and bringing your why to life.

Here are some examples of activities we had during this retreat, and how we thought about their purpose:

Offerings: Our purpose here was to create a space for team members to bond, and then to be vulnerable. For this, we created “Offerings”; an activity where each team put together an offering for the greater team. The brief was to do something creative, as a “labour of love” for the rest of the team. It was an opportunity to give something of yourself, and to create a memory. Teams did things as diverse as readings from “The Little Prince”, to singing struggle songs, to creating a team “yearbook”, to performing songs from “Grease” with spoofed rewritten lyrics. The offerings happened around the bonfire - which didn’t hurt in creating an intimate atmosphere.

“I enjoyed the offerings the most. I think seeing the people you work with express themselves artistically / culturally offers the opportunity to see different parts of teammates’ personalities.” - Thato

“The most enjoyable part of the team retreat was the team offerings. It was really nice to see the fun and creative offerings people came up with. It reminded me of how much of a creative team we are and it was a refreshing take on being able to give each other gifts that are really memorable.” - Nolwazi

Pokemon Cards: As an organisation, we’re building towards creating a tool that helps map and showcase everyone’s skills, strengths and weaknesses, so that people know how best to work together. To create the first version of this, we went through three rounds of reflective feedback exercises: having each team member create a “User Guide to Me”, then having each team member reflect on their Principles You profile and lastly having each team member go through and debrief a round of 360-degree feedback. After these rounds of reflection, each team member created their own version of a “Pokemon Card” - helping others think about how to work with them.

“I loved the 360 feedback and Pokemon Cards exercise. Getting structured feedback from team members was insightful - and gave me something beyond the day to day feedback because of the prompts. And the Pokemon Cards helped me learn more about team members and how to work with them better. It made me feel more seen and more connected overall.” - Dylan

Impact Revisit: Arguably the most memorable moment of the retreat was a session on revisiting our impact. This was a short session where we reflected on the impact of the work we do in different ways. We started by revisiting student stories to understand the impact we have had on their lives, and then had team members share their stories of how being part of BluLever has impacted them. We also watched the first version of our Apprenticeship Video. The purpose of this activity was simple: it reminded people why we are doing this. Our work isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

“I really enjoyed the part where we watched the Appie video, followed by team members sharing their own stories about how and why they became part of BluLever. It highlighted the impact BluLever has in people's lives, the hope we bring for a better future, one young person at a time. One thing I'm confident about is that this retreat activated a new level of connection amongst the team, which is very crucial to the work we do.” - Kgomotso

For your core activities, it’s always important to take the time to plan and unpack them, to get the intention, purpose and tone of them right. We also spend time thinking about the overall experience and how team members move through the day.

"Impact Roadmap" - a montage of impact milestones from the year
"Impact Roadmap" - a montage of impact milestones from the year

Ingredient Three: It’s all about the Experience: A lot of the time with events, classes, retreats or even gatherings we host in our private lives, we get all the right activities lined up, and then forget to think about the experience. Managing the experience with intentionality from start to finish is a crucial ingredient.

This ingredient is all about walking through the retreat step by step to plan each and every moment and how people will experience it. We ask ourselves questions like: What happens when we arrive? How do we ensure people get to bond during dinner? When do we need downtime? How do we end on a high note? All of these are part of experience design.

Here are a few decisions we made to help enhance the experience:

  • Roommates: every team member shared a room with someone they don’t work with, to get to know each other better

  • Great food and special touches: if there’s a simple way to make people feel appreciated, it’s making sure there’s great food you’ve specially chosen. In addition, we thought about touches to make it feel like a special occasion such as ending the retreat with a round of milkshakes

  • Opportunities for quality time: during the times that were not “scheduled” we created opportunities for quality time, including things like having table talk questions at dinner

“I really loved the venue, I think it was a real treat for the team. The food was great, the rooms were amazing and the fact that we were the only people checked in made it very intimate. I enjoyed all the activities that were planned out, from the questions we had at dinner on Thursday night all the way to the milkshakes.” - Sandie

Team members sharing their purpose & connection to BluLever
Team members sharing their purpose & connection to BluLever

Ingredient Four: Learning from Feedback: One of our values as an organisation is Continuous Learning. This means that we’re always trying to iterate, improve, tweak and change, and need to be receptive to feedback.

This was our third retreat as a team, and each time we’ve gotten better at designing and running them. In the beginning we got feedback that retreats “felt too much like work” - because we were using them as essentially big team brainstorm sessions. As the team has grown we’ve refined how we think about retreats and what we use them for. Collecting and reacting to feedback is core to who we are as an organisation, and retreats are no exception.

“For someone who has been on a BluLever team retreat before, my favourite moments were the ones where the new team members realised the journey we have been on, are currently on and have to go on to build that "cathedral". I think the genuine emotions shared were a testament to the calibre of people we hire at Blulever, and it was confirmation that there is a common passion to why we are all here.” - Miles

Team retreats are a tool we will continue to use and refine as we learn. Hopefully these ingredients for success help you think about how you can use them too - and how you can get to that perfectly satisfying recipe that leaves people talking about it for months afterwards. While I’ve used the example of retreats here, this recipe can really work for any team event you are planning. BluLever is a people organisation, our products are people (our graduates), our delivery of those products relies on people, and we are people centric in everything we do. Being intentional about our people, how we hire them, motivate them, guide them and grow them, is key to our success.


If you’ve tried or been part of anything particularly impactful during a team retreat or any other type of team event, please share it below. Subscribe to the "Being Part of BluLever" newsletter so you don't miss the next solution seeking article.

Tools and Takeaways (if you’re interested in reading more or checking out anything we’ve mentioned above, here are some links)

Written by: Jess Roussos

Jess Roussos is one of BluLever's co-founders. She is passionate about human capital development through education and building cultures that grow and strengthen organisations.

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