Taking Strategic Planning to the Extreme

June 22nd, 2012 by DWM Magazine

From left: Leech, Funk and Gates.

Most companies have their strategic planning sessions in a conference room, maybe in an off-site location, while a few others may travel to a specific destination to really get away. Then you have those that may schedule strategic planning events that include “employee bonding,” if you will.

Then there is Western Window Systems, based in Phoenix. The company’s top executives recently held their strategic planning “retreat” in conjunction with a trip where the three hiked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim, almost 26 miles. Oh, and they set a goal to do it under ten hours. So while many in the industry were at the American Institute of Architects’ Convention in Washington, D.C. in April, Western Window Systems president Jason Funk, vice president Scott Leech and marketing director Scott Gates were thousands of miles away planning the company’s future. DWM caught up with Gates to hear more about this adventure.

DWM: What prompted the trip?

Gates: It really was a strategic planning session. But to give a little bit of background, the three of us like to go from challenge to challenge to keep each other motivated in the office and to foster camaraderie. So in January 2012, four of us in the office ran the P.F. Chang Half Marathon in Phoenix [including myself, Jason and Scott] and we announced in the office that if anyone ran in the race and beat Jason he would wash their car—two of us beat him.

So we were training for that and thought of the biggest challenge we could undertake. Jason has a very defined list of life goals and he wanted to hike the Grand Canyon from rim to rim in one day. I had done it in 2007 and said I would love to do it again. So we put it on the schedule and after the marathon we switched our running training to heavy hiking.

Meanwhile our company has been growing like crazy the past year and a half. We have added 40-50 people. We wanted the time away where we could sit and strategize and talk about how to keep the growth growing. The hike was the pinnacle of our meeting.

DWM: So take me through the timeline of how the hike fit into your strategic planning …

Gates: We wanted to be away from the office, away from email. Our work started on the five-hour drive to the Canyon. Then the next day we had a full-day strategy session, followed by the hike the next morning.

The goal of the trip was two-fold. We have a bunch of growth initiatives planned—expansion points outside our core business. We talked about what we need to do in each of those new business segments. As a result of the trip we have a very specific plan from “this is who we are going to hire” to “this is when new product will be ready.”

It was about getting away and focusing on growth initiatives, so from the business side what we wanted to accomplish was definitely achieved.

Then on the physical side we had this goal of going from rim to rim in one day. But we then changed it to ten hours. We started our descent at four in the morning and came out just under ten hours.

We said we were going to stick together until it became really strenuous but then the competitive side kicked in.

DWM: So who finished first to earn bragging rights?

Gates: I finished in 9:40, Scott [Leech] finished in around 9:45 and Jason finished around 9:56.

DWM: So what now?

Gates: Well on the way back in the car we held a debrief. We had it all on paper but then we had to determine what would be the main action items for each of us when we returned to the office.

DWM: What would you say to other executives who hear about what you did?

Gates: Anytime you can build a sense of camaraderie and challenge each other to be better is an opportunity to take advantage of. We push each other.

From a business perspective you want to be unified and really click. We have really deep friendships on the management level that is reflected in our business. It was about just getting away from business and freeing our minds.

DWM: So how do you top this?

Gates: Jason has a goal of hiking the seven summits—the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents. That’s a little much for Scott and I, but we are talking about hiking Half Dome in Yosemite or tackle one of the seven summits with Jason. We are taking submissions.

View a photo slideshow of their trip.

How does your company handle its strategic planning meetings? Please send your feedback to ttaffera@glass.com.

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