Front Line Heroes – Chapter Eight….Why Hold Annual Kickoff Meetings?

You can and should shape your own future; because, if you don’t, somebody else surely will.”  J. Barker

Why hold annual kickoff meetings?  Why do we throw anniversary celebrations?  Why have birthday parties?  Why celebrate New Year’s holidays?  Why fool with any kind of festivities?  You’re just on your way to becoming worm meat, after all.  So what is the point?  Uh, oh, I’m getting depressed.

We hold events – such as annual kickoff meetings – to mark special occasions because the day-to-day humdrum can create a ceaselessly plodding rhythm.  When it comes to work, the daily grind can all become a blur.  I walk into the office; the phone rings; I answer; someone asks a question; I respond.  And so on and so forth, day after day, month after month, year after year.

It’s easy for most of us to fall into the proverbial rut.  Not you, of course, dear reader.  You are the exception. I know you cherish being alive and celebrate each hour of your life, savoring each breath for the miracle it is.  You hear the swelling of angelic music from the moment you open your eyes and, heck, even during your dreams.  However,  for the rest of us poor suckers, life occurs as a day-to-day routine.  One day blends into another and this turns into months and years.

Back to the Question

Why hold kickoff meetings?  First, let’s define a “kickoff meeting”.  Organizations usually hold kickoff meetings in the first month of a new year.  These meetings can take place over an hour or go for a day or more.  People can either physically attend the event or join in via video, webinar, and other media.  Typically, though, all employees are involved, and the point is to – well  kick off the year.

Kickoff meetings can be elaborate or simple.  I have facilitated a kickoff in a barn by a river in rural Illinois.  Another year, a client held a kickoff at a swanky downtown Chicago hotel.  The East Bank Club, a huge Chicago fitness complex, has also worked well, and Greek banquet facilities are my favorite because the owners have always been so friendly and hospitable.

Now, onto why have kickoff meetings.  For one, they differentiate the day as a special time.  They allow the entire organization to come together to intentionally launch the next 12 months.  The New Year and opportunities can be outlined to all the members of the company’s community.  Top management has the chance to give a presentation, emphasizing optimism about what is possible for the organization.  Essentially, the leaders are telling next year’s story in advance.  All of this offers opportunity for the attendees to engage in real work around creating the year.

When I say “real work”, I mean it.  We’re not talking about gathering the company and watching a movie or TV show.  Kickoffs should be like a tough and exhilarating spin class, not like a leisurely walk on the beach.  In one kickoff, leadership presented a plan for achieving 25 percent growth.  This would take exceptional effort in the current economy, and expectations for employees were made clear.  In another kickoff, the Chicago office of an organization confronted the choices made in the last year that had prevented it from making its sales numbers.  Then the group recognized and committed to who they needed to be and what they needed to do to make the coming year’s forecast.

For one of our clients, the annual kickoff meeting is one of the highlights of the year.  First, each new employee – someone who has never attended a kickoff before – stands before everyone to answer some fun, preconceived questions.  As the facilitator, I add the explanation that in order to perform together, people need to know enough about each other to establish trust.  So, imagine 80 people in a room all looking at the new employee.  It is a little daunting and, for some, challenging.  Like I said, the kickoff is more like a spin class.

Now, one by one the new employees introduce themselves.  They offer where they fall in their families’ birth order.  They also share childhood hobbies, as well as a few things they struggled with growing up.  People reveal more about themselves here than you would expect.  I have heard participants explain that one parent was an alcoholic; others have talked about losing a sibling.  The new employee then relates strengths and weaknesses they feel they bring to the company team. This allows for honesty and vulnerability, which I find that coworkers appreciate.  At that  point, anyone can ask questions, though the new employees do not have to answer.

For this particular company, the annual kickoff is informative, entertaining, and a true cultural event.  It is a ritual and a rite of passage, and the company culture accepts as one.  This is especially true when key employee Carlos does his annual “The Big Picture” talk about the company’s growth.  Carlos has been working at the company since the beginning.  Rumor has it the big, burly man with a bushy beard was living in the first office before it was bought.  He has a unique perspective, and he talks about the founding of the company in a booming voice complete with flailing arms.  He is a leader and passionate about the company. The kickoff meeting is the perfect opportunity for him to share this passion and exuberance with the other employees.

Stop the Past, Start the Future – Now

For a new year, a kickoff meeting is absolutely critical, and it is one of the best uses of company time and money.  A powerful kickoff meeting will allow you and everyone involved to put the previous year behind.  This is particularly useful if the previous year was difficult.  If recent economic and financial times have impacted your company, it is important for the organization to recognize that, yes, it faced challenges – which possibly meant salary cuts, layoffs, and a sense that the survival of the company was at risk – but the past goes into the past.  To do this, illustrate the previous year on flipcharts by using the process outlined in Rule 3 in Chapter 7, “Seven Rules of Strategic Guessing.”

One of the best aspects of this exercise is that employees get to appreciate everything – good and bad – that happened during the past 12 months.  This review brings completion to the year.  Metaphorically, one season closes while the next season’s possibilities unfurl.

A Future Vision is Essential

In addition to putting the past in perspective, the kickoff allows leadership to articulate and promote a three to five year time horizon.  Leadership has an opportunity to relay the vision for the upcoming year in broad brushstrokes, generating organizational possibilities that are not drug-induced fantasies but real options that resonate with the organization.  This future needs to compel employees with its possibility.  The team should see that achieving this future goes beyond rehashing past accomplishments.

Remember, the version of the company’s future should not be something that was created that morning over coffee.  Our clients usually spend two to three months developing this future plan.  (Revisit Chapter 7, “Seven Rules of Strategic Guessing” for a refresher on how to do this.).  It is the culmination of a lot of work, and many key employees have been part of the planning.  They feel invested in both the plan and presentation.

Now, while the kickoff meetings we facilitate work and have purpose, they’re also meant to engage people.  To do this, we like to annoy the group with what I call “Stoopid Games” and other growth and development activities. There is a lot you can do with exercises to foster good customer service, group performance, and strong relationships.

At one meeting, we rolled out a new set of corporate values and led exercises that allowed people to experience these values directly.  One of the values was “integrity”.  During the event, groups of employees were asked to watch a movie snippet in which a group of Jews interned in a German concentration camp during WWII clandestinely listened to a radio announcer (played by Robin Williams).  The prisoners wee dealing with horrific conditions, and deaths were common.  The radio announcer outlined how help was coming and encouraged the prisoners to hang in there.  These radio programs saved lives and gave the prisoners hope.  They were also a complete lie, and the radio announcer knew it.  Help was not coming.

After watching the clip, participants were asked whether the radio announcer had integrity and why they felt that way.  This was designed so participants got to experience and explore what “integrity” meant for themselves and others.

At other kickoffs, the leadership explained – complete with props and skits – what it would take for everyone to go to Cancun as a reward for a certain accomplishment (typically an audacious sales target that is doable but will take something special, including some luck, to actualize).  Imagine the kickoff is going full tilt and the CEO is talking at the front of the room.  Lights suddenly go off, plunging the room into blackness.  In the middle of the room Elvis materializes.  The lights go back on.  Elvis sings, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog…” and the attendees go wild, singing and dancing along.  Sounds silly, but it works up the company’s morale to go forward as a team to accomplish the results.

So…did this company spend a special weekend away?  Yep.  A year later, all the participants ended up in Las Vegas with their significant others.  It all started at the kickoff.

Get Up and Running

Departments can do a lot during kickoff meetings to build cohesion and momentum.  We have great teambuilding exercises, for example, that encourage participants to give one another feedback on how they can improve collaboration.  One game includes tossing six balls in the same pattern three times.  This is much harder than it sounds.  Another game involves crossing a “river” using blue stumps.  Again, this is much harder than it sounds.  What these games provide is camaraderie, a chance for groups to look at their dynamics and practice team performance.

The Chicago office of one of my clients took to heart the results of these games.  The group just could not get on the same page for the exercise, nor could they coordinate themselves back at the office.  After the game, the office audited itself as a high-performance team.  Each participant rated the group on meeting effectiveness, communication effectiveness, and conflict management.  Their scores were low.  In the ensuing conversation, they confronted what had lead to their low performance in the past year and what improvements were possible for the coming year.  As the group left the session, members said it had been the straightest and most productive dialogue they had ever had.

If your company is engaging in these games, it’s important for the facilitator to emphasize that this is business, not personal.  Participants need to embrace the idea of constant improvement as the bottom line.  When a positive context is established, unresolved issues can be explored and clarified.

The Next Phase

After the leadership presentation and stupid games, the meeting moves on to the next phase.  Here, various departments can plan how to improve and grow in order to deliver on the company’s future.  Each department has the opportunity to review its own accomplishments and disappointments, similar to what the group did at the beginning of the session.  In addition, now is a good time for each department to list what it sees as its departmental strengths and weaknesses. The important ones are underlined for addressing in a future meeting.  (A simple departmental planning process is included at the end of Chapter 7, Seven Rules of Strategic Guessing.)

At this point, critical issues relating to the departments’ futures are outlined and reviewed.  Again, I like using a flipchart, with one member of the group acting as scribe.  With the issues in front of the group, it’s now possible to design steps for resolving them and moving forward.  Time permitting, this may include setting the upcoming year’s department objectives, action plans, and first-quarter milestones.  The departmental planning piece is typically facilitated by the department head.  I have also seen key employees facilitate and serve as scribes.

So There You Have It

Now let’s recap.  Why kickoff business meetings?

  • They let you put the past in the past
  • They let you create a company and organizational future to live into
  • They provide an opportunity for departmental planning
  • You can begin training and launch educational initiatives
  • All this, along with Stoopid Games and other fun annoyances, build camaraderie and support.  Such a deal!
  • So do it – hold a kickoff.  Do it this year, because I promise the coming year will not be anything like last year.  You can hold me to that


Some final food for thought – there’s no need to limit your organization’s kickoff meetings to once a year.  Quarterly kickoff planning meetings also work.  Oh, my goodness…should I change the title of this chapter?  Life is so complex.  What to do?  Just make sure you plan, hold kickoff sessions, and involve others.  That is the bottom line.