Common Fitness Problems and How to Overcome Them

New people to the fitness world and veterans alike are all going to experience some problems along their fitness journey. That’s just how life is. It is up to the individual to decide how they are going to react to these issues. You can either try to ignore the problem, typically leading to an undesirable result, or you can decide to do something about it, make whatever changes you need to make, and probably grow from the experience. I’d like to take this time to outline some of the most common issues I see people have in regards to fitness, and offer some solutions help fix the problem.The first, and probably the biggest problem I hear people have is that they think nothing they are doing is working. Whether they are trying to lose weight or put on some muscle, a lot of people will get discouraged after a short time period because they don’t see the results they want. They’ll then go on to think that they are some special case where they just can’t do whatever it is they are working for, and then ultimately give up.


The first suggestion I have to solve this issue is to change that mindset dramatically. Everyone is capable of achieving their goals, you just have to know that. Know that seeing results takes a lot of time and that consistency is the name of the game. If you do your research, find a routine, and get your diet in check, the results will be inevitable, you just have to stick with it. The second suggestion I have would be to track and keep a record of everything you can to keep yourself moving forward. This may be how many miles you walked on the treadmill, how many reps you did on a certain exercise, how many calories you think you’ve burned in a given day, how many calories you’ve eaten, etc. Once you start doing this, you not only notice some changes you might need to make, but you’ll be able to look back at the progress you’ve made. This has definitely helped keep me motivated to hitting the gym.Another obstacle that people will come across is this idea that they don’t have time to work out. This is no more than excuse and a mental blockade to keep you from reaching your goals, and to justify not exercising. I’ll fully admit, even though I’m not proud of it, that I myself have used this excuse a couple times over the years. The best way to keep yourself dedicated is to fully include exercising in your schedule. Don’t make it something that you’re trying to squeeze in, make it something you have to do, like going to your job or making an appointment at the dentist. You probably wouldn’t cancel on those things without a pretty darn good reason, right? Put fitness on the same level as those. If you can manage that, getting your daily fitness in will become second nature.

Choosing A Retirement Plan For Your Small Business

A qualified retirement plan can be beneficial to employers and employees alike, yet for a small business owner who is busy with daily operations, the time and effort involved in choosing a plan can seem daunting. It does not have to be.

Retirement plans come in two flavors: qualified and non-qualified. A qualified plan is desirable because it provides a vehicle for tax-deferred retirement savings for both the business’ employees and its owner, with allowable contributions in excess of those permitted for IRAs. A qualified plan also provides the employer an immediate deduction for the contributions made. Depending on the plan, it can encourage employees to maximize the business’ profits and to remain with the employer. Plans can be customized with optional features.

Non-qualified plans do not have to meet many of the requirements imposed on qualified plans, and have a wider range of features and provisions as a result. However, in most cases the employer does not get an immediate tax deduction for a non-qualified plan. Such arrangements also have to avoid “constructive receipt” by the employee in order to defer the employee’s taxes until the money is actually distributed. This usually exposes the employee to credit risk if the business fails before the deferred compensation is paid out. Non-qualified plans are sometimes useful, but most small businesses will prefer one of the qualified plan arrangements described in this article.

All of this can leave your head swimming, especially if personal finance is not your area of expertise. To simplify the exercise, think of finding a retirement plan that fits your small business like buying a new car. You should consider what retirement plan vehicle will fit your business’ size, needs and budget, as well as offering any special features you want. The more “tricked out” your retirement plan, the more costly it will be to establish and maintain.

The SEP (Simplified Employee Pension) IRA is the bare-bones model that gets you from point A to point B. It is easy to adopt, and typically custodians like Schwab or T. Rowe Price offer a basic form to start one. A SEP can be established as late as the employer’s income tax filing deadline, including extensions. After the initial set-up, the employer has no further filing requirements.

With a SEP, the employer makes contributions for all eligible employees. The common threshold for eligibility is an employee who is at least age 21 and who has been employed by the employer for three of the last five years, with compensation of at least $550 during the year. Eligibility standards can be less strict than this if the employer chooses. Contributions are an equal percentage for each employee’s income. The maximum contribution for 2013 is 25 percent of compensation, but no more than $51,000 total ($52,000 in 2014). (The same limits on contributions made to employees’ SEP-IRAs also apply to contributions if you are self-employed. However, special rules apply when figuring the maximum deductible contribution.) In a year where cash is limited, an employer does not have to make a contribution. SEP contributions are due by the employer’s tax filing deadline, including extensions.

A SEP is a great choice for a sole proprietor or a small business with a few employees, where the employer would like to have a retirement savings vehicle that allows larger, tax deductible contributions than does a traditional IRA with minimal fuss and maximum flexibility.

A SIMPLE (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees) IRA is also easy to establish and has no ongoing filing requirements for employers. SIMPLE IRAs are only available to businesses with fewer than 100 employees and no other retirement plan in place. These plans operate on a calendar-year basis and can be established as late as October 1.

While only the employer can contribute to a SEP IRA plan, a SIMPLE IRA allows employees to contribute to their own accounts, up to $12,000 in 2013 and 2014. Also, participants age 50 and older can make additional contributions, up to $2,500. The employer can either match employee contributions up to 3 percent of compensation (not limited by an annual compensation limit) or make a 2 percent of compensation nonelective contribution for each eligible employee (limited to an annual compensation limit of $255,000). The employer’s matching contribution can go as low as 1 percent when cash is constrained; however, the employer can use this option no more than 2 years out of a 5-year period. Unlike a SEP, a SIMPLE plan requires that the employer contribute each year.

An employer must deposit employees’ salary reduction contributions within 30 days of the end of the month in which the money is withheld from employee paychecks. The matching or nonelective contributions are due by the due date of the employer’s federal income tax return, including extensions.

All employees who have earned income of at least $5,000 in any prior 2 years and are reasonably expected to earn at least $5,000 in the current year must be eligible to participate in a SIMPLE IRA.

A SIMPLE can be a good choice for a small employer who would like to benefit from the tax deduction for employer contributions while encouraging his or her employees to save for retirement. Many employees will find this sort of plan attractive because it allows for higher contributions than a traditional IRA and requires employer contributions. It entails a greater administrative burden than a SEP, although this burden is still relatively small, and offers less flexibility. If cash flow is not an issue, a SIMPLE plan might be for you.

Once an employer makes a contribution to a SEP or SIMPLE plan, the employee is 100 percent vested in that contribution. Employees can take their contributions with them, even if they quit the next day. If employee retention is a concern, a plan that allows for deferred vesting, such as a Money Purchase Plan (MPP) or Profit Sharing Plan (PSP), may be a better fit. Vesting can either be graduated over a period of years of service or take effect all at once after a certain period of years. These plans are the middle-of-the-line models that provide more features than the most basic plans.

Similar to a SEP, a PSP allows for discretionary contributions by the employer. This is a beneficial feature if the business’ cash flow is a concern. The employer contributes what he or she can and the contributions are divided among employees based on a formula set by the plan. This is commonly based on an individual employee’s compensation relative to total compensation. Employer contributions are limited to the lesser of 100 percent of the employee’s compensation or $51,000 for 2013 ($52,000 for 2014). An employer can deduct amounts that do not exceed 25 percent of aggregate compensation for participants. A plan must be established by the last day of the business’ fiscal year. Contributions are due by the business’ tax filing deadline, including extensions.

A PSP is a good choice if cash flow is variable. It can motivate workers to increase profits and the likelihood of receiving a contribution. However, many employees might not find it as beneficial as a plan with guaranteed contributions. These employees may prefer a Money Purchase Plan (MPP).

A MPP is similar to a PSP, but it requires an annual contribution of a specific percentage of employee compensation, up to 25 percent. This creates a liability for the business, and thus may not be a good choice if cash flow is uncertain. An MPP must be established by the last day of the business’ fiscal year. Contributions must be made by the due date of the employer’s tax return, including extensions.

Standard eligibility requirements for both a PSP and an MPP are employees over age 21 and who have at least one to two years of service with the employer. If two years of service are required for participation, contributions vest immediately.

MPPs and PSPs also may allow loans to participants, a feature that employees often find attractive. Loans are usually limited to either (1) the greater of $10,000 or 50 percent of the vested balance or (2) $50,000, whichever is less. Loans must be repaid, with interest, over 5 years, unless they are used to purchase the employee’s principal residence.

The vesting and loan features make MPPs and PSPs more difficult to establish and maintain than SEP or SIMPLE plans. Both types of plan require employers to file Form 5500 with the IRS annually. These plans also both require testing to ensure that benefits do not discriminate in favor of highly compensated employees. Employers may also find the administration of plan loans to be burdensome. The added features of MPPs and PSPs make them more costly and complicated than the standard model SEP and SIMPLE plans.

You may choose an MPP or PSP if you would like a plan that encourages employee retention and you can handle the extra paperwork. Whether you choose an MPP or a PSP depends mainly on your cash flow.

The fully loaded model retirement plan is the traditional 401(k). These plans allow employee and employer contributions, vesting of employer contributions (employee contributions are always fully vested), and other options such as loans. These plans can be as basic or as complex as the employer wants. However, with complexity comes cost.

Annual employee contributions for a 401(k) are limited to $17,500 for 2013 and 2014. Participants age 50 and older can contribute an additional $5,500. Combined, the employer and employee contributions can be up to the lesser of either 100 percent of compensation or $51,000 for 2013 ($52,000 for 2014). Employers can deduct contributions up to 25 percent of aggregate compensation for participants and all salary reduction contributions. A 401(k) must be adopted by the end of the business’ fiscal year, and contributions are due by the business’s tax filing deadline, plus extensions.

An employer’s contribution to a traditional 401(k) plan can be flexible. Contributions can be a percentage of compensation, a match for employee contributions, both or neither. However, the plan must be tested annually to determine that it does not discriminate against rank-and-file employees in favor or owners and managers. A Safe Harbor 401(k) does not require discrimination testing but does require the employer to make either a specified matching contribution or a 3 percent contribution to all participants.

Commonly, 401(k) plans must be offered to all employees over age 21 who have worked at least 1,000 hours in the previous year.

A 401(k) is a good option for an employer who would like a plan with salary deferral, like a SIMPLE IRA, but also allows for vesting of employer contributions. An employer considering this sort of plan should be able to afford the contributions and the additional administrative work required. A 401(k) is a good option for larger businesses, where the maintenance of such a plan is less burdensome.

The plans I have described in this article are all defined contribution plans. This mean that the plan determines the contributions made, not the ultimate benefits received. Once the contribution is made, the employee invests it however he or she sees fit. At retirement, the amount the employee can withdraw is dictated by the performance of those investments. Poor investments lead to smaller retirement savings.

Defined benefit plans, in contrast, are the Rolls Royces of the retirement plan world. These plans include traditional pension plans, which pay out a set amount to an employee in retirement. The employer, not the employee, takes on the investment risk and will have to make up most shortfalls if the money originally set aside does not cover the ultimate expense.

While in theory an employee could do better with a defined contribution plan, depending on investment results, the certainty of a set payout in retirement makes defined benefit plans highly attractive to participants. However, such plans are costly and administratively complex. On top of annual filings, the plan needs to be tested by an actuary. The required future payments become a liability of the company. The burdens of these plans have made them unattractive for many businesses, and they have become much less common in recent years. In most cases, especially for small businesses with employees, it is not economical to adopt a defined benefit plan.

Adopting a qualified plan for your small business need not be a hassle, even if you want to adopt one for the 2013 tax year. However, be prepared for the administrative complexity, and cost, to grow in step with the plan’s features. In general, though, the benefits of tax-deferred savings and contribution deductions for employers make setting up and maintaining one of these vehicles worth the price tag.

Are Non-Profits Prepared For Strategic Planning?

I wish I could count the number of times I have attended a non-profit strategic planning session, or discussed the need to have (or update) one in a board meeting, or been invited to serve as the facilitator. It has always – always – struck me that the strategic planning session should just be starting about the time that it is actually ending (e.g., too much time is wasted at the beginning and then a frenzy results at the end). The purpose of this article is to outline some observations over 30 years of strategic planning experience and to share suggestions that will improve the chances for a successful outcome.

Holding a Strategic Planning Session
At some point in time, every member of a non-profit board is going to hear the suggestion: “let’s hold a strategic planning session!” from a fellow board member or staff member. It’s not a bad idea but, unfortunately, it’s often a waste of time and produces no measurable outcomes. I want to share some observations and thoughts about strategic planning – invite debate – and see if we can come up with some guidelines that make the investment of time worthwhile. I have often said that strategic planning is a ‘process’ and not an ‘event’ – and I still very much believe that statement is true. However, maybe I should also add the caveat that a successful ‘process’ does indeed require an ‘event’ – or series of events – which is precisely the point. If you agree with my belief that the event often ends about the time it should be starting, then you would have to agree that additional follow-up after the event is required in order to create a meaningful strategic plan because the plan stopped short of completion during the original event. And a lot of time was used inefficiently, which also makes people reluctant to participate in the future.
 
A Working Document
Without a doubt, the primary way that I judge a successful strategic plan is by seeing a copy of it a year after the ‘event.’ If it’s a bit too dusty (which is often said in jest, but is true!) and if the pages are in pristine condition, then the event that created the plan was obviously not successful in motivating action. However, if the copy is dog-eared, marked up, added to, pages tagged, and otherwise well-used; then the event was super successful because a ‘process’ was indeed born and the need for ongoing action was instilled. In my opinion, successful outcomes are too rare in the strategic planning ‘implementation’ phase. The copy of the strategic plan that I described as a success is one that has become a working document, which is what planning is all about.
 
Defining ‘Strategic’
From an analytical standpoint, one way to define something is to determine what it is not. Strategy is different from ‘tactical’ or ‘operational’ (which is actually performing a task). Strategy is more subjective and cerebral; it involves thinking about an issue in broader terms than usual; thinking about circumstances that do not currently exist (i.e., future oriented) and determining how to adapt the organization to benefit from those predicted opportunities or avoid anticipated threats. Often, it involves thinking about an issue totally differently than ever before (which is VERY hard to do). Strategy development is not the same as operations implementation. For example, when I have been invited to ‘do’ strategic planning for an organization, I always ask if there is an Operating Plan; i.e., if you don’t know how to perform your core business every day (Operating Plan), why would you want to spend time working on a future-oriented process (Strategic Plan)? Strategy (highly subjective) is the opposite of operational (highly objective/defined/specific). Objective is ‘cut and dried’ – there is a procedure/process/outcome that arises from certain actions, done at certain times, in a certain way to produce known/certain outcomes. We already know if we do these certain things what we will get. Most people can adequately perform what they are taught/instructed. However, developing strategy – even the process of thinking about it – is very different. A strategic planning session led by a ‘doer’ instead of a ‘strategist’ and ‘critical thinker’ will yield disappointing results; however, ‘doers’ can be very helpful in participating in the development of strategy if they are properly guided. A couple of very simple examples of strategic vs. operational issues will make the point:

Funding
Operational – How are we going to make payroll next month?
Strategic – How do we need to adapt our operations to comply/excel with the recent changes for non-profits by Congress?

New Program
Operational – We need to add a new program to our existing series.
Strategic – We need to add a new series to cover new topics that will take our organization in a new direction.

Operating Plans Are Important
Let me be quick to tout the benefits of an Operating Plan. Properly executed, an Operating Planning Session can provide or refine specific guidance/clarification/policy on any number of day-to-day issues that really can be a big help when running the organization. The primary difference between strategic and operating (which is a huge difference) is that operating plans deal with the ‘here and now’ – with processes and policies that will improve the current business function – strategic plans, simply put, engage the participants in thought processes meant to challenge the current business function by looking into the future and assessing opportunities, threats, weaknesses, and strengths. A good Operating Plan can minimize daily confusion/questions about the manner in which specific job functions should be conducted. The ‘event’ of operations planning – getting the appropriate team together to discuss, debate, and decide the issues – is, in-of-itself, a very worthwhile team-building and clarifying session (if properly planned and executed). While Operating Plans are beyond the scope of this article, I wanted to make sure they were mentioned in a positive context.
 
The Mission Statement and The SWOT Analysis
Unfortunately, most strategic planning sessions seem to begin with either a review of the mission statement or a SWOT analysis. Both are usually ‘deal-busters’ in that they bog down the process of innovative thinking for strategic planning. For example, unless the core business of the organization has been totally disrupted (e.g., by lack of funding or policy, political, social, or technology changes), then the existing mission statement should be in reasonably good condition. To delve into the mission statement – and debate specific words and placement within the text – sucks the life out of the planning session and can often pit individuals against each other right from the start over silly things like wordsmithing. Not only is this unfortunate, but I would suggest that it is totally unnecessary. How can you revise a mission statement until you go through the rigors of the strategic planning process and determine whether or not there are bona-fide strategic issues worth pursuing? My preference is to hold the mission statement for a separate planning meeting after the strategic plan has at least been through an initial rough draft process. Perhaps a good analogy is to look at the mission statement from the back end – maybe it should be thought of as more of an executive summary?
 
Preparation For The Planning Session Is Critical
There is probably no exercise that requires more preparation than strategic planning. Why? Because the participants must be the right ones (those with authority and accountability), the purpose of the exercise must be made very clear (to stay ‘on point’ and eliminate confusion and fear), and the process must be known and engaging in advance (so participants can be prepared to contribute their very best). The most obvious difference between a private-sector strategic planning session and one for a non-profit organization is the inclusion of volunteers, namely the board of directors. The good news is that the planning session will include a diversity of opinion; the bad news is that most board members have probably been through some type of strategic planning before and have preconceived notions about the process based on their previous experiences (hence, the importance of preparing for the session in advance). I will discuss the dynamics of the volunteer participants in a later section.
 
I strongly recommend using an experienced professional outside facilitator (not a staff member, a board member, or a friend of a friend…) for at least three reasons:
 
(1) It is important to have 100% involvement of the entire board and staff members, so using participants to lead sessions or write on flip charts takes them out of the game.
 
(2) The selected facilitator must fully understand the main points presented in this article and have familiarity with applying them in actual planning sessions. (I will discuss some thoughts on selecting a facilitator in a later section.)
 
(3) You cannot be a prophet in your own land – your fellow board members and/or staff will resent you for being the strategic planning leader (even if you are experienced). Obtaining outside help eliminates this problem.
 
If possible, share copies of previous strategic plans (with the participants and the facilitator) as part of the preparation process that takes place well in advance of the event. Successful planning takes more time in preparation than it does in execution; this is a good rule of thumb to remember. If very little (or no) planning goes into the preparation, the participants will show up without direction and without having pondered creative solutions to some known issues to get their juices flowing; the event will likely be a disaster (and a waste of a lot of precious time).
 
Conducting The Advanced Preparation
Plenty of lead time is important; six months is not too long. Start by regularly discussing the need/desire of a strategic planning session at board and staff meetings. A letter to the board from the chair is a good way to officially announce that a strategic planning session is necessary. That letter should include a few examples of issues that are pressing the organization for strategic solutions. The board may wish to name a committee responsible for the planning (or, the board may already have a Strategic Planning Committee). Remembering that the plan is intended to be forward looking, it is important to involve up-and-coming board and staff members; their participation will be critical to the future implementation of the plan, so it is imperative they be involved in the development of it. Newer participants are often more reluctant to engage during the planning session because they conclude, perhaps rightly so, that there is a lot of history that they do not know. Remembering that strategic planning is forward looking, the facilitator must work hard to bring everybody into the dialogue because past history is less important than future strategy.
 
Let’s cover a few aspects of the advanced preparation checklist:
 
Participation
Remember that inviting the participants is easier than getting them to attend the session! This is one of the best reasons for beginning the discussions about the planning session six months in advance. My suggestion (this is a bit radical) is that it be made clear that if a participant cannot arrive on time and stay for the entire event, then they should not attend. This rule will make clear the importance of full participation. Reiterating this for several months prior to the session will make it less likely to have a misunderstanding on the day of the event. (If the organization is extremely proactive, then it already has a policy on board attendance and what is considered an excused absence.)
 
The Venue
How important is the selection of the place to hold the planning session? I would argue that it is more important than most people think (i.e., it is very important). I would strongly suggest that the venue be away from the normal meeting places. In addition, distractions like golf courses should be avoided; and, selecting a location where there is no cell phone reception takes care of a whole host of problems. Included in the selection of the venue are a number of other seemingly mundane issues, but planning in advance can make the difference between success and failure. A few examples:

  • Make sure the primary meeting room is extraordinary. It must be comfortable in every way, from the chairs to the location of the restrooms. If possible, select a meeting room with full technology tools; you want the session to be impressive.
  • Do not expect the attendees to bunk together. Secure enough rooms in advance to accommodate all of those who plan to attend. Private bathrooms are a must.
  • Food selections should be made in advance, particularly taking into account vegetarian preferences. Avoid caffeine and sugar as much as possible because studies have found that while both spike attention, there is ultimately an attention crash.
  • Decisions about alcohol, smoking, group recreation activities, etc. should all be made in advance. To keep things simple, I suggest avoiding all of the above.
  • Regular breaks – where some exercise is suggested and some quiet/alone time is provided – will increase the productivity of the output in the sessions. Make sure there is a printed agenda – distributed well in advance of the session – and spell out all events to the minute. Do not deviate from the schedule.

Length of the Planning Session
Determining the proper length of the session is important. I continue to believe that planning sessions end about the time they should be starting/continuing. Why? Because without a lot of advanced planning and attention to detail, the event begins sluggishly and does not naturally find a participative course until too late. However, I have never been to a multi-day ‘seminar’ that I thought was worth my time because I do not play golf and am not looking at seminars or planning sessions for my recreation and social outings. I feel strongly that the importance of the planning session should be kept paramount in the minds of the participants. There is no reason to draw things out just for the sake of having a lengthy planning session. How short is too short? A strategic planning session cannot be successfully held in one morning. How long is too long? Anything longer than a couple of days will cause a negative impact on the operations of the organization, given that the entire leadership team is at the strategic planning event. However, the best session I ever attended lasted the better part of three days. And, it was a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (intentionally selected so as not to interfere with normal operations).
 
Planning Session Case Study
An appropriately sized inn was selected – in a rural area and about 90 minutes out of town – and the organization rented the entire facility. It was extremely well planned, in advance, and all contingencies were considered (private rooms, meals, walking trails, multiple meeting rooms, no cell service, personal time built into the agenda, etc.) Written materials had been distributed weeks in advance. The facilitating team (outside consultants) had met individually with each participant prior to the event; the five-person consulting team arrived Friday morning to set up. There were 24 participants (ranging from the CEO to new managers), who arrived after lunch on Friday, checked into their rooms, and were in place for the afternoon (opening) session at 3 p.m. on Friday. Another session was conducted after dinner on Friday evening and multiple sessions were conducted on Saturday. The event concluded at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Of special note is that every participant left the session with a copy of the draft strategic plan that commemorated the first session in the planning process. Updates were added as they became available in the days, weeks, and months to come. Goals and objectives were established to produce measurable outcomes and revised as necessary. Organization-wide communications were important, so assignments were made to brief the entire employee population on the plan and its iterative changes. This strategic planning event remains the best I have ever attended. Contrast this brief description with the planning events you have attended and you will see the difference that commitment can make. And, important to mention: the resulting strategic plan completely transformed the organization, as was intended (the organization reduced its service territory and its product offerings, opting to focus on its core strengths). A better outcome could not be imagined.
 
The Cost of Strategic Planning
I do not believe in the old saying, “you get what you pay for.” Instead, I believe you will get no more than you pay for and you might not even get that much if you are not fully engaged with the service provider. Good strategic planning is not cheap. Many for-profit organizations cannot afford it, so it is no surprise that the non-profit organizations struggle mightily with the cost. A common practice is to have a friend-of-a-friend conduct a 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (with lunch!) planning session for free (or for a few hundred dollars). How successful is this approach? I would suggest not successful at all – and, potentially giving a negative impression to strategic planning because the session was so grossly inadequate. If this is true, then it is literally better not to have a strategic planning session that to have a bad one. Fees vary all over the board but, for example, the case study presented above cost $50,000 (negotiated down from $75,000 in conjunction with the experimentation of producing the draft plan during the session) – and that was over 15 years ago. I am familiar with a recent strategic plan for a non-profit organization – conducted by a national consulting firm specializing in the operations of that specific non-profit industry – and the cost was $75,000 about two years ago. However, take note: a donor sponsored 100% of the cost under the belief that without a strategic plan, the organization was in trouble. So, my suggestion would be to seek donor funding for the strategic planning costs. Also, I would suggest that the organization tout the existence of its strategic plan in its printed material and on its web site, thereby demonstrating that it is proactive and performs in a business-like manner, which can provide a competitive advantage during fundraising.

 
Selecting a Strategic Planning Consultant
The case study above mentions a five-person consulting team. This was part of an experiment that required that number of consultants because the end product, as explained above, was a draft copy of the strategic plan in the hands of every participant. This required the appropriate technology to be on hand (PC, projector, screen, copiers, etc.) and a typist who was the fastest I have ever seen. Part of the experiment was to enable the participants to be fully engaged in the conversation by not taking notes; instead, everything that was said was typed on the PC and projected on the screen. During breaks, the consulting team would group suggestions into logical sections. One consultant handled all contingencies. The other three took turns facilitating the various sessions to offer a distinct change of pace. During lunch on the closing day, copies were made for all participants and reviewed in the final session before adjournment. Admittedly, this was extreme; however, it certainly was effective. Generally speaking, however, find a consultant from a reference, meet with the person (or persons) to determine if you have a good personality fit (important), discuss the specific scope of work, ask for references (and check them), and ask to review copies of other strategic plans the consultant has led (these may be proprietary, but a reference can provide you with a copy – or at least let you look at a copy – so you can see the actual work product and evaluate it). Make sure that the consulting fee includes preliminary work and follow-up work. Also, make sure that the consultant’s background is a good fit for the type of organization (some people believe that a good facilitator can facilitate anything, but I disagree; there are always strengths and weaknesses in a person’s knowledge base).
 
The Dynamics of the Planning Session
The biggest challenge for any planning session is to keep the group ‘on point’ (i.e., on the subject) and to involve, ideally, everybody in the group in the dialogue. Speaking of ‘dialogue,’ the word is not interchangeable with ‘discussion’ – you want a dialogue not a discussion – the word discussion is derived from percussion which indicates ‘banging, striking, scraping, etc.’ (precisely the wrong connotation) and is usually an informal debate (also the wrong connotation). Dialogue, on the other hand, is a conversation and an exchange of ideas (not a debate). Managing personality differences, tenure differences (who knows what because of how long they have been associated with the organization), starting on time (even if everybody is not present!), ending on time (i.e., following the agenda), and recording the comments of the participants are rightful expectations for the client to have of the facilitator/consultant. Basic issues of respect (we are all adults) is the responsibility of each participant. I have never attended a strategic planning session where there was not at least one person who did not want to be there – and, unfortunately, it was obvious through words and body language – which projected a certain amount of negativity on the entire group. In cases such as this, it is up to the CEO to determine how the situation should best be handled; I recommend removing the negativity from the session.
 
Next Steps for Successful Implementation
Too often (if not the majority of the time!) “what happens at the strategic planning retreat stays at the strategic planning retreat…” While this may work in Vegas, it is a sorry outcome for serious strategic planning! Information must be shared after the retreat. My experience indicates that success comes from follow-up, follow-up, and more follow-up. I suggest a “champion” – an individual (or very small team) that will manage the implementation of the strategic plan – with unimpeded, direct access to the CEO. (If the CEO is not fully supportive then the strategic plan is doomed to failure.) Most importantly, I suggest that everyone involved understand, accept, and embrace the unequivocal fact that additional changes will be needed during the implementation phase. This is as it should be. Documenting these changes (and why), revising goals and objectives, timelines, assignments and providing printed copies to be inserted into all the individual strategic planning notebooks is the best way I know to keep the entire team involved in the process. (Remember, we are striving for a process, not an event…)
 
Conclusions/Recommendations
The purpose of this article was to share some observations over 30 years of strategic planning experience and to share suggestions for pre-planning that will improve the chances for a successful outcome. I remain concerned that the non-profit sector (more so than the government sector or the private sector) is typically not ready for strategic planning because they don’t have the funds to do an adequate job and the pre-planning is not thorough. A successful outcome from this article would be to get non-profit leaders to think about the subject of strategic planning more seriously – and to halt any existing plans until key elements of this article are at least considered. Entire books are written on the subject of strategic planning, so this article does not portend to be conclusive, only to make clear the importance of strategic planning and doing it right. Feedback and comments are invited.