value does a visit to a retreat actually add to the life of a busy senior HR
executive? Does it allow them to reprioritise goals to make them more efficient
at work or just provide a welcome break from the stresses that are part of life
today in HR? We send our features
writer Phil Boucher to a stately home and a monastery to find out
Never mind the idea that there is no such thing as a free lunch any more, in
journalism these days there is barely time for lunch at all. And while we hacks
skip off to a press conference every so often, such events are always
overshadowed by the inevitable deadline waiting for us back at the office. So I
jumped at the chance to take part in an HR executive retreat programme held at
Waverley Abbey House in Farnham, Surrey.
With a brief to "stop, think and step out of your lives", five HR
executives and I were given two days to "take control in a busy
world". Leading us on this voyage of discovery were Chris Blakeley and
Geoff Shattock, programme directors from Waverley Learning, organiser of the
The first morning begins with an ice-breaking session where the task is to
find something in common with everybody else in the room – harder than you
would imagine as we all have remarkably different tastes, particularly in
music. But it serves its purpose as a conversation starter and leads on to a
lesson in relaxation from Shattock that has the entire room drifting off into
With the preliminaries over, the Waverley team starts the programme for
real. Over the next two days it set a number of conundrums designed to draw out
hidden strengths and encourage self-understanding. For each group member this
leads down different paths, but each one is treated as valid and accepted
"You bring with you the important issues and questions in your working
life, whether they include a sense of potential and change or a difficult
decision or problem," says Blakeley.
"For many people this often involves bigger questions about life in general
– the ones that can lead to real progress, but which you never seem to get the
time or space to tackle properly."
Waverley’s programme is designed to tackle some of these "bigger
questions". We were also asked what we want from work, where we powerfully
contribute and what assumptions could be constraining us.
To find the answers we were asked to assess a number of ambiguous concepts
such as "How did I get here today?" and, "Where am I?" This
was primarily done in moments of quiet contemplation either in the house or
throughout the grounds and was followed by a group discussion on our answers.
Blakeley then led the discussion into how to strengthen leadership, be-come
more principled and identify resources that are available for generating
change. As a former HR manager, Blakeley has based the retreat on his own
experiences and uses the theme of "conviction as well as competence"
to help the group analyse their position within a company structure. He also
discussed how HR can get "beneath the corporate culture while remaining
authentic" – contributing to the company ethos while still remaining true
to your own principles.
This prompting often led to frank, open and, at times, emotional discussion
as we all identified areas of life we would like to change and spoke of the
struggles we have had in coping with certain aspects. By the end of the first
day we had reached the stage where we had identified the areas we would like to
improve and possible reasons why they have held us back in the first place.
The second day began with a head and neck massage, coupled with another set
of relaxation exercises from Shattock. This removed any overnight tension and
had the group refocused within minutes.
The agenda was to find some solutions by the day’s end. As Blakeley
explains, "During the retreat we help you, and you help each other to
address some questions. In doing so you become clearer about your stance and
more confident in your way forward. We give you development techniques that
enable you to clarify."
Further discussion and internal reflection followed and we also employed the
use of "timelines", which saw us walking through an imaginary path of
the future – the idea being that you walk forward visualising what’s holding
you back and then gain an understanding of how life might change for the
"Sooner or later your questions will take you from thought to
action," explains Blakeley. "These action steps can often be simpler
than you think and working them out helps to clarify where you would like to
This all helps to find what the Waverley team describes as your "core
process" – unique talents that form the basis of your effectiveness in
work and life. And for the rest of the day the group were charged with the
quest of uncovering these.
For me, personally, this proved to be elusive, despite two members of the
team counselling me individually. I eventually narrowed it down to a choice of
"Trusting my gut feeling" and "Being a good communicator",
but others in the group had more success. Once the rest of the group had found
their core processes, Blakeley and the team were able to suggest methods of
bringing these talents to the fore by identifying how it already works
effectively in their lives.
To bring all the different aspects of the day together, we were then asked
what we wanted to achieved by tomorrow, in two months, by the end of the year
and before we die. The rest of the day was devoted to finding some answers.
For me this involved climbing a hill and sitting in the sun, although others
chose to stroll around the lake or sit in the gardens . On returning, Shattock
turned the answers into simple diagrams detailing what is important to us as
individuals, where we would like to go and how the core process fits in to it
all. Worries and fears were also included to provide a visual interpretation of
each of our lives at that moment.
Drawing the group into a huddle, Blakeley and then had one simple exercise
left. As a finale we were encouraged to give each other advice based upon what
we had witnessed in the group. Although it was one of the more unusual
exercises we carried out, it did provide an intimate ending to the retreat.
In any other circumstances, this would have been a self-conscious experience
but given the level of confession that had existed over the two days it
provided a fitting conclusion. Indeed, as we left Shattock was to remind us of
Socrates’ words "an unexamined life is not worth living".
Waverley Learning, which operates out of Waverley Abbey House, offers a
range of executive retreat programmes. The HR programme is aimed at
strengthening leadership and how to "exercise leadership for an HR
role" and get you to think deeply about the powerful position you occupy
within an organisation. It is one of several run by Waverley Learning and costs
£790 for two days which includes one-to-one coaching, relaxating massage and
meal. Its maximum ratio is six participants to every course director.
Remaining retreats this year are 14-15 June, 23-24 July and 5-6 November.
With CEOs and senior-level executives being ousted in record times, the
pressure on those at the top to deliver has never been greater. All the signs
are that executive stress is likely to increase in the next five years and
while shipping your senior managers off to a health spa can be effective in the
short term, it does not always provide sufficient mental distance from the
stress-inducing environment that caused the problems in the first place. Senior
managers can literally seek sanctuary at the Monastery of Christ the King in
Cockfosters, which is setting itself up as the ultimate retreat for redressing
the work-life balance.
"We believe you need to find stillness," says Father Anthony
Smithwicks. "It is only after you have found complete stillness that you
are able to look inside yourself and say ‘there is a me in all of this’."
And Father Anthony should know. A Benedictine monk for more than 15 years,
he has spread the good word from South America to New York and Paris. He now
combines his parish and theological duties with running the adjoining
Benedictine Spiritual Centre, a specially created area of lay retreat.
Although the monastery runs specific programmes for executives, there were
none scheduled during my visit so it was largely up to me what I did during my
stay, but Father Anthony did discuss the philosophy behind the spiritual
"Our aim is to help people find a better balance between life and
work," he says. "The idea is to find a level where you are able to remove
the persona you project on a daily basis and reveal your hidden gifts. We don’t
expect people to take part in anything unless they really want to as we find it
usually takes about two to three days for people to get used to being
comfortable with this.
"People have forgotten how to relax," he says. "Take eating.
It is either grabbing a bite on the way out the door, a sandwich on the move or
fast food on the way home. Most will also have their dinner in front of the TV.
We think eating is very important and that it is important to have a reason to
eat and be able to reflect on what you are eating and why."
On the retreat this can mean breaking bread with the brothers or just taking
the time to settle down at a table and reflect. As with the rest of the retreat
it is entirely up to the individual, although lunching with the brothers does
more than introduce you to the intricacies of a Monk’s diet.
It is an integral part of maintaining what Father Anthony describes as the
"held space" within the retreat centre and monastery, and taking part
in some of the daily rituals enables you to feel this sense of support more
"It’s important, so that you can become still and truly honest with
yourself," he explained. "We are willing to share the burden of your
stress and fears so that you can remove the false persona and display the
person driving it all."
And while this can entail little more than sitting around listening to the
monks chant prayers, there are several options available. The retreat is open
to both individuals or groups and you can take part in an organised retreat
such as "Being Human", "Meditation for Beginners" or
"Creative Solitude". You can also use the monks as a sounding board
to find out more about yourself.
While I was there I spoke to David Bowman, a senior environmental adviser
with Shell Oil, who uses the retreat to achieve a better balance between work
and family life through talking to the monks and learning about St Benedict’s
1,000-year-old philosophy. "A balance has to be found," he explains.
"Your employer’s paying you so you have to give them some respect But when
I first started working for Shell I was moving from Holland to Australia and
the US. I started to think it wasn’t right so I made a conscious decision to
make my family an equal priority. Other people didn’t and many of them saw
their families disappear in a matter of years."
Father Anthony says, "People come here and they are locked inside the
persona they project around them. By the third or fourth day they have shed
everything. A retreat helps people to establish time for work, time for
leisure, times for silence and moments when to speak."
"We try to help people understand their own humanity and show that
spirituality is a part of life, not apart from life.
The Benedictine Spiritual Centre
The Benedictine Spiritual Centre is attached to the Monastery of Christ the
King, Cockfosters, north-east London.
Prices vary according to the type of retreat. Quiet days, including lunch
with the monastic community, cost £12. Overnight accommodation starts at £17
for bed and breakfast. Couples are also catered for in a number of double rooms.
Organised retreats range from £35 to £280 and are aimed at all sections of
society. A Christian theme is in evidence throughout them all, although you do
not have to be a believer to take part. The monks share the responsibility for
the retreat with members of the local community who are encouraged to take a
lead as much as possible.
The entire centre can also be hired for £150 a day and a conference room
with a capacity of 75 is also available for £90. For information call 020-8449
2499. Alternatively, e-mail BenedictineCentreN14UK@compuserve.com