How To Design Your Own Visioning Retreat
An interview with Matthew Chun, Group CEO & Managing Director,
Simonds Group Ltd, by Glenn A.Williams
As part of my ongoing research and development into the subject of visioning, I periodically take the opportunity to sit down and discuss the different processes people use for visioning.
Matthew and I worked together in preparation for (and beyond) his promotion to the role of CEO at Becton in 2008, a publicly listed company in Australia, on the eve of the global financial crisis (GFC).
When Matthew stepped down from this position almost five years later, he facilitated and lead a personal retreat for one - himself. Guided by the work we had done previously and by my writing on the subject of visioning, Matthew set about designing his own process for envisioning a new business that would be a deeper expression of his sense of purpose.
This interview was conducted in October 2015.
Q&A With Matthew Chun
How did you get started, back in 2013?
I think the foundation of the next stage of my journey was well set in part by the conversations that we had together during my time as CEO of Becton. Having those quiet moments during our regular sessions together enabled me to stop and reflect on some options and eventually led me from articulating ideas to putting them into action.
I had been focused on trying to make sure that the business had a good vision and that I could take my team on that journey. So, I thought to myself, maybe I should do the same thing for my own journey.
One piece of the puzzle that I connected with very well was Simon Sinek’s TED talk called “How great leaders inspire action”. The essence of that 18-minute speech is that for people to engage with you at a real level, they need to understand why you do what you do. It has a much better cut through with your customers than if you were doing it for maybe other reasons. It’s that authenticity that I really connected with in that talk. I realized that I had to find a way to look inside myself and understand what my “why” was. Why was I doing things? What was really motivating me, other than going to work and getting paid? So, that was the inspiration for deciding to plan a visioning retreat, at that time.
How did you prepare yourself for your visioning retreat?
I started by deciding to go to a place that I really enjoy. A place that I find puts me in the best peace of mind. For me, that place was my holiday house. I had to put myself in that sort of an environment to get to the deeper level of thinking that I needed to get to. So, that was the first step.
The second step was considering how I was going to facilitate a retreat on my own. I did toss around whether I should have someone else there with me. I concluded that it was better for me to be on my own and just spend a few days, not trying to rush it.
The third piece was how I would structure it. The way I would go about it would be to put my thoughts down on butcher paper and put them up around the lounge room so I could reflect on them over the two days in between doing some recreational things like going for a walk, a swim or a surf. I planned these R&R activities for in between the various sessions I designed for myself, to give my thoughts and feelings time to sink in and be processed.
I decided to go mid-week rather than over a weekend. I envisaged it would be less disruptive to my family and quieter down the coast.
I booked my visioning retreat a month in advance. I started to think about how I would try and work through those two days to achieve my intended outcome. Whilst it wasn’t highly structured, a certain pattern did emerge: on the first day I focused on putting down as many thoughts as possible, and the second day shifted into a day of interpretation. I worked out some logical blocks of time, dedicating the first morning to my teenage years and twenties, with the afternoon reserved for my thirties and early forties.
Even though I did not achieve the kind of clarity of vision I was looking for by the end of the second day, I was quite happy to head home and try it again later. I didn’t want to put a lot of pressure on myself to have to find the solution. I thought it was so important that I needed to make sure it came from deep within, as opposed to forcing a solution to materialize to meet the time that had been allocated.
What did your visioning process look like and how did it work?
When I arrived and settled in, my journey started with having a look back through my life, reflecting on why I had made certain decisions. I went back as far as I could remember, to when I was 9-10 years old. It was at that time when I made my first real decision: I wanted a surf board but my parents told me that I had to save for it myself. Since I really wanted one, I decided right then and there that I would earn that money. So I got a job doing newspaper rounds and that is how I bought my first surf board. I started to write all these things down, all the decisions that I had needed to make. Why I chose certain subjects, why I went to university, why I chose certain jobs, why I took on various voluntary roles within organisations and communities. Decisions about my partner. Decisions about children. Big decisions I had made at Becton. Pretty large decisions I had made with respect to roles within my surf club. I just put all these things down on a timeline and dedicated a piece of butcher paper to each of these main life events I had experienced. Then I hung them around me on the walls, to reflect on.
I got up quite early each day, did some exercise and then I was into it by 8am. I worked roughly in two-hour blocks. I took a break mid to late morning, did some more work, had a late lunch, did more work and then had dinner. There were three sessions per day.
Did you have any insights during the process?
At a very simple level, I was putting down my biography if you like, impressions in words. What I was trying to do was to get to a place where I could unpack a lot of thoughts that were in my head and take the noise out of my thinking. By putting these experiences on the wall, I was trying to see if there were any patterns in my behaviour that could give me some sense of the mess. It was a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. The first thing I had to do was put all the pieces out so I could see every single piece. Then I could put all the blues together, sort the red pieces together, etc. I had to find and piece together the four corners, and then start putting the side pieces in to link them together. I had all this information in my head, stored in my memories, but I didn’t really know how to process it to arrive at that next step, in terms of a somewhat logical and linear sequence. By putting it all down and then just looking at each of the various things that I had done, the various decisions that I had made, I was trying to find a common thread that was running through the course of my life. That is what I was trying to intuitively do, through this process, I realised.
I found this process very enjoyable, perhaps even cathartic. I discovered several distinct patterns in the things that I’d done and achieved. Until I put all that stuff down, I think I had forgotten several important experiences in my life – particularly how hard some things had been or might have been. My decisions were made by different parts of my decision-making faculties: my heart, my head or my gut. I remembered that we had talked about this a lot in our sessions together and it was interesting to think back and reflect on that. When you look back it all makes sense but it certainly wasn’t a grand plan that this is how my life was going to come out like. There was a level of consistency and logic behind what I was doing, but at the time I don't think I realized that. Maybe that’s just the wisdom in hindsight?
It was an enjoyable day. When I got to the end of it, I actually felt like I had achieved something. I was very nervous going into it, worried that I might come away without a solution. However, by the end of the day I was pretty excited about where I felt I was heading, as some themes were emerging.
I suppose that if you examine your own story, you start to find, a bit like a novel or book, that there is some kind of narrative there. There are some threads, patterns or a direction that is taking place that can guide you to what the protagonist or the main character in the book should do next.
In my case, I think this narrative was certainly starting to come through by later on the first day. My mirror on the wall reflected back to me that whilst the decisions I had made had been very career-focused, I had also had quite a big involvement in this voluntary community. In some respect, the two are potentially at odds with each other. They both require a lot of your time but while one provides no financial benefit, the other one does. I was interested in the juxtaposition, I suppose, and wanted to find out where I was getting the satisfaction from but it was the commonality between the two where the light bulb went off.
I think from a very superficial level I have always worked hard to derive an income. The harder I had worked, the more money I would have which would give me the ability to do more things. That had been drummed into me at a young age - you work hard, you get a good job, you’ll earn more money to do better things. So, that was a basic type of path to follow and that certainly was a driver behind my work ethic. But I couldn't work out what the driver behind the other part was: the voluntary work. Obviously, I hadn't put as much time in it as I had invested into my work, but it was a significant amount of time that I had devoted for no financial reward.
I realized that there was something in there. So if I stripped the money away, what was the enjoyable part of work? Why had I derived so much enjoyment from it?
That’s when some of the light bulbs started going off and then I started unpacking this further. What are some of the really big things that I’ve enjoyed in my career and why were those moments so rewarding?
One of my most significant voluntary roles was putting a syndicate together to buy a local pub, to prevent it from disappearing. It was a lot of work and not for a huge financial reward but a lot of emotion went into that project. I put a lot of heart and soul into that.
I had a feeling that there was a common theme running through it all: the different events at work and the decisions I made regarding my broader and more intimate family. I thought that if I could articulate that theme, then, perhaps, I could unlock the magic to give me the deeper sense of why I do what I do that I was searching for. What started as unformed impressions on the first day became clearer ideas on the second day as I tried to answer the question: "What is common in all that?"
There were a number of words I started to put together, and then a few sentences and I ended up completing a whole paragraph by the end of the second day.
What did the insight help you to realize?
The small beachside town in Victoria that I had spent many of my weekends and vacations in growing up has a population of about 700 people. There might be around 2,000 homes which are mostly holiday homes. There is a small hotel, a pub, a general store and a couple of distillery kind of shops. In 2010 the pub closed down. The owner wanted to sell the land - potentially to a developer - and thought he would make more money than he was operating it as a pub. I think he had made that decision earlier, but as the GFC came along, there weren't a lot of developers looking to invest in coastal towns or coastal real estate. The hotel didn’t sell so it sat on the market vacant for a few months with no one running the pub and the whole town died once the pub closed.
I think it is one of those things you take for granted. In a country town, the pub is the heart and soul. Every meeting is run there. Every gathering is run there. The town felt like it had lost something. I had spent a lot of my youth in that pub and it housed a lot of wonderful memories for me. We sat around talking one night with some other locals, about how awful it was not having the pub anymore. The idea came to us that maybe we should try to put a syndicate together to buy it. I suppose that I was a pretty big driver behind. I had so many good memories in that hotel that for me to see it get demolished and turned into something else was heartbreaking. I also wanted my children to enjoy the fun times to come in their futures, like I had, growing up there.
I started talking to people in the town. Everyone felt that it was a great idea. We were able to rally up ten people pretty quickly. We bought the pub, refurbished it and now it is travelling really, really well.
It was extremely satisfying. From a financial reward perspective, it’s been okay but on an emotional level, it has been one of the the most rewarding and gratifying things I had ever done.
This got to the core of what I was looking for from my visioning retreat - something that really motivates me and gives me the most satisfaction. The answer was: making a positive impact on people’s lives through things that I do. That showed up everywhere when I looked afresh at the pieces of butcher’s paper that now decorated the walls around me.
That example, where people are coming up to me in the town and are so thankful that we saved the pub, had made a significant impression on me. That was a fantastic feeling for me. I felt like I had made a valid contribution to my community because its people had something valuable back in their lives.
When I then reflected on that experience, it opened my eyes to what had shaped decisions I had made at Becton. We had gone through a number of serious challenges but I was deeply proud to find solutions and finish projects that people benefited from, including my staff. I had overseen a significant period of downsizing and retrenchments within the business due to the GFC. I was proud, in retrospect, that we had managed to deal really, really fairly with people during my tenure. They were able to go off and get other jobs. Still to this day, when I see people from Becton who have gone off and done various different things, I appreciate that they could have potentially ended up much worse off. This gives me a great deal of satisfaction.
Then the whole lifesaving theme is exactly the same. Whether it is being on patrol or at work within the community, it literally means saving someone from drowning. Having an impact on children's lives by teaching them how to be safe in the water is an indescribable feeling. Nipper is one of the programs I run through which we do just that and parents often come up to me and tell me how thankful they are.
My final conclusion was that my biggest motivation and the most rewarding aspect of any kind of work I do is having a positive impact on people’ s lives. How could I translate that into what I do on a day-to-day basis that would give me even greater authenticity and integrity about what I do? That question was the guiding light I was looking for. All I had to do was figure out how I could make an impact on someone in my future workplace because I knew that it would give me a great deal of satisfaction. Getting paid for that, too, would be a bonus.
This was all about getting more purpose and understanding why I do things. I found my true motivation and no matter what path I would choose to follow, I would have a firm base to build upon.
How long did it take you to get to the point of clarity?
It felt like I was working towards an “aha!” moment about this deepened sense of purpose that would guide my future. I started exploring with a new set of questions. What markets can I participate in? Where do I have the skillset to do that? Where can I apply this deeper sense of why I am doing things into markets where I can be the best? What am I passionate about that I can get paid for?
Where do all those things connect? There was a series of iterations based around my previous experiences, qualifications, knowledge and networks.
The thought process continued after this two-day retreat. I had a series of visioning sessions with myself after the retreat, where I sat down and asked more questions and started to look for the answers by talking to people about more opportunities. Gaps in the market started to become more visible because I researched what people were doing differently from each other. It wasn’t something that I came up with within the next week but that evolved and is still evolving today. It involved setting aside a time of each week. Every Monday morning, I set aside some time to be alone and think about where I wanted to go. If I came across things that needed more intelligence I would go and seek out that intelligence. I did a lot of work around population trends. I did a lot of work around housing trends. I did a lot of work around where I saw the next fifty years headed. I arrived at a hypothesis on how I think real estate would evolve over the next fifty years. I chose real estate as that is what I had done for my whole career. It made sense to continue. Then I considered which sector of real estate to engage in. Was it going to be commercial, residential or something else? I did a lot of work around where I thought the most sustainable part would be – both from an economic and a personal perspective. I tried to be a bit of a futurist, but from a fact-based perspective. I sought a lot of research from economic forecasters in demographics and also real estate forecasts in terms of planning and density and those sorts of things. This helped me narrow down on a target market and product portfolio for a business I subsequently launched in July 2013, called Chun Group.
What are the benefits of having a clear vision?
It has certainly enabled me to articulate to my team what I stand for. This helps us as a team explore how we can take something that is a strength of mine and use it to collectively make a real positive difference in our community. I think that it has also given me a good insight into who I am.
It makes for a much better workplace. People join you and your business if they understand where you are coming from, what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it.
Having a deeper sense of vision has also really helped me say no to things. I think one of the lessons from the Becton story was that I found it much harder to say no to certain things whereas within this new mindset, I know exactly what I should look at and spend my time and energy doing without being distracted by other parts. Whether it is noise in the market or other things I could potentially earn fees from, for example, I know it is most probably won’t fulfil my deeper sense of being or purpose.
Furthermore, there is a profound level of clarity now. I am absolutely certain about where I want to go and where I want the business to go.
Everything I am doing is ultimately giving me a deeper level of satisfaction. I never really understood why I do what I do before - now I do. I know that the work that I’m doing – both in the moment and when it gets completed will give me a rewarding sense of fulfilment, beyond getting paid, that makes me feel like I am making a worthwhile contribution.
What did you learn about visioning? What tips would you offer?
I think the biggest learning for me was not to force it. I was really frustrated initially. When I was watching the Simon Sinek video, I really wanted to get to that life quickly. Yet, I couldn’t work out how to get there quickly and it was frustrating me. The question about “What is your why?” was hard for me to understand. So the sort of methods I used to try and take that pressure off was talking to as many people about it as I could, whether they had the answer or not. I found myself having "the why conversation" with people, searching to see if other people knew and understood their “why”. I found that the majority of people haven’t done that piece of work and didn’t even know what I was talking about. However, there are some people who have done it and are deeply connected with their sense of purpose.
I think that going through this process of visioning is not something you want to rush. Talk to a lot of people and let it come naturally. That is what worked for me in the end. I gave myself lots of time and I am still to this day working on it, refining it and being aware of it.
Being open-minded allowed my vision to unfold. A progressively better sense of clarity about how to move forward and set direction, not only for myself but now also for my team, makes me more effective from a leadership perspective.
In April 2016, Matthew joined Simonds Homes, assuming the position of Group CEO & Managing Director, which acquired Chun Group in the process.
Simonds is an ASX listed (ASX Code: SIO) integrated homebuilder (Simonds Homes) and Registered Training Organisation (Builders Academy Australia).
Simonds Homes is the number one residential homebuilder in Victoria and one of Australia’s largest volume builders with operations in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia.
Builders Academy Australia is a Registered Training Organisation with a focus on offering nationally accredited qualifications in building and construction.
Established more than ten years ago, Builders Academy Australia offers training programs across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.
Embedded within one of Australia’s leading home builders, Builders Academy Australia truly is ‘builders training builders’, offering a clear career upskilling and employment pathway for course participants.
As part of its ongoing evolution, Chun Group was rebranded to Hub Property Group in April 2017.
Glenn’s Observations & Conclusion
When I reflect on my interview with Matthew, it is apparent to me that Matthew made a conscious choice to put himself into a familiar environment where he knew there were some recreational things he could do in between working on his vision.
Takeaway #1: Minimising uncertainty helped Matthew focus on maximizing success when it came to confronting the uncertainty of his future.
Takeaway #2: The biographical technique Matthew used as a preliminary approach to framing how he engaged with envisioning his future, can be a powerful way to help distinguish what to preserve and what to change, through the process of adapting.
Takeaway #3: A new level of insight fed into a new level of foresight about where to go next.
Takeaway #4: The two stages of the creative process – first divergent and then secondly convergent – aligned with the design of his two-day visioning retreat (or visioning advance, if you prefer that term, as a play on words).
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