Book Talk On “The Offsite: A Leadership Challenge Fable”


The Offsite is a quirky quick read, a short novel by leadership consultant Robert H. Thompson. There are no talking animals or inanimate objects that adopt human characteristics a la Aesop’s Fables  but rather vignettes of leadership struggles and truths portrayed during an offsite team-building, leadership-development, and passion-finding session. I’ll tell you about the characters, give a glimpse on what was insightful and what was contrived, and give ideas for using the book.

My favorite character was Sam Arthur, a former CEO and leadership guru turned part-time retiree, university lecturer, and hotel gardener. He relished his gardening position not necessarily for its job content but because it gave him an opportunity to gauge the leadership potential of those he encountered, many of whom judge him as insignificant because he is working in a laborer position. (I was both intrigued and repelled by the idea that I, as a reader, may, possibly, assign worthiness to an individual based on status or title.)

Other characters include

  • Abby Bancroft: owner of Perfect Leadership Consulting, offsite organizer and facilitator
  • Mary Mitchell: hotel waitress turned assistant hotel manager, who began her journey toward transformation following a public display of appreciation by Abby Bancroft at a previous seminar
  • Gordon Murphy: newly appointed CEO of American Laboratory for Molecular Research (ALMR), a pharmaceutical company that is planning a joint sales venture with Advanced Biomolecular Pharmaceuticals (ABP)
  • Joe Vanderson: sales vice president of ALMR, a true salesperson and relationship manager who has been promoted beyond his level of competency (see Peter Principle); though he enjoys good relationships with the FDA, key accounts, and joint venture capitalists, he is portrayed as a workplace bully and leadership antithesis
  • Gwen Kelly: director of sales for ABP who is struggling because she is trying to manage rather than lead her sales team
  • Jerry Allen: vice president of business development of ABP

The setting is a luxury hotel in Tucson, Arizona, where leadership principles and practices are presented, discussed, and, presumably, adopted by session participants. The purpose of the session is to develop shared values and goals among team members of two pharmaceutical companies in preparation for a joint sales venture. The underlying goal (and focus of the novel) is to teach Joe and Gwen about leadership (rather than management) so that they can lead the sales initiative; since their successes have been based on outdated, controlling, micromanaging approaches to business, turning them into leaders is the key challenge.

Sam does have some illuminating comments such as “Leadership is the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations.” And “…your passion needs to be part of a bigger picture. Do you think that Martin Luther King Jr. could have rallied a nation if he’d said ‘I have ten measurable objectives’ instead of ‘I have a dream’? Leaders share their dreams, folks. They breathe life into their visions and communicate clearly for understanding. Nobody wants to be handled like pawns in a chess game. Provide the direction, but give people the choice to make their own moves.”

Meanwhile Abby is encouraging a positive approach by telling her audience to “Let your thoughts grow flowers, not weeds” and Jerry is informing Gwen that her offhand reference to him as “boss…reminds me of the mob, and it has a negative, subservient ring to it…”

The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership shared in the book include Challenging the Process, which may involve, for example, throwing a time sheet binder in the trashcan in front of cheering employees. How the Department of Labor or the IRS awaiting its 941 payroll tax report or the union representative responds isn’t covered. Nevertheless, there are some leadership lessons of value: have integrity, provide direction and inspiration, be passionate about what you are doing, and show appreciation. It is left unstated that those you are leading are self-motivated, ambitious, bright, and capable.

If you are looking for a step-by-step guide to leadership, you won’t find it here (unless you have been to one of these sessions and are familiar with how “creating your masterpiece” means finding your true calling and leaving a career-related legacy). If you want to get a beginner’s grasp on some leadership buzzwords or are preparing to participate in an offsite meeting, then this book could be useful.

"The Offsite" might also be of interest to a business-oriented book club for a change of pace from non-fiction titles or a traditional book club with members who want to explore business and career issues through fiction. Here are questions to spark discussion:

  • What character did you most identify with? Why?
  • Have you had a problem colleague such as Joe and how was he dealt with?
  • Have you participated in an offsite session? Was it similar to the one described in the book? Were you inspired by the session? What were the results six months and one year later?
  • Do you trust your company leadership? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever challenged the process? What was the outcome?
  • Have you solicited insight or shared ideas with others in an organization? Were the ideas translated into actions and what were the results?

If you learned something of value at an offsite or team building session, feel welcome to share.   

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a book review.

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Guest's picture

I usually go into off-sites with an oppositional attitude that then worsens.

Julie Rains's picture

I will warn you that, although I agree with the leadership principles, the book deems the organization as perfect and the people as the problem, which is often not true. I am team-oriented and that is not always embraced in the corporate world though the idea is that the corporate world is headed in that direction. So, I was offended somewhat when I first read the book, but enjoyed it more on a second read from the facilitator's perspective.  

Guest's picture

An extensive resource on business and personal development. A lot of thougths, views and articles on the recent happenings and their impact on economy and your live