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Creating Success for the New Year: Your Annual Business Planning Session

By Dean DeLisle

One of the most important planning tools for a CEO or president is an end-of-year review and goal-setting meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to learn from the prior year and create a business objective and goals for the next year. It's a time to reflect on what was done right, look at what could have been done better, and define your business goals for the coming year.

Ideally, this review should be held before the end of the calendar year and all key personnel should be present. An annual review takes considerable planning. Here are the four phases:

1)  Planning the Meeting: Who, When and Where

It is best to hold the meeting off-site and away from normal business operations. Most times, a resort area with meeting rooms and a recreational atmosphere for evening activities can be ideal. Regular breaks should be scheduled and cell phones turned off during the session. Some companies schedule the meeting over a weekend and allow spouses to attend. This format may involve a social event as well.

Ideally, the annual review meeting should be at least a full-day event that takes place in the first two weeks of December. Taking one day to iron out the goals for the coming year can save you many days of guessing and adjusting on the fly in the months to come. An hour or two is not sufficient time to plan your attack for the coming year or for the first quarter. Many companies get caught up in the fourth-quarter rush as they close the books and complete the business for the year. They then try to "fit" in the game plan for the first quarter and don't even attempt the entire year. They actually spend more time planning a week-long vacation then preparing their company for first quarter profits. Obviously, this can be dangerous and costly.

Even if your company does not have a history of dysfunctional meetings, consider hiring a moderator. They help to keep the meeting on track and on time;
but, more importantly, a moderator ensures that all voices get to join the conversation. A moderator helps you get the most out of your collective brain trust.

All key personnel should be present, and each person should be given time to participate in the agenda. When employees get a chance to join the conversation, they feel valued and take ownership in the final outcome.

2) Set the Agenda

Typically, the meeting begins by focusing on the previous year's lessons, then moves to top-line company objectives and, lastly, to departmental objectives. This format allows the entire team to get aligned with what worked well in the previous year, and how to best apply those lessons for the upcoming year. Here is a sample meeting schedule:

Lessons from Prior Year

  • Discuss lessons learned
  • Discuss open or unresolved issues
  • Define accomplishments

Goals and Objectives for the coming year

  • Discuss top line goals and objectives
  • Project economic forecast
  • Chart direction of the business, including changes to structure, roles, responsibilities, management and employee growth
  • Define final goals


  • Define goals
  • Rework your SWOT Analysis
  • Clarify your lead sources and volumes are in line with projections
  • Verify that targets and postion have not shifted
  • Identify your position with economic adjustments
  • Validate which systems can be improved
  • Set accountability timeline, targets and measurements
  • Create action plan


  • Define Goals based on previous sales, and realistic forecasts
    • Adjust lead distribution policies
    • Verify call, appointment and proposal thresholds
    • Test your team for the right mix of closers
    • Gain valuable feedback from customers' experience
  • Validate which systems can be improved
  • Set accountability timeline, targets and measurements
  • Create action plan


  • Define Goals based on customer and employee experience
    • Review surveys taken on your customers
    • Review surveys taken on your employees
    • Realize necessary efficiencies
    • Identify changes in your organizational structure
    • Verify if training programs were effective
  • Validate which systems can be improved
  • Set accountability timeline, targets and measurements
  • Create action plan


  • Define Goals based on results from the Profit and Loss Statement
    • Realize if you watched the right numbers at the right frequency
    • Identify if budgets were realistic
    • Review your cash flow and understand what needs to change
    • Review your product or service pricing
    • Understand how well you handled operational costs
  • Validate which systems can be improved
  • Set accountability timeline, targets and measurements
  • Create action plan


  • Visibility and Benchmarks
    • Summarize the clearly defined goals with timelines, targets and measures.
    • Validate that they are aligned with the bottom line goals of the entire organization
    • Agree on thresholds and tolerances
    • Agree on platform to measure reports and Web based metrics
    • Clearly define next benchmark dates for accountability to the plan

End the meeting by having an event celebration. Do not leave this part out! Celebrating successes as your company is preparing or experiencing growth keeps the entire team engaged and connected. It is highly recommended that your company has targeted milestone celebrations throughout the year. However, if your company only has one social gathering a year, it's best to include it at the end of this annual planning session.

3) Prepare for the Meeting

Prior to the meeting, the CEO and business leaders should define clear objectives and goals for the upcoming year. Consider these goals as a springboard for the meeting; keep an open mind to change or revise of the goals during the meeting.

Remember that a goal contains three critical elements:
1) it is measurable, 2) it is a specific accomplishment, and 3) it has a time frame. Try to set measurable, specific goals that have deadlines. This way you can hold your departments accountable for meeting clearly defined objectives. Be sure that all the goals and objectives are written out and distributed soon after the meeting to all employees.

Department heads and others attending the meeting should have facts and figures prepared on their department in advance of the meeting. A preliminary memo should be distributed with a clear agenda stating the objectives (as shown above) at least 30 days prior to the meeting. There should also be weekly countdown reminder emails sent reminding the other leaders in your organization this critical time is approaching. This is typically a very busy time of year for most companies, and it is common for distractions, both business and personal, to interfere and cause the preparation of materials to get rushed. This can cause some of the most critical components to get overlooked.

4) Following Up After the Meeting

The CEO, president and/or executive vice presidents are ultimately accountable for the goals that came out of the meeting. It's critically important to revisit these goals on a weekly or monthly basis with all department heads. Developing accountability checkpoints and engaging in frequent dialog about meeting the goals will get you to them.

As part of the follow-up, allow your plan to be flexible. When low-cost opportunities to add value or generate revenue present themselves, consider an on-the-fly adjustment to your goals. Don't let good opportunities pass simply because your planning did not account for them.

With a clear plan, your goals can be achieved. Successful companies hold this planning meeting every year. Challenge your employees with new goals. Without challenges, we only do what we're used to doing.

Is this your year??