Executive Facilitation

Part 2: Are great facilitators born or made?

While there are no doubt some innate advantages, we lean toward the latter. Here are some tips to help you create compelling and productive sessions for your executive participants.

Take their point of view.

Execs are thinking about the needle they need to move. Do you know what’s important to the people in the room? Can you describe what they need out of the session, and what they want to do with it, going forward?

Find out. That’s your North Star. A good facilitator maintains focus on the executives’ ultimate goal and how the outcomes of the session will serve that goal.

Meet them at their level.

A good executive facilitator has a certain gravitas. A mismatch between the facilitator and participants undermines the process. Own the room so participants feel confident following you through the process.

How? That depends on your role.

  • Are you an external facilitator? A contractor or a member of another function within the organization? You might have a little work to do, especially if participants don’t know you well. Establish credibility, both before and during the session. Remind participants of your CV, illustrate points with stories from your experience. and make sure your content is unimpeachably valid to an executive audience. If they feel you’re one of them, in some sense, things will run more smoothly.
  • Are you a member of the executive group you’re facilitating? Facilitating a group of your peers has its positives and negatives. The downside is that your own team might resist your efforts to impose process during the session. If you expect pushback, preview the rules before the meeting and then get verbal consensus as you start. On the “pro” side, you have built-in credibility and you’ll have an easier time maintaining focus on what’s important.

Deliver value.

Your role is to help the group produce something better than they could have on their own.

Here are the basics to help you get started.

  • Define the session. What is the goal? What does success for the day look like? Which topics will be discussed and what topics won’t be discussed?
  • Give people space. Remember, you’re not the presenter; you’re the facilitator. Even if you know a lot about the topic of the session, resist the urge to talk a lot. Also, recognize that some people need more space than others. Introverts need time to process before they chime in. You might need to call on them to get their input. And consider individual styles ahead of the session, so you can plan accordingly.
  • Ask good questions. What is a “good” question? It challenges assumptions, plays devil’s advocate, draws out more information, gets at the “why”, or compares to other ideas for the purpose of prioritizing. Also, ask “Why now?” when discussing a strategic initiative; it will spark meaningful discussion.
  • Listen. Often, it’s the emotion carried in the words that is most important to pick up on. That’s the area to explore. Great facilitators lead the group into discussion topics they have been avoiding—whether it’s the proverbial elephant in the room or just a touchy subject. Another effective tool is Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats Technique – Exploring your mind. It’s a great way to avoid groupthink and pressure-test the emerging conclusion. It also offers a boost to groups who are disengaged or filled with non-confrontational.

Often, it’s the emotion carried in the words that is most important to pick up on.

  • Catch the valuable points. This is one of your most critical tasks. As a good facilitator, you are deeply knowledgeable on the subject and goals of the session. Use that filter to grab the key ideas as they float by in the flow of conversation. Maybe you can tag team: assign a scribe to capture these points on the whiteboard or pad.
  • Connect some dots. It’s also up to you to make sense of what the group is offering up. Point out links between one participant’s comment and another’s. Categorize ideas against the session’s goals. Identify recurring themes, issues, or opportunities. As the facilitator, you need to be able to see the forest for the trees.
  • Synthesize information. The purpose of an executive working session is to generate something new: a concept, model, strategy, plan, or action. What is it? Help the group see what’s emerging. What are we saying? What does that session outcome look like?
  • Invite the group to shape the result. Show them what they came up with. Ask, “Is it right? How should we change it?” Ask the group both what they think and how they feel about it. “Give me one word to describe how you feel about this decision we’ve reached.” can uncover suppressed concerns about a solution. People overthink their answers to “what do you think?” questions whereas “How do you feel?” is typically answered more simply, directly and from the gut.

As the facilitator, you need to be able to see the forest for the trees.

  • Check it against the session’s goals. Rewind to the beginning of the session. “What was the goal? What did we expect to accomplish today? Did we get there?
  • Draw out next steps. Help the group decide what should happen after the session, with an eye on the ultimate outcomes for the organization. Then determine responsibilities and timing. Finally, get verbal commitment to your plan.
  • Define the message plan. Ask, “What decisions did we make that should be shared with the rest of the organization? What should not be shared outside of the group? What are the messages and who will deliver them?” Add those messaging items to the next steps plan.

Executive facilitation is about making the group more powerful and productive. It’s about guiding them toward meaningful outcomes that align with the organization’s goals. With thoughtful facilitation, you can elevate these meetings and help executives realize their potential as a strategic team.

ICYMI: Executive Facilitation Series Part 1, Part 3, Part 4 & Part 5