Executive Facilitation

Part 4: Techniques to make sure your executives get what they came for.

There are few things in shorter supply than an executive’s time. When invited to a working session, they worry about wasting hours with nothing to show for it.

If you’re running an executive working session, you want them to leave thinking it was time well spent—that they achieved the outcomes they needed and know what to do next, to make it real.

Here are six tips.

Tip #1: Establish desired outcomes.

The only way to get to the right place in the end is to begin with the end in mind.

That means getting consensus on the outcomes of the session well before it startswhen you send invitations. Then, confirm those outcomes in the room.

What do we mean by outcomes? That depends on your organization and your group. Outcomes might include strategies, decisions, operating models or principles, plans, schedules, or conceptual frameworks. Make sure you define them well. What would a good outcome look like? Does it have words, visuals, lists, timelines, assignments of responsibility…?

Also, identify any specific decisions that the group either must make or is not going to make. This can help avoid misguided energy during your session. Sometimes, participants push for a decision instead of properly exploring the topic because they think a decision will be made in the meeting. You don’t want people slipping into “selling mode” when it’s not the right time for it.

Once you agree on outcomes, let them guide the session. Check often to make sure you’re on track to get to them by the end of the session. Use those outcomes to prioritize topics or activities.

Tip #2: Set the rules and enforce them.

Come up with a few ground rules. You’re not being rigid; you’re proactively removing obstacles to your outcomes.

For example, set the timing: start time, end time, and break times. Consider setting a rule that you resume work on time and don’t stop to help late joiners catch up. Decide how to prioritize and focus the work; some facilitators use a “parking lot” (white board, flip chart, or PowerPoint slide) for off-topic discussions, so you stop them but don’t lose them.

Ask participants to voice any objections and then agree verbally to the rules. This will help the group self-correct when it goes off-track.

Tip #3: Prepare the group for productivity.

Think about any obstacles you might encounter with your particular set of participants.

For example, do you have a participant at odds with the others on a particular issue? Get ready to deal with that. You might want to shore up the minority position or, if the participant is just impeding progress, you might frame his or her objections as out of scope; put them in the parking lot and follow up later.

Do you have participants of different ranks? You’ll have to create a level playing field. Maybe make sure the lower-ranking people contribute first, so their ideas aren’t dampened by a boss with a different view. Or gather some ideas from those with less power ahead of time, and prompt participants to share them.

Tip #4: Minimize the troublemakers.

We’ve all been there. One person in the group seems to be taking up all the air. Or worse, they’re actively undermining the group. Lucky you, facilitator, they’re your problem now. Here are some tips:

  • Make it a rule. Set an expectation, up front, that participants will stay on-topic, let others speak, and work collaboratively.
  • Redirect them. First, assume good will; the troublemaker might not be aware that they’re a problem. Call them out, politely, and ask to hear from others. For example, “Thanks for your input, Jim. I want to make sure we hear all the ideas in the room. Carol, do you have any thoughts on this?”
  • Suffocate them. Not literally, but don’t give them airtime. Direct questions to other participants and, if necessary, ignore their comment and pivot to another subject or participant.
  • Use your physical presence. Move across the room to stand next to them—or even stand with your back to them – and address the rest of the group.
  • Enlist the group. Reward good participants. Encourage constructive, on-topic, collaborative behaviors with praise and reinforcement. Often, the group will move onto the right path and shut the troublemaker out.

Tip #5: Maintain momentum.

As facilitator, your job is to keep the group moving toward those outcomes. Here are a few ways:

  • Ask questions to clarify, elaborate, guide, or show the group where there’s a gap in their thinking. Validate, reflect back, and connect dots.
  • Exercise patience. Sometimes progress is messy. Give the group the time they need for organic discussion and idea generation.
  • Shut up. People love to fill silence. If no one is talking, just wait and they will. And, in any case, make sure you’re only speaking as needed to facilitate. If you’re talking a lot, there’s something wrong. Don’t do the work for them or put words in their mouths. You want participants to own the results of the session; that will happen only if they land on the solutions themselves. We want to share back what we’re hearing to validate it, and connect dots, but we want them to form the conclusions
  • Check progress and focus. Breaks are a good time to decide whether your pace and direction are right. Assess this yourself and/or ask a few participants what they think. Is the group hitting the milestones? Are they filling out the picture they need at the end? If not, when the group reconvenes, reset them toward their goals.

Tip #6: Close with clarity.

Did the group produce what they wanted? Show them! Play back what they produced, get consensus that it’s right, then plan to take it forward.

Confirm any decisions they made, then build a cascading messaging plan. This plan defines how to handle the decisions, information, or concepts coming out of the session—what should be kept confidential and what should be shared with the rest of the organization. Next, decide which information goes to which groups. Finally, agree on the talking points and terms to use when delivering the messages. Establish activities, responsibilities, and a timeline. Importantly, define the very next step to be taken for each key decision and schedule a follow-up meeting to check in. This will create momentum and give the group a quick win.

Don’t let your great work stay in the room—use your session outcomes as a launching pad to make a real impact on your business.

ICYMI: Executive Facilitation Series Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5 & Part 6