Leading the Leaders: Facilitators keep company meetings on track

Betsy Williams, a facilitator and training specialist at Northwestern Michigan College’s Training Services, likens business meetings to gold.

“We have all these valuable resources in the same room,” she said. “We need to treat that meeting time very specially and carefully…with an effective agenda, the tools and the right process.”

The eight-member team at NMC Training Services works with businesses, organizations and convenings throughout northern Michigan in industry sectors ranging among manufacturing, health care, services and a range of community initiatives. In addition to consultation and customized training, they are tapped to facilitate several times each month, as well as teach organization leaders to effectively communicate and facilitate their own meetings.

Williams and her colleagues join professionals throughout the region who lead sessions large and small at conferences, strategic planning sessions, leadership trainings and various organizational endeavors. The benefits, Williams said, correlate to the bottom line.

“If you make meetings more effective, more people participate and are heard,” she said. “This increases results, which improves the bottom line. It’s all about having the tools.”

Williams noted the importance in differentiating the roles of leader and facilitator. Both are essential, but are more effective when separated.

“The leader is the knowledge leader…he or she owns the content. The facilitator owns the process,” she said, noting when the roles are combined, the leader is unable to fully participate in the meeting because they are busy managing the process.

The facilitator also provides a different perspective because he or she is distanced from the company’s internal dynamics.

“With just enough distance, perspectives can open and discussions become very productive,” said Alison Arnold, consultant and director of community partnerships for the College of Education and Human Services at Central Michigan University.

“Facilitators bring the framing and the skills to move a discussion forward effectively,” she said, noting that services can be helpful for short-term or urgent needs, as well as major planning initiatives.

“There may be times when there’s a need to jumpstart rapid innovation or to examine how to pilot a new initiative,” Arnold said.

According to industry experts, good facilitation can make the difference between success and failure, especially when involving complex discussions or participants with differing views.

Artist, entrepreneur and consultant Lindy Bishop likes “vision thinking and game storming” to guide group work, using visual mapping to lead discussions.

“Meeting facilitators play a great role in helping groups see potential collaborations in ways they hadn’t before,” she said. “Some of the best ideas can arise when people think with people who think differently.”

Bishop also promotes the advantages of working with creative thinkers.

“If you want innovative ideas, invite creative people to the discussion,” she said.

TC-based leadership consultant, workshop facilitator and author Angie Morgan recently co-authored the book “SPARK: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success.”

“Leadership development takes time,” Morgan said. “Where facilitators are useful is helping individuals understand what behaviors connect to leadership and, especially when it comes to a skilled facilitator, creating experiences in a classroom where participants can have moments where they recognize their strengths / limitations, as well as areas for improvement.

“When I facilitate leadership development in a classroom,” she continued, “I start by really understanding my client/audience and the context in which they’re called to lead. Context is important because it helps bring relevancy to the guidance I’m providing and, more importantly, creates a business case for professionals to lead.  This is especially important for my clients who are investing in the development of others.”

Get your meeting off on the right foot:

  • Agenda: Prepare an effective agenda that describes an action item along with the process. For example:  “We’re going to select a new benefit company….and will do this through brainstorming.”
  • Tools: Know the tools that can be used to work groups through discussion, evaluation, conflict and consensus. Examples include brainstorming, role playing, decision matrixes, vision thinking, among others.
  • Ground Rules: Discuss expectations of ground rules before beginning. This helps neutralize group dynamics and improves equal participation. Examples can include: Placing side topics in “the parking lot” for discussion later; one speaker at a time; all will actively listen to each speaker.
  • Strategies: Know how to deal with dynamics that can impact dialogue or sidetrack the process. Issues can be strong personalities, sidebar conversations and ‘broken record’ repetitive comments.
  • Attendees: Assure the right people are at the meeting and limit attendees to only those that are essential to matters at hand. All should be able to voice their opinions.