Kevin Fong - Organizational Design
Fundamentals of Facilitation – When to Invest in a Professional
While being a good facilitator seems essential for leaders to succeed in the 21st century, the skills needed to facilitate can elude many. My best friend directs an international team of software programmers for a large company in the Silicon Valley.  She started her career as a programmer, and while she never received any formal training in facilitation (nor does her firm offer any), much of her day is now spent facilitating meetings, often across ten time zones.
You may have found yourself in a similar position where you are expected to facilitate meetings but may not feel adequately trained, prepared or capable for the task. Like many, you may have struggled through- or even faked it - and may have felt mixed about your effectiveness. Sometimes, you just need a little help. So how do you know when to call in a professional facilitator?
Acknowledge your own capacity to be a good facilitator.  Like any skill, good facilitation works best if the facilitator possesses some inherent traits – a comfort and ease speaking in front of people, the capacity to remain calm and neutral in a variety of situations, a sense of humor, and the ability to be flexible, multi-task and think quickly.  Different facilitation settings also require different skill sets.  For instance, facilitating a face-to-face meeting is quite different from a video- or phone-conference.  If these traits and skills don’t come easily, you may want to have a professional facilitate your meetings.
And that does not mean that you cannot be an effective chair, CEO or director.  One of the best CEOs I worked with was the first to admit that he was an awful facilitator, but his capacity to lead and represent the organization was unmatched.  So he called upon the three staff who were talented facilitators, and rotated the duties among them.  The CEO remained the formal chair of the meetings, while facilitators ensured an effective process. 
Assess the issues at hand.  Has the group been stuck on a particular topic which needs some sort of breakthrough?  Are people coming to the meeting with personal and/or conflicting agendas?  Are there trust and morale issues among the group?  Is the chair or CEO being particularly mean, defensive or ineffective?  All of these situations would be best handled with a neutral third-party facilitating.
Analyze the return on your investment (ROI).   In most cases, organizations can handle simple facilitation tasks internally.  But there are some cases when the stakes are high enough (as in the examples above) to warrant calling in a professional.  Also consider the costs of your board, advisory, staff or program meeting/retreat.  Factor in travel, lodging, facilities, food, salaries, potential lost income and the cost to the organization could be thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.   In order to assure your ROI, a professional facilitator is a wise allocation of resources. 
Last month, a client flew me across the country to facilitate a two-hour session of her board meeting.  The stakes were relatively high as was the cost to fly in and lodge most of the participants, and she wanted a successful outcome.  While it may have seemed an extravagant expense, especially when my two-hour time slot was reduced to one-hour, we achieved our goals with unanimous approval.  At the close of the session, all of the board members agreed that they could not have done it by themselves and the organization’s ROI in my services was well worth it.
Once you decide to invest in a professional facilitator, seek recommendations from trusted sources and talk to several candidates to find the best alignment with your organization’s approach, philosophy and needs.  And carefully check out their client list, experience and training.  Unlike other professions, there are no degrees, licenses or universal standards for facilitators.  Many may not have the skills or experience you need.   However, once you find the right facilitator, you can be confident that your organization will benefit from a wise and effective return on your investment.

This concludes my series on “The Fundamentals of Facilitation.”  All of the previous articles can be found at our website:   Stay tuned for my next article on how to handle bullies in the workplace.
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