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Author: Anne Massaro, PhD

Meetings are not foreign to academic leaders, but strategic planning meetings and meetings aimed at complex problem-solving with partners are weightier than others. In these situations, choosing to use an experienced facilitator who is outside your department or college can result in these benefits:

The best facilitators are process experts who know enough about the meeting content to appropriately structure your agenda and develop powerful questions for value-added discussions. They focus on how meetings are run, how to meaningfully engage participants, and how to achieve the desired outcomes. Responsibility for creating a safe and trusting environment in which everyone respects each other’s ideas lies with the facilitator. Addressing sacred cows is easier for a skilled facilitator than for someone embedded in the history of the department or college. Lastly, managing equal levels of participation and effectively intervening when conflicts arise are talents facilitators bring.

The cost of hiring an experienced facilitator can be a drawback. At the same time, it’s important to evaluate the cost of not hiring an outside facilitator. Discussions that veer away from strategy or spiral downward, grandstanding personalities, and lack of action steps at the conclusion of meetings are common to all of us. Using an outside facilitator to mitigate these universal experiences and to gain the benefits mentioned above is worth the investment.

To identify a facilitator for your next strategic planning or problem-solving meeting, ask your peers whom they have used. If your immediate network has no one to offer, consider asking your provost’s office or human resources for suggestions. Another source might be the professional organizations to which you belong.

Personal referrals ensure your facilitator will be a strong “fit” for your meeting purpose and audience. Absent a trusted recommendation, search the internet for “meeting facilitator.” This approach will yield hundreds of results. You can narrow down your list by scanning websites and looking for facilitators who have experience in academia or with the topic you will address.

Meet with at least two facilitator candidates. Ask them about the types of meetings they have facilitated, the results that were achieved, difficult situations they encountered, and the process they will use when engaging with you. Your degree of comfort with the outside facilitator is of greatest importance. You are looking for someone you can trust and confide in as well as someone who will structure and run your meeting.

Expect the candidates to ask you about the desired meeting outcomes, the meeting participants, and background information they need to better understand the context for the meeting. If the meeting is broadly focused and you are interested in narrowing down the purpose, a strong meeting facilitator will suggest interviewing participants in advance of the meeting. This same pre-meeting interview approach is also appropriate when the discussion may split participants into opposing camps. The more the facilitator can fully understand interpersonal dynamics, opinions, and the subject matter before the meeting, the better prepared they will be to effectively facilitate.

As you choose an outside facilitator, be sure to call at least one reference. Relevant questions for a reference include the following:

Once you have selected your facilitator, you can expect to engage in several planning conversations prior to the meeting. Assume at least three hours of planning for a daylong meeting. This time commitment will vary depending on how your facilitator operates and how familiar they are with your need.

These pre-meeting discussions will involve clarifying the meeting’s purpose, defining outcomes, ensuring that the right participants are invited, writing and sending pre-meeting communications, developing the agenda, anticipating how the meeting will unfold, and deepening the facilitator’s understanding of the task at hand. Giving the facilitator contextual documents is helpful and can save meeting time. Those documents will vary depending on the meeting purpose. Potentially useful ones include previous strategic plans, survey results, governance documents, proposals, organizational charts, and external reviews.

Two important points of discussion between you and your facilitator are how meeting notes will be captured and how they will be delivered after the meeting. If every word spoken is vital to recall, recording the meeting will be necessary. Doing so, however, can produce logistical challenges and discourage freedom of expression. Ask your facilitator what they suggest given the desired outcomes. Often, writing key points on flip charts that can be later transcribed is an effective approach. Ensure clarity about how the transcription will be made, who will make it, and how quickly they will produce it. Many facilitators will see this as part of their role and include it in their fees.

In summary, if you want a productive meeting that engages your colleagues, focuses on issues of importance, and leads to action, hire an outside facilitator. The financial investment and preparation time will result in significant progress on gaining buy-in for your strategic plan or the solution to your complex problem.

Anne Massaro has a PhD in workforce development and education from The Ohio State University and is a certified coach from the NeuroLeadership Institute. She has been consulting, facilitating, and supporting the growth of individuals and organizations for more than 20 years.