The Art of Facilitation: A Key Leadership Lever

Steve Schloss . September 22, 2022

Over a cold draft beer one summer following freshman year in college, my best childhood buddy and I reflected on the grind of our summer jobs.  Serendipitously and coincidentally, above the bar we were frequenting hung an oversized US map. In a raw moment of symmetry that seems to come with childhood friendships, we turned to each other and realized a possibility: next summer we’d take a cross-country adventure.  

At Fall break we re-connected, popping into an AAA location to gather maps (remember those?) and plan our four-month journey. From northern NJ, our trip would run through the Midwest and Plain states, up through Big Sky country to Vancouver, down along the Pacific coast touching the Mexican Baja, back through the deep south, and then back north … just in time for junior year. Somehow and someway, we figured we would make it back with our car, spirits, and friendship still intact. And so, with my packed Datsun station wagon, a box of 8-track tapes, and a bevy of supplies including an old army tent, our journey became a reality.  

The experience was life changing for our twenty-year old selves. The people, places, stories, photos, bad decisions, discoveries, and moments of awe we experienced truly cemented our friendship into brotherhood.  

If there was a singular lesson emerging from that summer experience, it was the value and importance of facilitating conversation with strangers and newfound friends – how to connect, ask questions and thoughtfully interact with those from different backgrounds or those with different perspectives. Along the way, we engaged with locals at their places of business or at bars, shared perspectives with fellow travelers at campsites or fellow hikers, and – perhaps most memorably – with members of a Native American tribe in Washington State on, of all days, Independence Day 

 

The Act of Facilitation

The ability to facilitate conversation or discussion serves as an important skill for the modern workplace. Inviting and engaging other, and often divergent, points of view are critical to building greater context, awareness, and tolerance.  

As a CEO or C-level executive in a rapidly growing organization, this should come as little surprise, especially as you experience growth in employee size and greater distribution of work and location. It is at that juncture where the ability to facilitate group dialogue becomes an essential leadership and communication tool. It is a highly effective way to model behavior, drive alignment, enable a culture of safety, and ultimately improve or accelerate performance.  

With the post-Labor Day return to-office debate now in full swing, facilitating dialogue among employees is more essential than ever. As you shift and seek clarity and understanding around employee sentiment, the needs of your leaders, the impact on culture and connection, and how best to sustain productivity as a remote, hybrid, or in-office workplace, the process of smaller or larger group facilitation is a key lever (well beyond a survey).  

Effective facilitators, for an intentional gathering with a focused objective, responding to a challenge or crisis, or simply operating in the moment, require a few key elements done very well: 

 

  • They lead discussion without taking over. 
  • They connect with people in the room, in-person or virtually.  
  • They cultivate participation. 
  • They actively listen, query, and follow-up. 
  • They respect varying ideas and perspectives. 
  • They support and encourage debate and disagreement. 
  • They drive toward productive and actionable outcomes with clear ownership. 

 

As you do when presenting to your organization as part of a regular town hall process, the executive leader role as a facilitator requires an acute and almost intuitive awareness of the energy in the room. Are people engaged? Is the dialogue productive, or is there a need to get back to the overarching or stated objectives? Is there a sense of safety present for productive disagreement and/or the ability to offer multiple pathways?  

Even more impactful may be your ability to lead conversations not just as a top executive, but as a fellow member of the company – a fellow vested stakeholder in the organization’s success.

 

Facilitator as Connector 

Michael Arena, an expert on the changing dynamics of organizational communication and behavior has shared that “a significant erosion in the social fabric of organizations” occurred during the pandemic. While his data shows a recent leveling off of this trend as we learn to operate differently, it is essential, if not critical, that the process of bridging (in-group) connections and bonding (cross-group) connections as colleagues must be cultivated, and that the facilitation process to drive idea exchanges and insights must be an intentional and key lever to ensure that happens. 

Arena adds that “the challenges inherent in hybrid work per Microsoft research show a fragmentation in organizational network structures where functions, departments and geographies become socially disconnected neighborhoods that are more dependent on a limited set of local interactions, and increasingly more detached from the broader organization.” Subsequently, the percentage of thriving relationships with and across teams will drop as a result. 

The art and skill to be a present executive leader who seamlessly models and facilitates conversation and productive discussion intentionally and informally is a powerful way to unlock ideas, stay connected, build trust, strengthen culture, and enhance known and unknown capability across your organization. 

It would have been hard (or dare I say, impossible) for my 20-something self to recognize that – above and beyond my observations – the deepest takeaway from my adventure was how we navigated various social networks, and learned to inspire, influence and affect others. Now, looking back, it was one of the greatest lessons I was able to draw from that time. 

How about you? How are you faring with the art of facilitation? Under the rapidly shifting paradigm of the modern workplace, how are you showing up before your people who now – more than ever – are asking themselves: why should I be led by you? 

 

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