As a boss or team leader, you have to lead people every day. It makes life easier when you have established authority and your followers are generally compliant. But someday you may find yourself leading powerful leaders, perhaps for a board meeting, a nonprofit, or even a high-level management team. These focused and dynamic people create completely different challenges for a facilitator.
This was my exact challenge this week in London. I was honored to moderate a panel for the G8 Young Summit (G8YS) and was quickly recruited to help facilitate 35 young leaders to create an important, detailed communiqué for the heads of state from G8 countries, all in 24 hours. These young leaders, from more than 14 countries, many of whom had never before met, were described at the event by keynote Matthew Bishop of the Economist as the people who will control the world in 2030. They are all strong-willed, successful, passionate entrepreneurs with healthy egos, varied points of view, and independent agendas.
I am happy to say that after an intense and spirited discussion we achieved our goal, but only because of agile facilitation practices, some of which I knew well and some of which I had to improvise along the way.
If you are blessed with advance time, give attendees plenty of information to ready them for the discussion. Use subject matter experts to help frame the conversation in writing, preferably days in advance. Send the attendees a bulleted e-mail with key points and objectives so you don't waste valuable meeting time while preparing them for discussion.
2. Manage Expectations
Make sure your attendees are absolutely clear and aligned on both the objectives and the deliverables. Strong leaders will likely have varied views of the level of depth and detail required in a solution or document. Your job is to make sure you are all working toward the same goal. You also have to make sure the deliverables can be completed within the available timeframe or you will take the blame. Take a little extra time initially to determine a clear and appropriate scope. Then constantly remind everyone in case they stray to their own standards.
3. Keep Everyone Equal
In a free discussion, some people will dominate and others will hang back, letting others talk. Your job is to bring everyone's ideas to the forefront so all can be heard. When soliciting input, start by having everyone take a few minutes to jot down specific ideas on paper. Give them tight structure, such as asking for only two or three responses. If there is time, each person can read his or her notes. Or if consensus is close, simply vote with hands and ask if anything was missed. Don't be afraid to cut someone off if they are hogging the conversation. They might think you are a little rude and bossy, but the other people at the session will appreciate you keeping time and input in balance.
4. Maintain Clear Priorities
Passionate people will follow their passion especially when it's coming out of their mouth. Strong advocates can derail a discussion by constantly dragging it back to their own agendas. Your job is to keep the focus on the objectives and deliverables. Write down the discussion focus at the top of the whiteboard so you can simply point to it when correcting a digression. Guide the group toward expansive thinking early and then tighten the boundaries to refine and get to consensus. You have to own the conversation or your leaders will push you aside and take it their own direction.
5. Step Out of Situational Conflict
It's not your job to make people play nice. Spirited debate and healthy conflict can add to the depth of the result. When flare-ups happen, let them go, at least for a bit. Otherwise your participants will feel stifled or unresolved. Let them express enough to verify they have been heard without overusing the time required to complete your task. Of course, recognize that strong advocates may never feel fully heard if the group agrees to go a different way. In this case, make sure that you acknowledge the issue and focus the advocate on the need to meet objectives and deliverables within time constraints.
6. Be Firm but Gracious
When facilitating leaders you have to show strength and self-confidence. You may or may not have time to build trust, but you still have a job to do and you are accountable for completing the task. Many in the group may feel they could do better and they indeed may be right, but this is your session and you must take absolute ownership even if it means politely rejecting the people you admire and respect. As long as you keep a sense of humor and advocate for the priority, most leaders will respect your approach within the context of a difficult challenge. Make sure at the end you acknowledge the participation and patience of each member of your group. Show appreciation and grace; voice your pride in the successful accomplishment of the team deliverables.
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