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By Eileen Kugler
Staff retreats. Some employees shrink under their desks at the mention of the word. Yet others remember them as a chance to think, to talk, and to plan. What makes the difference between the painful retreat that causes nothing but ill will and the successful retreat that moves an organization forward? It's often the involvement of a competent facilitator.
An outside facilitator can make valuable contributions to a retreat, both in the planning phase and in running the meeting itself. A good facilitator can be the key factor in setting appropriate goals for the meeting and making sure they are met. The facilitator can also be used as a resource after the meeting to help insure that plans developed at the retreat turn into action. Bringing in a professional facilitator can have many benefits:
1. A good facilitator can help develop a meaningful and reasonable agenda. Some managers want to cram a year's worth of discussions into one day. Others want to discuss issues that aren't relevant to the mission of the organization. An outside facilitator can help set reasonable expectations for the one- or two-day event so that it has greater value to the organization.
2. The facilitator can help level the playing field. A good facilitator will make sure that the discussions are not dominated by top staff or the board. She will create opportunities for everyone to participate and be listened to. This includes both planning activities that give everyone the chance to take part, as well as keeping a careful eye on how the general discussions are flowing. It's always enlightening to hear from staff members who rarely open up.
One tactic is to divide the group into small tasks groups for a chosen activity. The group can be divided up in a variety of ways, depending upon what you want to get out of the exercise. Some staff members will open up only in a small comfortable environment. Others will be more willing to take risks if a competitive peer is in another group.
3. The facilitator can provide honest, outside assessments of the group's progress. It is hard for an executive director to publicly question a board member's statement. However, a facilitator can tactfully note that a board member is blocking progress or that as a whole the group seems stalled. He can make sure that the group follows the agenda rather than goes off on the favorite tangent of the big boss.
4. A facilitator can ask the tough questions. A good facilitator will listen to what's being said and raise questions that can only be stated by an outsider. First, a facilitator brings a fresh perspective to the discussions. Beyond that, a facilitator can say things to a boss that a staff person couldn't and can challenge staff members in a way that doesn't appear to be an order from a superior. The goal, however, is to get the entire group working together moving forward as a team.
5. The facilitator can work around personality conflicts. It is important to get beyond personality conflicts that have had a detrimental impact on an organization. Usually the facilitator doesn't know who is not getting along with whom, so he can deal with the issues, not the personalities. Of course, a facilitator should be informed of any potential mines that may explode if stepped on. But beyond that, it's better for the facilitator to remain an unbiased outsider who is dealing only with the issues of the day, not the conflicts of the past.
6. The facilitator takes the retreat out of the realm of day-to-day operations, fostering a broader and more creative approach to planning. This is the same rationale that supports holding a retreat away from the office, even if there is enough meeting space in the office. When a meeting is led by a new face with a different style, it is easier for participants to break away from old thought patterns.
A competent facilitator will find ways to tap into the creative energy of the participants, setting a positive tone for the whole meeting, moving them away from the frustrations they may have felt at their desks last week. A facilitator can get the group to take part in exercises that encourage creative thought, often leading to illuminating revelations about the organization.
7. The facilitator can help keep the momentum going from a positive retreat to meaningful action. The working relationship with the facilitator can go well beyond the meeting. Too often retreats are criticized for lack of follow-up. The facilitator's report on the meeting can serve as a work plan for taking the next steps. Because of her knowledge of how the organization works together, the facilitator can continue to be a valuable resource for a manager seeking ways to make sure the plans developed at the retreat become the basis of solid action.
8. A facilitator is a professional who has experience in getting the most out of a retreat. Obviously all facilitators are not created equal. But it is good to remember that facilitating a retreat is a skill, and a staff person who runs a great office may not be great at facilitation. A facilitator must have fine-tuned listening skills and be able to analyze and synthesize ideas quickly. He must be able to relate well to people and quickly earn their trust and respect. And he must be a clear communicator.
How do you choose a facilitator for your retreat? Look for a professional....
Fees vary, depending upon the experience of a facilitator as well as the extent of the project, including the depth of research required beforehand and the follow-up afterwards. But hiring a competent facilitator can be a cost-effective way to get the staff involved in a positive planning process that has impact for months and years to come. EM
Eileen Kugler has over 25 years
experience as a professional speaker, journalist, senior manager, and public
relations consultant. She has facilitated a wide range of meetings from leadership
retreats and expert panels to orientation sessions. For more information contact
Kugler Communications, 6807 Bluecurl Circle, Springfield, VA 22152 703-644-3039