Facilitators and psychics

I hate telling people that I love facilitating board and leadership team off-sites. Because most really good sessions lead to uncomfortable situations and conversations. And I have to let people feel that discomfort.

If we move on too quickly and keep things “nicey-nice,” people won’t see the real issues that are causing the discomfort. More importantly, they won’t feel the issues. Without that emotional disturbance, nothing will change.

Inevitably the executive who hired me gives me a worried look like, “Hey, this meeting is going off the rails. Get it back on track.”

But clients don’t hire me to keep things on track. They hire me to help them figure out obstacles, opportunities, new ways forward. To find clarity from complexity.

I almost always find that clarity by observing what — or who — is causing the train to derail.

In many ways, good facilitators are like psychics.

We see the issues people are avoiding. The assumptions that are blinding them. The big opportunities that they so desire — and yet are so afraid to commit to. We see looming danger. Extraordinary and overlooked talent. Strategic goals that sound brilliant, but people don’t really care about. (Or they’re the wrong people for those goals.)

In other ways, good facilitators are messengers and truth-tellers.

We ask pointed questions to make sure people focus on the real issue at hand. We tell people what we are observing from their conversations. And, especially uncomfortable for us, we often have to challenge the alphas in the room so that they tune in to what’s really being said. So that they listen to their colleagues.

So much discomfort, so much clarity

During a recent session the chairman of a non-profit historic preservation group announced out of the blue that he thought the offsite was a big waste of time. Yet what came out of the meeting was a bold, electrifying new vision, grounded in activism, that has transformed a once-stodgy non-profit.

The owners of a $250 million private company wanted to figure out whether they should invest in the company or sell it. “Can our management team take this company to the next level?” After the offsite meetings with the management team, it was clear to the leaders that they couldn’t. The thrill of building a business was long gone.

Should we stay private or do an IPO, wondered the founders of a software company. Once we moved beyond the rational discussions about capital and got into how it would feel working with investment banks, institutional investors, and financial media, the founders found their own answer. The privately held, multi-billion enterprise continues to thrive.

Can our Church council become a creativity and innovation think tank, the Bishop wondered. Can we reimagine the purpose of the council to do important, new kinds of work? Apart from the fact that one participant fell asleep during the retreat, the answer was a resounding “No.” Though they participated respectfully in the day’s exercises and conversations, people simply wanted to come together to hear from the Bishop, share news from different parishes, and take care of Diocesan financial and administrative business. Starting and ending meetings on time was especially important to them. No, these committed churchgoers wouldn’t be the think-tank creativity source.

Why do we do this love/hate work?

I’m reluctant to say I love facilitating leadership retreats because it’s such intense, emotionally draining work. There’s nothing fun about it when people give you the skeptical eye for leading them into difficult conversations or exposing truths that they wish they could avoid.

Or maybe even falling asleep on you.

But I do love facilitating because it helps people see clearly.

Like any good psychic.

(NOTE: some leadership retreats are intended to be relational, others are for learning something new. The ones I’m talking about are for coming together to address a strategic issue or opportunity. When bringing people together, be clear about the purpose.)