Monday, February 20, 2012

Whose Job Is It to Be the Facilitator?

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Have you been following the weekly series on facilitation on Jeffrey Cufaude's blog? I am--and I'm getting a lot out of it. So much of what I do as an association CEO is about facilitation--about helping a group achieve consensus and determine a productive path forward--that I typically welcome any help I can get on the subject.

But one of his recent posts really got me thinking about one of my other roles--that of volunteer board member--and the obligations that board chairs (what I'll refer to as CGOs, Chief Governance Officers, in the rest of this post) must share for effective facilitation at the board table. In Facilitation Friday #4, Cufaude offers this suggested list of questions for facilitators to use in helping group members link together disparate threads of their on-going conversation and identify the meaning behind what is occurring.

  • So where are we at from your perspective?
  • What might the idea(s) we are considering mean for your efforts or what we collectively need to do next?
  • How does what Tonya just shared relate to the points Andrew and Wanda were making earlier?
  • What are you noticing right now and what might it mean for where we go next?
  • What, if anything, isn't connecting for you or making sense right now?
  • We've heard lots of different viewpoints. Any common threads among them?

Reading them, I began to ask myself: who should be asking these questions at an association board table. The CEO? Or the CGO? I think lots of people would say the CEO. There are times, of course, when an outside facilitator may be best, but in the day-to-day functioning of an association board, I think most people would say facilitation is most appropriately developed as part of the CEO's toolbox.

But guess what? I disagree. I think the most effective boards are the ones where the CGO plays this role.

Most CEOs are too close to many of the issues being discussed at the board table. They have perspective, yes, important perspective, but theirs is and should be one voice among many. It is the CGO that more appropriately has ownership of the discussion and decision-making process of the board. He/she has a better opportunity and, importantly, the expectation of other board members, to sit at enough of a distance from the discussion to ask the questions Cufaude supplies above. His/her role isn't to decide the outcome, but to help the board extract meaning from its deliberations.

I was pretty decided in this opinion, and then I read this excerpt from Facilitation Friday #5:

When you hold a formal leadership position with a group you are facilitating—staff director leading a team meeting, board chair facilitating a board meeting—the perceived authority and power of your role can become a barrier to individuals seeing you primarily in a facilitative capacity. Because you have more of a vested interest in the outcome of the discussions, you may have a tendency to lead the meeting toward an outcome you find acceptable rather than facilitate the group to an outcome it will own.

And it reminded me of all the situations we've all been witness to of a CGO with an agenda, of using his/her position of authority to push through a pre-determined course of action. Our industry is rife with these stories. Indeed, they sometimes seem more the rule than the exception.

But that's doesn't mean the CEO is any better positioned to facilitate discussion at the board table. When it comes to conflicts of interest, I would argue that CEOs are much more likely to have them, and that nefarious CEOs are much more skilled at steering a board towards a particular course of action. The CGO is still a volunteer, usually elected by the membership to represent their interests and keep the association focused on its mission. The CEO is an employee. A critical member of the leadership team, yes, but ultimately an employee, who should not have a controlling interest in certain issues that come before a board.

So I say it is a better practice for the CGO is serve as the board's facilitator. Not every association has a CGO with that capacity, but all would be well served by developing them.

What do you say?


  1. Glad you're finding the series to be valuable Eric. I'm reminded that while we often think of the noun/title (facilitator), we can just as easily think of the function (facilitation). The function can be vested within an individual or dispersed on a rotating basis among a group of colleagues, both have their advantages and disadvantages.

    Two things I believe are critical regardless of which option is chosen: (1) whomever is providing facilitation needs to really know how to do it (and lots of volunteers, as well as staff, really don't); and (2) anyone in the conversation can still ask facilitative questions even if s/he isn't the designated facilitator. If the CGO has the skills, that individual can likely mitigate some of the challenges associated with being the facilitator so long as the facilitation is received as neutral and lacking the problematic agenda you note. If the CGO has an agenda/vested interest, the group is probably better served by someone else facilitating that discussion so the CGO is a participant advocating a perspective from around the table instead of at the head seat.

  2. Thanks, Jeffrey, for reframing the question in a way that hadn't even occurred to me. I LOVE the idea of rotating facilitation duties around the group--whether it's a board or a group of staff. It not only helps develop everyone's skill, it more importantly puts the issue of facilitation squarely on the table for every one to discuss and understand.

  3. I was just at a board meeting where I was the primary facilitator, but we also talked about each individual committing to acting in facilitative ways, briefly exploring how that might "show up" in the questions they posed, the way they shared observations, etc. Much to my delight, we had a lot of facilitating going on from those in the chairs at the board table.

  4. Fantastic, Jeffrey. By talking about the benefits of facilitating up front, and getting people to buy in to the process, I'll bet not only did you have more people thinking about the process of decision-making, but you had more ownership over the decisions that were made. Right?