[Leadership Team Facilitation] It’s Not “Mamma Mia”

Mamma Mia (song)

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Good corporate leadership team group facilitation is like birthing babies: it helps to have lots of experience under your belt to do it well. Not unlike executive coaching, gray hairs and the experience that came with them helps too.

The twists and turns that are sometimes surprises in leadership team work are less so in the hands of a seasoned pro – they’re simply elements of larger script that are well known by someone who has seen them countless times before and knows how to handle them.  The surprises – aka bumps, bruises and stories that get repeated after the session that pop up a group setting get mitigated in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing and has the battle scars to prove it.

Part of a group session’s success is how the group is handled in the session, and part of success starts well before. Thoughtful design generally leads to positive outcomes – slapdash design leads to slapdash results. And unlike karoke night at the local pub, where everyone thinks they are Beyonce, Boyle or Bono, this type of work becomes somewhat of a self-selecting experience: people who do it well tend to get lots of invitations to facilitate more groups – people who bounce move on politely to other forms of work.

In the movie Mamma Mia, the single mother protagonist’s daughter Sophie – whose marriage is the focal point of the move – decides to invite the three men who “dated” her mother and might be her unknown father to her wedding. While this “pick up sticks” approach gets used – let’s just try it and see what happens –  in good facilitation it’s not the one you want to try if you’re targeting your program to specific outcomes. It is, by the way, a sure formula to have all sorts of surprises, most of them unpleasant, happen with your group.

Why is this important?

At some point you may be selecting a facilitator, or more likely, sitting through a session facilitated by someone. It helps to know what you want to select for, what you  look for in someone’s work, and when to praise and alternately when to pull plug on someone.

What do you look for?

Here’s what I’d look for when I hire or refer someonone:

  1. Was the person formally trained in group facilitation? It’s not a gurantee, but it helps to know someone has some relevant training to form a basis for their work.
  2. How long – and how many groups – has the person facilitated? Again, no guarantee but when hiring someone I’d like to have someone who has worked with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of groups, rather than a few sets of tens. Experience counts – people who are good have the record to show for it.
  3. What’s the person’s design background? Again, no guarantee, but I’d want to have someone who thinks of the design – whether it’s one hour or one week – in terms of outcome objectives, appropriate ways to reach those outcomes, and some metrics established on how you all know if they’ve reached them. Good designers know the tools of the trade, and the better ones have a facilitation background to go with it so they know what happens when design meets the proverbial “rubber of the road.”
  4. Has the person worked with group’s like yours, and in sectors like yours? Again, no guarantee but it generally helps to have a facilitator who is topically familiar with your sector. If I have the choice, I’d rather have someone who has worked in the sector rather than someone who just read about it an an American Society of Training and Development periodical.
  5. Last, do you have rapport with the person to the degree that you get the sense – usually evidenced by how any draft design looks – that the facilitator understands your session goals by a work product that is strongly pointed in the right direction.

Good group facilitation is like a good taxi ride: the session is about the group and their work and you notice how well it goes, and don’t notice the facilitator and how they effectively plied their craft to get you there.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, new role, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.