A professional, external facilitator can provide heaps of valuable support with an organisation’s strategic thinking and planning. More and more Boards and CEOs now use one. But exactly what potential uses can such a facilitator serve – beyond perhaps just the usual perception of someone running a workshop or meeting? And what are the key skills and qualities you should expect and look for when choosing such a facilitator?

Firstly, a few pointers as to the very wide potential role an external strategy facilitator can actually serve:

To begin with, a professional facilitator can provide expert guidance or assistance in shaping and organising the overall strategy process and range of methods and techniques to use: strategy is much more than just a single Board workshop! Guidance will typically also include what appropriate range of data should be sought, what issues and questions should be considered at what stage in the process, and what outcomes can be achieved at each stage. He/she can also, for example, advise/assist in the planning how relevant stakeholders are to be involved/consulted (both internal and external people) along the strategy process.

At discussion sessions and workshops used in the process, of course, the work of the facilitator becomes very evident. Key benefits include, for example, making sure that everyone has an open and fair opportunity to give their views, that discussions flow and progress well; that connections or gaps between different views are raised; and that there are regular ‘review and decision’ points that ensure the overall agenda is achieved. And after a discussion/workshop the facilitator can bring all the strands together and prepare an overall, factual write-up.

But, a strategy facilitator’s value needn’t end there. Crucially, he/she should be able to work with, guide and assist the client leadership/executive team in drawing out and translating outputs from strategy sessions into firmer options, evaluating possible courses of action, and then developing and defining particular follow-on actions.

Other examples of a potentially wider contribution include: conducting consultation/research meetings with major stakeholders; helping individual executives or task-groups look at delegated topics inbetween principal/key strategy process meetings; acting as ‘project manager’ for some or all of the overall strategy process’s steps; briefing and co-ordinating other third-party professional experts needed along the process (e.g. financial accountants, lawyers, HR advisers); facilitating supportive sessions of the leadership team to help with its own effectiveness or development; and perhaps providing confidential 1:1 comment or advice to the CEO or Board Chair on delicate organisational or cultural issues.

And yet another potential area of contribution is to help with – or take the lead with – drafting and pulling together of the final strategy document the organisation will use to spell out and present clearly and persuasively the outputs from the strategy process. If a strategy facilitator has decent copy-writing skills, such a contribution is likely to save the CEO (or executive team) a lot of valuable time.

10 key qualities and skills to look for in a strategy facilitator

i) Strong general management experience / qualifications: Avoid using just a generalist HR consultant/trainer, a person who has a very narrow functional background (e.g. financial accountant or IT consultant), or someone who only runs general workshops: a good strategic facilitator needs a much wider knowledge of management and leadership. This is because the process of strategy itself is cross-functional and broad. Furthermore, it’s best to go for a facilitator who has worked in a range of different sectors and types/sizes of organisation, as he/she will bring a much wider perspective and be able to suggest helpful ideas and good practice from wider afield.

ii) Deep knowledge of strategy and associated tools/techniques, plus the ability to advise you on the right approach to suit your organisation: Of course, you need a facilitator who knows all about the process and tools involved in strategic management (from market appraisal to change planning) but avoid a person who only offers you a ‘fixed template’ solution or who thinks strategy can be done simply in a single half-day workshop or such like! Every organisation is unique – not least the range of issues it faces and the type of people and culture it has – so the strategy process should be tailored to match too. So, be sure your potential facilitator takes the time and effort to get to know you and understand your organisation and then proposes a process that feels appropriate.

iii) Deep knowledge and experience in a wide range of thinking and discussion styles/tools/methods: A good strategy facilitator needs to have expertise in a host of different approaches and methods for handling thinking, deliberation and evaluation of issues by groups. In particular, he/she needs a detailed grasp of a core range of different divergent and convergent thinking techniques and when it is appropriate to use which.

iv) Good knowledge of personality/group dynamics and group decision-making: A good facilitator needs a sound understanding of relevant areas of individual and group psychology, so that he/she can manage well the dynamics and deliberations of groups that are typically involved in a strategy process. Such knowledge will enable the facilitator to know, for example, how to avoid and manage any conflict between group members and mitigate for major types of group cognitive bias that inevitability afflict group work (e.g. groupthink, confirmation bias, authority bias). Equally important is knowing how to lead groups effectively to reach consensus, decisions, and alignment, and how to ensure commitment and plan actions effectively.

v) Excellent skills in listening, reflecting back and asking questions: Strategy facilitation requires hearing a lot of ideas, comment and opinions and, therefore, strong skills are needed in drawing out what people are thinking, active listening, reflecting back what is said, and rapid connecting and building on different points to mae conversations progress well.

vi) Confident, assured manner but also friendly, relaxed and very sensitive/tactful. A facilitator must be able to look, sound and act as a credible and capable professional who is ‘accepted’ by participants with the ‘right’ to ask them questions and challenge them on some points where needed. To achieve this, a facilitator must have an amicable and open style and also be very sensitive to picking up signals (from non-verbal cues, not just what is said) from people and addressing their points in a tactful/respectful way.

vii) Neutral, independent, transparent and fair/honest. It is absolutely crucial that a facilitator stays objective and detached whilst managing discussions and decision-making involved in a strategy process: he/she is there to treat everyone fairly and equally throughout and do as much as possible to prevent any obvious bias or private agendas distoring proceedings.

viii) Strong integrative and ‘helicopter’ ability. By this I am referring to two related skills: firstly, the ability to rapidly see and make connections and links between different points/ideas/issues and, secondly, the ability to move easily and quickly between seeing the ‘big picture’ in a situation and drilling down to the finer detail of the same situation.

ix) Structured, systematic and focused. A strategy facilitator must be a clear thinker who naturally structures and organises well (from ideas to processes). Equally, having defined structure in a situation, he/she must be able to be disciplined and focused to keep people always on the right agenda topic and seeking to achieve the overall aims set.

x) Some supportive experience/ability in consulting and/or coaching. Some skills in the related activities of consulting (diagnosing issues and giving appropriate advice) and coaching (assisting others to learn/self-develop) are very good for a strategic facilitator because they very often fit in very well to strengthen and support certain parts of the strategy process (e.g. identifuying early-on with the client what strategic issues need to be tackled). But beware of a facilitator who seeks too easily to be a consultant rather than mainly a facilitator, as he/she will strongly risk losing the vital quality of appearing neutral and objective in the eyes of people involved in the strategy process!

Finally, there is a range of supporting character traits and behaviours that are very helpful for a strategic facilitator. Nobody can be expected to be blessed with all of them, but I would suggest, in particular: a natural sense of curiosity and interest in the views of others; an ability to think easily in abstract, conceptual terms but to convert thoughts quickly into simpler terms; an ability to hold several thoughts in his/her mind at the same time; an ability to be flexible and adaptable e.g. shift ideas when new information suggests the need to do so; an ability to deal with partial information and ambiguity; an ability to think positively of others; and the ability not to take negative or critical comments personally.

Altogether, an external strategic facilitator can play a hugely valuable and wide-ranging role for any organisation client. But it needs the right (and rare) type of person who has a very wide and distinctive set of qualities, skills and experience. So, do choose your facilitator well!