Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

Experienced Facilitators Are Key to Successful Executive Off-Sites - Keys to Making Your Offsites Effective

6/17/2002
Offsite meetings for executives can be crucial for recharging management's batteries and establishing clear goals and tactics. But are you getting all you can out of an offsite? This article makes the case for hiring an outside facilitator, someone who can offer impartiality and generate fresh insights.

Companies invest considerable time, effort, and money in off-sites, but typically miss a key opportunity to ensure that the off-site produces significant results. Most companies follow the basic rules of setting goals and allowing sufficient time. Few, however, consider carefully the impact of bringing in an effective facilitator.

Regular off-site meetings for senior executives have become a vital tool for recharging management teams and devising strategy and tactics.

Executive off-site meetings can overcome roadblocks to developing successful long-term strategies that the executives often put in place themselves:

Indeed, without setting aside time to craft an intentional strategy that incorporates the input of the entire executive team, many companies find themselves pursuing an ad hoc strategy—resulting from a string of tactical decisions often by one or two individuals. These strategies rarely have full executive buy-in.

Diving immediately into solving the business problem drives participants into arguing for their usual positions.
— Kathryn Roy

Setting aside time and bringing executives together to work on critical issues goes a long way towards addressing these roadblocks. What else is key to planning a successful executive off-site?

Effective exercises
Companies like GE and Intel have long recognized the importance of bringing in outsiders to facilitate strategic exercises where managers put new concepts into practice. The exercises may be as simple as discussing business school case studies where other companies addressed similar challenges. Starting by examining other companies allows ideas to be debated without touching on sensitivities that arise when wrestling with business-specific problems. All too often, diving immediately into solving the business problem drives participants into arguing for their usual positions without considering new options or points of view.

The exercise can transition from looking at another company to focusing on the business specifics by discussing how the similarities and differences between the case company and the actual business affect the prescription for the problem. Creativity exercises are also productive in these off-sites. These exercises can be designed to help executives consider options they normally dismiss as well as to help them interact more productively. Group creativity exercises, in particular, can demonstrate the previously unperceived value added by quieter or more junior team members.

Impartial and trained facilitators
Selection of a facilitator is key to successful off-site meetings. Experienced facilitators ensure all points of view are aired and considered. They politely control participants who are prone to dominating discussion. But experienced facilitators are even more critical if you are introducing new ideas and techniques.

Certainly, on your own you could hand out copies of a best-seller like Gary Hamel's Leading the Revolution to participants the month before the off-site meeting and distribute assignments with the idea that people will incorporate the new concepts into the discussion. Left to themselves, though, the executive team is likely to have a confused and rambling debate at the offsite meeting. And individuals will tend to push the themes that best support their preexisting stance.

No toolkit of listening skills can make up for a lack of humor and warmth.
— Kathryn Roy

Experienced facilitators, though, understand how much participants can digest in a given period. They pace the introduction of new concepts. And they can design exercises to practice the new ideas.

Some companies rely on a member of the executive team to facilitate these sessions. This can severely limit the scope and type of participation. If an ambitious team member is selected to facilitate, they might see the session more as a forum for demonstrating their superior insight than a forum for developing consensus and commitment towards the solution.

If the senior executive runs the session, participants might be reticent about saying something that might be perceived as naive or dumb. Sometimes the participants feel that the senior executive is manipulating the discussion so people reach the conclusion he or she has already decided upon.

Outside facilitators have the advantage of impartiality. When all the executives are treated equitably by the facilitator, participants are both more willing to participate and more engaged in the process. The facilitator can use encouragement and polite control to ensure that diverse opinions are shared and considered. For example, an effective facilitator will repeat the valuable essence of what might have been a rambling comment. Effective facilitators will probe for evidence when broad claims are made and pursue questions when facile answers are served up.

Some companies rely on generalist HR professionals as facilitators. In many cases, however, the facilitator will lose credibility if he or she doesn't have a solid background in the business issues and techniques being discussed. Facilitators equipped with a broad knowledgebase of the practices of other companies and industries can provide vital insights for addressing the business issues. Facilitators with business expertise can also serve as brokers—identifying the tools and concepts most helpful to the problems at hand.

In addition to being versed in the business issues and techniques, effective facilitators must be smart enough to digest both the comments and the dynamics and respond accordingly in real time. This is an important point. Many smart people are not fast in their responses; many mull issues over a while before responding. For an executive off-site facilitator, you need someone who can respond quickly.

How smart is smart enough? This is determined by the composition of the offsite. Your facilitator needs to be at least as bright as the attendees to win their respect and influence their thinking.

Personality may also be an important criterion. No toolkit of listening skills can make up for a lack of humor and warmth. Facilitators who are interesting and likeable wield considerably more influence in coaxing executives to try new ideas and approaches. While the majority of effective facilitators come across as low-key and considerate, yet firm, you might need a more aggressive facilitator if your executive team is comprised of supercharged individuals.

Networking and follow-up
Although it sounds frivolous to some executives, it's important to schedule time during the offsite for social interactions beyond working on assignments. The executives most in need of this networking will be the first ones trying to get out of the door, so you might have to corral them back in.

When the session is completed, it is essential that the key points and action items be written up. If new techniques have been introduced, supporting materials and follow-on assignments can be distributed to reinforce the lessons.

Few forums can have as dramatic an impact on company direction as well-run executive off-site meetings. With proper planning, these sessions can re-energize and re-focus an executive team. The application of new concepts and techniques to business issues can have a lasting impact on the executive teams' skills. And, just maybe, that will help the executives find more time going forward to spend on longer-term issues.

Kathryn Roy (HBS MBA '85) is a principal at strategy and marketing consultant Precision Thinking in Boston.

Keys to Effective Executive Off-sites
·Set aside sufficient time.
·Set clear goals and agendas.
·Set and enforce guidelines for interactions.
·Employ exercises to help participants learn and use new concepts.
·Recruit experienced facilitators.
·Follow up with a written summary and action items.

Characteristics of Effective Facilitators
Generic Facilitation Skills
·Good listener
·Skilled at encouraging participation
·Deft at keeping discussion focused without causing offense
·Likeable, with a good sense of humor

Executive Off-Site Skills
·Smart
·Fast thinker