I talk sometimes about how being a high school football coach was some of the greatest leadership development training I could have asked for. One of the biggest lessons I learned was about how important it is to be both a leader and a facilitator. From the sidelines, I couldn’t possibly know what was going on at all times on the field. So I had to facilitate honest, one-on-one dialogue with each player so that I could learn what was really happening and, in turn, be able to make the best choices for the team. And I also had to cultivate an environment of enough trust where they felt comfortable telling me the truth versus what they thought I wanted to hear.
In the business world, likewise, leading and facilitating are not the same -- especially when it comes to meetings -- and not understanding the difference can kill the potential ROI of the meeting. But not everyone gets to learn this in an immersive environment like a football field, and maybe that’s why I’ve found that this leading-facilitating balance is something that even many otherwise excellent bosses overlook. Here’s how to make sure you strike a balance between the two when you host meetings or other intra-company gatherings.
First, above all else, you have to understand the difference. Facilitating a meeting means that you're interested in the process and what's taking place between people. If you're leading, you're interested in the result -- what's going to happen because these people got together. Now, these are both important! But balancing the two means understanding what each of them means and what your role is in ensuring that each happens.
Then, you have to understand what happens when one element is lacking. When you’re too focused on facilitating rather than leading, meetings can wind up with no outcome and no action items. This is a fast-track ticket to ensuring that your team is frustrated and feels like they can’t get anything done. It’s kind of a paradox -- often when you’re trying to make the meeting as inclusive as possible, too many opinions get in the mix and things get off track. If a situation requires quick action, this can be a serious problem. Meanwhile, if your sole focus is to lead, the process can sometimes be damaging to the participants in the meeting. They get increasingly passive and unwilling to speak up, especially if they think that something they want to say might deviate from your agenda or your preferred outcome.
If either of these situations is getting in the way of hosting successful meetings for you -- a lack of outcomes, or a lack of input -- your problem likely is an imbalance between leading and facilitating.
Want to make a change? Pay close attention to process and structure, not just the subject and outcome of the meeting. As an example, one simple thing I like to do a lot if I'm going to have a brainstorming session of some kind or I need input, I always give people one or two minutes to write down on a blank piece of paper their ideas before we start talking. This ensures that diverse opinions are welcomed and heard, but in a clear and compartmentalized prelude to the meeting that ensures outcomes and decisions won’t get off track.
Also, consider the roles that a meeting requires. From timekeeping to recording minutes to tracking decisions, there are numerous concrete ways for individuals to take on specific tasks that give them meaningful contributor roles while simultaneously ensuring the meeting stays on course and produces outcomes. As a hybrid leader-facilitator, you’ll also want to rotate through these roles throughout the months or years.
Finally, sociability is also important. People work harder for people they know and like, and putting a face to a name has often unseen benefits. There's really interesting research about this in the medical world: If radiology imaging work is accompanied by a photo of the patient, the radiologist is less likely to make errors in diagnosis and treatment. It’s a small dose of humanity, and it works. The lesson for those of us who host meetings is to get to know the people in them on a person-to-person level. You’ll be better attuned to both individual needs and group dynamics and you may pick up on nuances you’d miss otherwise.
In other words: at the core of everything in your development as a leader, including how to run effective meetings, is humanity.