Your executive team faces a complex decision involving multiple issues and diverse perspectives. You believe they would be more likely to succeed if one person could help them work together to address the problem.

You need a facilitator.

But how can you be sure the facilitator youselect will produce effective results? The help needed for senior-level retreats is different from what is required for other meetings. That is because these groups determine their own goals and objectives, define the nature and scope of the subject matter, and frequently encounter conflict that, if not handled constructively, can lead to failure. As such, several special skills are needed to facilitate such a group.

1. A facilitator should take a strategic view of the group's work. He or she should be able to understand the needs of the group and lay out a strategy in advance. Like a chess master, an experienced facilitator looks several steps ahead in the problem-solving process.

2. A facilitator should be flexible, able to suggest how the agenda might vary depending on how things work out at each stage. An experienced facilitator selects from what Marshall Scott Poole, a communications researcher at the University of Minnesota, calls a "procedural salad bar” to assemble a process appropriate to the group's needs. Avoid a facilitator who always serves up a house salad, relying on a method that does not change regardless of the particular situation. There is a broad array of strategic problem-solving and decision-making processes, and your executives deserve a method that matches their needs and the tasks at hand.

3. Facilitators should assume responsibility for the group process, not the meeting content. It's the group's job to think about the problem while facilitators listen to what group members say and then feed this back in a form that summarizes, reorganizes, or integrates information to provide insight. The facilitator should be a neutral party with no biases and no vested interest in the outcome.

Sandor P. Schuman ( is Research Associate Emeritus at the Center for Policy Research, University at Albany, SUNY, and president of Executive DecisionServices. Find more resourcesat the International Association of Facilitators Web site.

This article was originally published at in 2004.