On one of my first official team building gigs, I almost blew it. 

I designed an agenda to address the leaders needs but chose NOT to share it with the leader ahead of time.  For some reason, I wanted the leader to experience the process fresh with the team.  At the time, it seemed like a great idea.

When the workshop began, it didn’t take long before the leader jumped in to try and take us down a different path than I had planned.  What I didn’t know at the time was her concern that we weren’t going to get to the output she wanted.  After she did this twice, I had a side conversation with her and realized the issue. Then, I was able to explain my process to assure her we would accomplish her goals.  It was a rocky start, and a lesson learned for me:  Always collaborate with the leader prior to a session so that both leader and facilitator are clearly on the same page.

Five Things You Need to Agree on Prior to the Session

When facilitating a team building session, it is critical to align with the leader prior to the session.

While preparing for a team building session, these five things need to be discussed and agree upon:

  1. The goal(s) or objectives of the session.  What does success look like?  What will they need to have at the end of the meeting for it to be a success?
  2. The agenda and estimated time frames.  What do we need to do and in what order?  How long will each item take?
  3. The Plan B.  If time runs short which items on the agenda are the must do and nice to have.
  4. Potential Issues.  What are the issues or challenges that are likely to come up and interfere with the success of the session?
  5. How decisions will be made.  What decisions will the team be making and how will these be made?  Consensus, majority, or the leader decides?

Four Things to Coach the Leader on Prior to the Session

In addition to the session content and process, it is important to coach the leader so that the two of you will be supporting each other throughout. 

Coach them about:

  1. Kicking off the meeting.  Encourage them to prepare some opening words that speak to the importance of the session, and the reason for it. Remind the leader that the way they set it up will set the tone of the day.  Ideally, their opening words will be positive and encouraging, while expressing a desire for the team to speak up and share various opinions.  It’s also nice for the leader to demonstrate empathy, acknowledging the time away from their work and appreciating them in advance for fully engaging to make the time well worth it. 
  2. How and when the leader should engage.  Sometimes leaders get excited and they are often the first to speak on every topic.  When this happens, the group tends to follow their lead.  So, encourage the leader to sit back and listen and observe.  Ask them to be the last to speak on a topic, rather than the first. 
  3. Permission to jump in when needed.  I always encourage the leader to jump in anytime if they think background information or other clarification is needed.  They know the team and the work way more than I do, so I emphasize we need to work together throughout the session.  If I’m taking the group down the wrong path or if something needs to be shared, I will want them to be comfortable interjecting so we can reset quickly.
  4. Closing the meeting.  After I close the meeting, I always turn it over to the leader to give their final words.  It’s important they know this is coming so they can give a thoughtful closing.  Like the opening, they should emphasize the goals, encourage the team, and be empathetic where appropriate.  Additionally, sincerely praising the team for efforts, sharing different opinions, working through difficult tasks, etc. is a way to reinforce the positive behaviors of the team.

The time you spend connecting and aligning with the leader about their role in the meeting will be well worth it.  A leader has a lot at stake by handing over their work to a facilitator, and the time and attention given prior to the session will strengthen their trust in you to guide them.  When the leader trusts you (and vice versa) your odds of a highly successful meeting (and follow-up work) increases dramatically.

About the Author: Leigh Ann Rodgers, Founder of Better Teams and Forward, is an IAF Certified Professional Facilitator with 20 years of experience in the human development field. Leigh Ann is a skilled meeting facilitator, trainer, and coach working across the globe to help leaders cultivate teams that are happy and high-performing.

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2 Responses

  1. Very excellent and awesome post: thank you for these excellent reminders. I too have done that mental step before hand of a) presuming the leader and i are on the same page, AS WELL AS b) thinking that, once I have the agenda and schedule designed, they’ll be fine to just roll along with things as we go. –> Oooh such lessons to learn here.

    Even as recently as two weeks ago, I learned —during the session–that the leader’s thoughts and plans had kept evolving (even after our 3rd touch-base meeting ahead of time). What I learned about him is that his brain just kind of keeps re-inventing things as he mulls. So, a good reminder to be clear (oh crystal clear!) about our plans between us –which of us will cover what— and then to reinforce that one more time. And then, onsite, to be prepared that s/he might a “Continual Thinker” so goes ahead and says out loud a thing that’s coming later. Or makes changes to his key points that end up leaving OUT some key points you think the group needs.

    Our need as facilitators to get good at *staying in the moment* to hear not only what was Planned for this moment…but what is actually Being Said in this moment. And in those instances when those things differ: being able to think nimbly and keep things as smooth as we can.

    Your post—again!–has got me thinking and learning and digesting. Thank you!

    1. Claudia – that is an excellent point. It’s like a dance, where we must constantly pay attention and check in with the leader as the meeting “evolves” (as you said- the perfect word for this experience).

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