The Secret to Successful Leadership

The secret to successful leadership is using facilitation skills when the going gets rough. Leaders change things for the better. Leadership can be as simple as making a sign to guilt people into cleaning the office coffee cup rather than leaving it in the sink for someone else to clean. And leadership can be as challenging as turning a business around that has been under-performing. Facilitation skills enable a leader to make progress with a group towards an abstract goal like creating a strategic plan for improved business performance. An abstract goal is when you know why you need to do something like turn a business around to make a profit but you don’t know how to do it – at least not yet.

There are many times successful leaders employ facilitation skills when the going gets rough such as the following:

  • You have identified something that must be improved but you don’t know where to begin so you identify key stakeholders and interview them for insights.
  • People from another department have been complaining to your boss about you so you organize a meeting to learn and understand the needs of the other department.
  • Your boss gives you a new assignment that overwhelms you so you recruit others who can help you with the assignment and benefit in some way.
  • You are told to lead a high-visibility project team for the CEO so you look for inspiration from other industries and sectors to generate and evaluate seed ideas to kick-start the team.
  • You just got a poor mid-year performance review from your boss so you interview those you work with for negative feedback and draw insights to develop a performance improvement plan.

These examples of leaders employing facilitation skills have many things in common. First, failure is not an option in these examples. Second, other people need to be consulted in order to address the challenge presented in each example. And third, the example challenges are abstract in that it’s not clear how to address them. When faced with an abstract challenge in which failure is not an option and other people need to be consulted, successful leaders use facilitation skills.

Facilitation skills are advanced and specialized social skills that take deliberate practice and feedback to learn and master. In fact, facilitation certification programs prescribe competencies that need to be demonstrated in sessions you have facilitated as a pre-requisite. For example, the International Institute for Facilitation requires documentation of 30 Certified Master Facilitator competencies over 30 sessions facilitated in the previous 3 years. Alternatively, the International Association of Facilitators requires documentation of 18 Certified Professional Facilitator competencies over 7 sessions facilitated in the previous 3 years. These certifications also require live demonstration of facilitator competencies in a mock-up session before evaluators who provide constructive feedback.

Every facilitator is a leader, but not every leader is a facilitator. Nevertheless, leaders can learn and develop facilitation skills. Researchers Aida Azadegan and Gwendolyn Kolfschoten describe the challenges of being a successful facilitator in the quote below (Aida Azadegan and Gwendolyn Kolfschoten. “An Assessment Framework for Practicing Facilitator.” Group Decision and Negotiation September 2014, 34 pages).

“A facilitator needs to operate at many different levels at the same time; understand the politics within the group; encourage interaction within the group; and guide participants through tasks and activities, while balancing the needs of the group and the client to reach real outcomes.”

Aida Azadegan and Gwendolyn Kolfschoten

In a corporate environment, the leader using facilitation skills can be the client or a superior can be the client. Azadegan and Kolfschoten also point out in their research that the complexities and flexibility involved in being an effective facilitator make assessing facilitation skills difficult. In fact, I created a facilitation skills self-assessment based on my corporate journey because I have not been able to find a helpful one elsewhere (email me at if you would like to try it out).

The success of a facilitated session is measured by how the participants feel at the end of the session. If the majority of participants feel the session was a good or even valuable use of their time, the session was successful. If the majority or a large minority of participants feel that the session was a waste of their time, then the session was unsuccessful. Successful leaders who use facilitation skills understand that participants are going to judge the success of a session using different yardsticks such as the following:

  • Some value the learning from the content presented or from interactions
  • Some value that their ideas or thoughts were incorporated in the path forward
  • Some value the process for a sense of contribution or accomplishment
  • Some value the new thinking triggered through interactions with diverse perspectives
  • Some value the objectivity and thoroughness to feel confidence in a path forward
  • Some value the clarity of purpose
  • Some value new ideas or thinking they got in the session that are applicable to their current work
  • Some value the new connections made through working together
  • Some value that their perspective was heard and included
  • Most value some combination of the above

The savviest facilitators use a process to plan, design, and lead a facilitated event that meets all the social needs described above.

I was a leader interested in developing facilitation skills early on in my corporate career. I watched other leaders with facilitation skills to learn from them. Then, I got the opportunity to take a 3-day training course in facilitation called Igniting Creative Potential: A Focus on Facilitation by the Creative Problem Solving Group of Buffalo. I put my new facilitation skills to use right away in a workshop I facilitated for our business’s CEO and his direct staff which went quite well. A few months later, I envisioned a 2-day workshop concept in a new job reporting to the North America CEO. The workshop was ambitious because it would involve senior leadership across the company plus stakeholders from government, academia, and non-profit organizations. I weighed my nascent facilitation skills against the importance of the workshop going well and decided that I needed professional facilitators to achieve the outcomes I sought for this workshop. Fortunately, the North America CEO loved my concept and provided a budget to accommodate professional facilitation and other expenses.

Today I am a Certified Professional Facilitator who provides facilitation services to others. I have also developed an on-line course and workbook for leaders to develop the most important facilitation skills ( If a leader is lacking in facilitation skills or experience for a given need, then the leader can hire a professional facilitator like me or recruit an experienced facilitator from within their organization.

Each leader faces situations when what they are expected to do is important and requires the help of others to decide or chart the best path forward. Smart leaders assess if they have the facilitation skills and experience needed to meet the situation. Successful leaders will employ their facilitation skills when adequate for the situation and recruit experienced facilitators as needed.