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leadership lab

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

When an organization has huge changes on the horizon or is stuck in a rut, it helps to have an impartial voice to bring reason and a fresh perspective. Few organizations would not benefit, at one time or another, from working with a third-party facilitator to bring dedicated and passionate voices together around the table.

Unlike mediators and arbitrators, who play more of a referee's role in helping opposing sides resolve their differences, facilitators guide participants toward shared business goals.

Facilitators are objective and less concerned with the final business decision as they are with the thoroughness and effectiveness of the process that led to it. They help identify goals, look at an issue from different perspectives and come up with a solution. The best facilitators encourage focus and a sense of collaboration (and mutual respect) within a group of people working together to resolve an issue.

To hire or not to hire?

In most cases, it is a good idea to hire a facilitator, however, there are instances where a facilitator could do more harm than good. For example, if the partners in a firm have unsettled disagreements (whether financial or interpersonal), it may be important to have those issues mediated before attempting to grow the business.

Following the merger of two large wealth management firms with very different cultures and brand images, I was asked to help with internal communication about what life would be like for employees in their newly minted company. In this case, my role was to act as an adviser to the CEO. He was ultimately responsible for the smooth merger of people as well as financial assets and systems. In this case, the issue was resolved by addressing the interests and goals of both cultures.

More recently, equipment manufacturer Bauer decided to expand their footprint in the retail industry. In this type of situation a facilitator could help them assess significant pros and cons before embarking on a strategy.

When to hire a facilitator and what to look for

Each situation will be different, but the characteristics of a good facilitator will remain unchanged. Below are three situations where a facilitator will help get the job done.

Situation #1: Your business is developing a new product and wants constructive input from different teams who will drive its success while reflecting the interests and goals of their departments.

Solution: A skilled facilitator should quickly understand the overall corporate culture and take into account each department's "agenda" throughout the product development process. He or she should propose a strategic approach through a series of meetings instead of attempting to gain employee input from a single meeting.

Situation #2: Your company is "stuck" on a festering technology issue that is eating into profits. It needs to be resolved effectively by an objective assessment of different solutions.

Solution: An experienced facilitator will help the team understand the roots and implications of the issue and will apply relevant knowledge from similar past assignments in guiding the conversation to fix it. He or she will also be neutral in acknowledging all suggestions.

Situation #3: You are launching an organization-wide initiative and want to include employees in the decision-making process.

Solution: This project will involve a number of meetings with different departments to get a complete picture of what the company stands for and how it must address future challenges. You need a facilitator who creates an environment of trust to encourage participation without fear of judgment. They should understand cognitive processes for gathering information from the group.

The most important factor when considering bringing in a facilitator is fit. A good facilitator will approach your situation with relationship-building in mind. They need to be able to gain the trust of all involved, and to do so they need to understand and adapt to your organization's workplace and brand culture.

Evan Thompson (@CSuiteProspects) is a business relationship and personal branding expert and is head of Toronto-based Evan Thompson and Associates.