Facilitate Your Way to New Business

Here’s how to be an effective facilitator and get work in this arena.

FACILITATORS SHOULD ENJOY BEING IN FRONT of a group. Emotional maturity and the ability to think quickly on their feet are essential attributes of good facilitators. The major prerequisite for the job, though, is an ability to interact well with others.

TO START OUT IN THIS NICHE, CPAs can offer facilitation services pro bono to civic groups to get a few recommendations under their belts. Teaming up with someone established in the industry is another way to gain exposure.

CPAs CAN FACILITATE ONE-TIME PROJECTS such as priority-setting meetings for IT programs and vendor selection. Retreats, idea-generation sessions and company reorganization meetings also are ideal for facilitation engagements. Strategic planning or budget meetings always could benefit from a nonpartisan facilitator.

YOU CAN AVOID PROBLEMS during your sessions by establishing ground rules with group members, keeping all participants involved and interjecting humor where appropriate.

UNDERSTAND THE NEED TO BE FLEXIBLE. Being too rigid can undermine the session’s purpose. Offer alternative solutions to participants when they get stuck on an issue.

BE SURE TO FOLLOW UP WITH THE CLIENT after an event to make sure its goals were met and to find out how you could improve your performance as a facilitator.

CHRISTOPHER B. CALL, CPA, provides strategic facilitation services and business consulting in the San Francisco Bay area of California. His e-mail address is cbcall@pobox.com .

our client has scheduled a planning meeting on compensation packages and financing options for the upcoming fiscal year. The company needs consensus from its board members and management, but opinions are as strong as the egos involved. The CFO asks whether you know someone who could facilitate the session. How do you respond?

Many CPAs would automatically recommend someone else, thinking the job skills required reside outside their field of expertise. Yet, for you, this is a golden opportunity to expand your role as consultant to provide new advisory services. Accounting work exposes you to many kinds of people, problems and business situations. Tell your client you can do the job. A majority of Americans consider their accountant trustworthy, according to a July 2002 Gallup poll: Use this to your advantage. Your CPA designation is your best piece of facilitator advertising. Read on to discover how to break into this service niche and enhance your performance in the new position.

The facilitator’s role is to be an objective third party in a number of group settings—for example, when employees from different parts of a company need to come together to create a training program for a new information technology system and have only a certain amount of time in which to do it. The facilitator’s level of involvement may be high or low; but, overall, he or she encourages people to immerse themselves in the talk and helps them generate ideas with brainstorming sessions, for example, in order to make sure they achieve the goals of the meeting.

Facilitators—sometimes called moderators and trainers—should like to be in front of a group, says Denver CPA Patricia Lane Williams. “Every group needs a leader,” says Leita Angela Hart, CPA, of Leita Hart CPA and Associates, Austin, Texas. Emotional maturity and thinking quickly on their feet in order to improvise when problems arise also are essential attributes of good facilitators (see “ Learn From Others Who’ve Been There ”). “Ideal facilitators are bossy but not opinionated,” says Hart. “On the job their own emotional issues should never come into play; they must remain the adult throughout the process and be all about the group, having minimal ego.”

Opportunities Abound
There are some 25 million meetings held every day in the United States.

Source: Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner, Lenny Lind, Duane Berger, Catherine Toldi and Sarah Fisk (New Society Publishers, www.newsociety.com , 1996).

Facilitators don’t contribute ideas to a meeting but keep the group on track to meet its goals. “For CPAs who are used to advising clients and answering questions, this might be difficult,” Hart says. “They may want to ‘help’ the group out.” But sharing opinions with participants might prompt them to question the facilitator’s objectivity—or worse, give in to his or her ideas, she says.

Several organizations, such as the International Association of Facilitators, the National Institute for Facilitation and Leadership Strategies—the Facilitation Company, sponsor facilitator designations. The major prerequisite for the job, though, is an ability to interact well with others. With that skill and the right education and tools, you can handle the facilitation process from start to finish. “Natural-born facilitators are few and far between,” says Edi Osborne, CEO of Mentor Plus of Pleasanton, California. “Even the best can benefit from some training” (see “ AICPA Resources ” and “ Where to Find Training ,” below).

Where to Find Training
The AICPA provides a number of resources for practitioners who are offering new services or breaking into a niche. For example, the Institute works with Mentor Plus of Pleasanton, California, to market the Performance Measurement PLUS Skills and Systems Workshop ( www.aicpa.org/assurance/view/workshop.htm ), which “covers the technical aspects of performance measurement and provides the tools necessary to implement the service.” Since much of the material relates to facilitating, it would be helpful for facilitators-in-training. For more on what the Institute offers, see “ AICPA Resources .”

Leadership Strategies—the Facilitation Company ( www.leadstrat.com ), sponsors a certified master facilitator (CMF) designation with the National Institute for Facilitation ( www.nifac.org ). To become a CMF, a candidate must have facilitated 60 sessions (one session of which must be videotaped and reviewed) over a three-year period, produced five references and earned a score from his or her “assessor” and “reviewer” of at least 80% on each of six skills: presence, assessment, communication, control, consistency and technique. There also is an associate master facilitator (AMF) program, with a minimum requirement of 30 facilitated sessions.

The International Association of Facilitators ( www.iaf-world.org ) offers a certified professional facilitator designation. To be a CPF, one must facilitate seven sessions, have an in-person interview and have one session reviewed by a program evaluator.

The American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) ( www.astd.org ) is good for networking, for learning about facilitating through seminars and workshops and for finding clients.

The National Speakers Association (NSA) ( www.nsaspeaker.org ) is helpful in teaching you how to build relationships and market your services, says Leita Angela Hart, CPA, of Austin, Texas. The association’s Knowledge Bank and Resource Center has good information about facilitating. You also can become an affiliate with a state chapter of the organization. The Colorado Speakers Association has half-day to full-day facilitation sessions and a 10-month, fast-track program covering topics such as presentation skills.

The Institute of Internal Auditors ( www.theiia.org ) holds seminars on how to conduct a control self-assessment, where an internal auditor facilitates a discussion with management and staff about controls.
You can visit these Web sites to learn more about what training is out there:

Carter Group, Employee Development Solutions, provides facilitator training sessions. Go to www.buildingteams.com .

Institute of Cultural Affairs, Technology of Participation Workshop, offers facilitation courses, www.ica-usa.org .

American Management Association (AMA) gives the “How to Be an Effective Facilitator” course and offers a seminar called “The Effective Facilitator: Maximizing Involvement and Results,” www.amanet.org .

You also can read these books: The Facilitator’s Fieldbook by Tom Justice and David Jamieson (AMA), The Facilitator Excellence Handbook by Fran Rees (Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 1998) and The Skilled Facilitator by Roger Schwarz (Jossey-Bass, 2002).

To begin in this line of work, you could offer services pro bono to civic groups: Many nonprofits could benefit from a facilitator’s guiding them through annual planning or fund-raising discussions. Community leaders sit on many of these boards and are often a source of other fee-based opportunities. This “sweat equity” marketing costs nothing more than your time.

Note your availability for facilitating meetings in client correspondence and press materials. CPAs who want to offer this service can add “Strategic Facilitator” to their business cards. Or, Williams says, they can include facilitation services in their business plans and make certain all firm partners agree this is a viable way for their organizations to grow. “Firm members should let a ‘facilitator-in-training’ pursue this niche because it will take a lot of time and effort,” she adds.

At first Hart did a few assignments for free to build her client roster and get recommendations. She created a double-sided marketing piece to send to prospects and to use as a reference when phoning them to help keep her focus. On it she listed what she does and why companies should hire her. “It took a lot of cold-calling,” says Hart, “a task most people dread.”

“The classic conundrum when entering a new market is this: To get work, you need experience. To gain experience, you need work,” says Bruce Withrow, CA, who started Meeting Facilitators International of Toronto. “You can solve it by teaming with someone already established.” Cofacilitating with others who have a track record will help you hone your skills, he says.

Don’t underestimate word-of-mouth advertising. Hand out your card to every person at meetings you facilitate. Hart enrolled in professional organizations and became a leader in them so she could get to know people better. “The field is all about relationships,” she says.

As for how to charge, you’re providing the services of a consultant so price yourself accordingly. Fees range from hourly to per-head to per-meeting. Hart charges a per-day rate but says some facilitators charge by group size. Williams usually bills on a project basis. Osborne charges a fixed per-session price with room for variables if, for example, more preparation is required. You also could tie your fee into a tax, accounting and advisory services package.

Facilitators negotiate their fees with clients. A number of practitioners are facilitators on the side in addition to their regular accounting work, says Hart. “Some CPAs might use the service as a way to obtain clients for other practice niches and therefore not charge at all,” Williams says. Others might decide it is a way to earn more money and acquire clients, she says, so they add it to their business plan, actively marketing their facilitation expertise. Still others might direct their entire practice toward facilitation, regularly conducting seminars and strategic planning sessions, for example.

Facilitators can be useful in any situation where a company calls people together to accomplish a task such as generating ideas for improvement in some business area or solving a problem. For example, you could have a family-trust client whose members are in dispute about whether to dispose of some property. The client may have declined your first offer to intercede, convinced the family could work it out alone. After two months of arguing, the client allows you to monitor the discussions. The mere presence of an unbiased party helps defuse the negativity that has built up, and the family reaches an agreement. However, Osborne cautions that “severe conflicts in family companies may require a different kind of expert, such as a business psychologist.” The facilitator can suggest such a path.

“CPAs in public practice can be particularly adept at facilitating one-time projects such as priority setting for IT programs or vendor selection,” says Withrow. Hart has facilitated strategic planning and budget meetings. Retreats, idea-generation sessions and company reorganization meetings all could benefit from a nonpartisan arbiter such as a facilitator, says Osborne, who also helped develop and is cofacilitator/trainer for the Performance Measurement PLUS Skills and Systems Workshop marketed and sponsored by the AICPA.

Before any assignment, you must gather the tools—both manual and electronic—you will need to make the meeting effective for all participants. Withrow sometimes distributes handheld electronic keypads—similar to the ones used by the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” game show audience—to the people in his sessions so they can respond to questions anonymously. A data projector shows participants’ answers on a big screen at the front of the room. “It’s a good way to plow through a lot of material with a larger group,” Withrow says. His company uses networked laptop computers for brainstorming and employs polling, a manual technique, at many sessions he facilitates.

Be sure to do your homework, too. The “ Facilitator’s Checklist ” at right will help prepare you to step in front of a group and navigate the meeting to a successful conclusion. Then you can follow these tips to make sure you get off to a good start.

Facilitator’s Checklist
CPAs can use these questions to prepare for an engagement.

What is the company’s reputation in the industry? Why has a meeting been called?

Why has a facilitator been asked to participate? Can I be totally objective in this situation?

What is the goal of the meeting? Does a decision have to be made by the end of it?

Who are the participants, and what are their jobs and functions in the company?

Are there “power participants”—a vice-president, for example?

What types of personalities do the participants have?

Has anyone been excluded (either deliberately or due to other commitments)?

Do all the participants want to be at this meeting?

The outcome of the meeting will affect how many people? Is it clear how various outcomes will affect them?

Will any laws or government regulations be an issue in either the nature of the discussion or the range of possible outcomes?

Are there any taboo subjects? Are there any “sacred cows”?

What’s the time frame for the meeting? Is its length appropriate given the agenda? Will there be time for expanded discussion?

Where will the meeting be held: neutral ground or on-site?

How will the participants’ seats be arranged? Classroom style, in a circle, with a table or no table, for example?

What follow-up is required and when?

Set the tone. The purpose of the meeting largely will dictate its tone. Your preparation will have told you whether this is a friendly or combative group. Inform participants up front you don’t give personal opinions but will drive the process through which the group itself will make the decisions. In the first 10 minutes, you should begin to establish a “safe” environment, says Hart, by briefly stating your qualifications, acknowledging the job titles and experience of the participants and asking them what they want to get out of the session. “If you don’t take their concerns seriously, appear to be off track or allow strong personalities to dominate, the ‘safety’ is ruined,” Hart says. “Then people won’t speak up.”

Establish ground rules. “Having participants make a list of which behaviors they will and will not accept can help prevent problems,” says Hart. “The facilitator should post it on the wall.” At a minimum participants should observe certain rules of civil behavior: Abusive language and put-downs are out; people must turn off their cell phones and nonessential beepers. Make it clear anyone violating the rules will have to leave. Once the group makes the rules, it tends to police itself.

Identify objectives. Write down what the group must accomplish by the end of the session. Refer to the list periodically throughout the meeting to ensure you all are making progress.

Keep all participants involved. Some people talk more than others, and this can be bothersome to the group. “If there is an ‘elephant’ in the living room (or anything that causes an uncomfortable feeling), you should acknowledge it,” says Hart. “The group will break down if you try to cover it up.” In her experience, a group’s most common elephant usually is an emotion, such as frustration, and discussing it helps to keep Hart’s sessions under control.

Michael Wilkinson, managing partner of Atlanta-based Leadership Strategies—the Facilitation Company, who previously spent eight years at Ernst & Young, uses a round-robin technique to encourage shy participants to get more active in the discussion. He typically uses a question that is opinion-focused rather than one for idea generation. For example, he could say: “We’ve just heard from Dave about how we might solve this problem. Let’s quickly get some feedback. We’ll start with John (who is three seats away from a person who has not said anything) and go around the room. Let’s first identify what we like about the idea, and then we’ll open it up to anyone for ways to improve it. John, get us started. What do you like about the idea?” Wilkinson says this gives the quiet person a chance to prepare a response, relieving some of his or her anxiety.

Interject humor. Lightheartedness can aid even the most serious negotiations. Look for ways to use comedy to alleviate tension. You could keep a supply of Dilbert cartoons, for instance, to illustrate your points. The use of inane buzzwords by Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss always gets a laugh when someone starts a tangential discussion. “Humor can help a difficult discussion, but one must not take away from the issues or claim center stage,” says Osborne.


Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re facilitating an event. You must

Gain the confidence of the meeting participants by stating your qualifications, experience with similar clients and commitment to helping the session be productive for all involved.

Set the proper tone. You can accomplish this by keeping promises you make, acknowledging the positions and experience of the participants and asking them what they would like to get out of the session.

Establish a set of ground rules with the group. Posting on the wall a list of behaviors the group considers acceptable and unacceptable can prevent some problems.

Write down what needs to be accomplished and refer to these objectives periodically during the session to ensure the group remains on track.

Be flexible, understanding that being too rigid may undermine the purpose of the meeting. Be ready to offer alternative solutions to participants when they get stuck on an issue.

Seek an agreement from the group to implement the decisions reached at the meeting. Afterward, write a summary of the discussion and tasks assigned to participants and present it to the client (the person(s) who hired you) with a thank-you note.

Keep all participants involved. Some people talk more than others, and this can be bothersome to the group.

Summarize and assess progress. It’s OK to regularly stop, summarize what people have said so far and review progress made toward the stated objectives. Keep a record of key points on pages taped to the wall as participants make them. A facilitator can synthesize or summarize a group’s ideas without crossing the line of objectivity. Sometimes, a facilitated process stalls or stops due to group dynamics such as participant restlessness, Osborne says. The facilitator should not see this as a failure. It’s important to find the root cause quickly and continue the session. In the case of restlessness, you could give a 10-minute break, encouraging participants to step outside for some fresh air.

Be flexible within limits. A facilitator who is too rigid can undermine the purpose of the meeting (sticking to unrealistic time constraints may hamper discussion and prevent the group’s reaching consensus, for example). Offer alternative solutions. For instance, you could say: “It doesn’t look as if we’re going to complete our goals during the time allotted. Can we all agree to come back tomorrow and pick up where we left off?” However, be careful not to be too flexible: It could damage your credibility.

Get commitment to action. Seek an agreement from participants to implement the decisions reached. Ask specific questions such as, “Bob, will you revise the policy by Monday as we’ve discussed?” Write down assignments and make sure the group members understand what the next steps are.

Follow up in writing. After the meeting, draft a summary of what was discussed, what objectives the group achieved and what assignments were handed out to individual members. Give the summary to the client along with a thank-you note. “Following up with clients is helpful,” says Wilkinson. “We can make sure we did a good job helping clients achieve the results they were after, and we can ask for recommendations on how to improve our performance as facilitators. Follow-ups also give our company the opportunity to inquire about any additional issues we can assist the client with in the future.”

According to a January 2003 AICPA survey conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates Inc., 90% of business decision makers agreed their accountant was competent and reliable and demonstrated sound business judgment. Your CPA designation is your best piece of advertising for the facilitation area. Others see you as a natural choice for an unbiased moderator. Convincing yourself of your capabilities might just be your biggest hurdle. Use the tips, training and other resources in this article to start on a path that will provide you with career diversity and brand-new opportunities for expanded accounting work.


Web-based resource
e-MAP: Management of an Accounting Practice Handbook (# MAP-XXJA, one-year electronic subscription), practice management guidance from top CPAs in the profession.

2004 Practitioners Symposium
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June 14–16, 2004

Performance Measurement PLUS Skills and Systems Workshop, www.aicpa.org/assurance/view/workshop.htm .

Marketing a Consulting Niche, edited by Allan D. Koltin (# 056508JA).

Start Consulting—How to Walk the Talk by William Reeb (# 090439JA).

For more information or to order, go to www.cpa2biz.com or call 888-777-7077.

Learn From Others Who’ve Been There
Over time CPAs can get better at anticipating pitfalls and establishing alternative strategies. Here are some tips on how to avoid the mistakes new facilitators frequently make.

See to participants’ physical needs. Not doing so was one of Osborne’s early faux pas. She now sets forth exact specifications concerning room layout, temperature, lighting, food (healthy, easy-to-eat snacks work best) and bathroom accessibility—aiming to keep people comfortable and alert. Osborne recommends giving shorter, more frequent breaks—instead of longer, less frequent ones—to keep people fresh. Williams once facilitated a meeting where someone ran a vacuum all morning in the room next door. Now she talks to facility managers beforehand to ensure nothing disturbs her participants.

“You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,” as the Kenny Rogers song goes. You need to have the foresight and courage to walk away from situations requiring more skill than you have, Osborne says. A few times, she found herself in an unworkable situation that left everyone frustrated. Now, to avoid even the slightest hint of discord, she interviews each participant before the session and discusses issues and answers questions prior to convening the group. Otherwise, she says, you wind up dealing with hidden agendas.

Find out whether a company has had a bad experience with a past facilitator. Executives often will admit this to you up front. Osborne advises finding out what went wrong and why. It helps to ask the client, “What could cause the process to go sideways?” Sometimes people think facilitated processes are a waste of time, and it takes a lot of effort to prove them wrong. Get to know what client expectations are beforehand. Your client may have too many or too few expectations—it’s best for the facilitator and client to agree so the process will be a success.

Get management buy-in. “I have stopped taking jobs where I don’t have management’s full support,” says Hart. “Otherwise, it is a futile and frustrating experience for everyone. It isn’t worth the investment on the company’s part—and I tell managers that.” Early in her career she facilitated a meeting of internal auditors. The division director walked into the session in its third hour and sat at the back of the room. The group, which had been talkative up to that point, shut down. Each time Hart solicited feedback, the director explained why an idea wouldn’t work. “It was a waste of time,” Hart says. “That was a good lesson to learn; now, I find out where management stands before I arrive.”

Overcome nervousness. “I think one of the greatest fears CPAs considering facilitating have is that someone will embarrass them or the group will get unruly,” says Hart. “I’ll tell you a secret: That seldom happens. Most groups prefer you succeed. It allows them to relax and enjoy the process.” A peer recently gave Hart this advice: Find the supportive folks in the group—the ones nodding their heads and smiling—and talk to and work with them until everyone else gets on board.

Deal with conflicts. “Don’t stick your head in the sand as soon as you have trouble in one of your sessions,” says Wilkinson. He once had a company’s CEO turn to its president and yell, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” Instead of addressing the CEO’s remark head-on, Wilkinson meekly asked the group, “Any other input?”

Facilitators can be trained to recognize the signs such an outburst might occur. “Early detection is the key to staving off a fight,” Wilkinson says. “For example, I had noticed the CEO shifting uncomfortably in his seat while the president spoke. If I had addressed the concerns I knew he had by asking earlier for the group’s input, the CEO would have had the chance to voice his opinion in a supportive environment. Instead, he held it in for too long and finally burst.” Preparatory work helps prevent these kinds of problems, he adds.

Quash nay-saying. A pessimist can put a damper on any session. When dealing with someone who keeps muttering, “That won’t work,” Wilkinson suggests coming right back with, “You may be right, but how do we fix it so it will?” He says you’d be surprised at how often the naysayer suddenly becomes quiet or offers something constructive to the discussion instead.


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