What it Takes to Manage Facilitators

Nicole Van HerwaardenAn interview with Nicole Van Herwaarden, IdeaConnection Team Management
By Jane Mundy

Nicole Van Herwaarden heads up team management at IdeaConnection.com. One of her tasks is to choose a problem-solver team's facilitator, which could be daunting given the number of facilitators from all over the world registered with IdeaConnection. But Nicole draws on her wealth of education and life experience to get the job done and she does it well – as facilitators, problem solvers and clients can attest.

Nicole, what qualifications do you have that helps you choose a Facilitator?

I worked in the hospitality industry before obtaining my biology degree and since I graduated five years ago I've been in sales. To make a sale you have to be able to adapt to the client's personality; you have to be a quick study and be able to gauge your client on the spot.

From my own experience, when I am vetting facilitators, I'm looking for someone who will be an ideal manager so I look for what motivates me. I will put myself in the situation of a team member, and the problem to be solved is secondary.

What's the first step in assigning a facilitator to a problem-solving team?

One of the first things I do is to contact everyone – almost 200 people – who have signed up on IdeaConnection to be a facilitator. I set up a Skype meeting to discuss the facilitator role and our expectations and to further learn about their skills, experience and track record.

Their availability is important – the facilitator has to meet with their team one hour per week via the ThinkSpace® (IdeaConnection's software tool) for 10 weeks, so they have to be flexible with the time schedules, especially keeping in mind that each of the four or five team members can live in different time zones, many hours apart.

And the next stage?

To start the initial dialogue I find common ground, so I will research wherever possible that facilitator's interests beforehand. For instance, I won't start talking about our Canadian hockey team with a business owner from England (unless they bring up the subject first!)

I typically start the conversation asking about the potential facilitator's experience. Invariably we will start talking about personal experiences. Recently I received from one of our facilitators pictures of turtles laying their eggs! Prior to going on vacation we'd talked about the turtles, about how excited he was to see them. In other words, we develop a genuine relationship – on a personal level.

What qualities do you look for in a facilitator?

What I am really looking for is an individual with online facilitation moderation experience, someone who is comfortable working with a virtual team where most of the time they will never meeting them face-to-face. I like to ask them how they plan to motivate or encourage a team. (Nearly all of our applicants have extensive facilitation experience.)

And this is important: Can they work around big egos? The facilitator needs to make sure that everyone is being heard and encouraged. There are definitely a lot of big egos out there that are brilliant problem solvers, so it's a fine line to encourage them to participate but at the same time, keep them working as a group, with a team mentality.

I look for someone who is an active listener; by that I mean someone who is really listening and can repeat back to me what I said. Some people are only thinking about what they are going to say next rather than listening to you. That goes hand in hand with having a facilitator I enjoy speaking with.

I keep track of who keeps in touch with me. I recently assigned one facilitator mainly because she checked in with me at least once a week. 'How's it going, has anything come up for me?' she would ask. She shows enthusiasm and I like it when people take the time to send a short message.

How much knowledge/expertise must the facilitator have regarding the problem to be solved?

The potential facilitator always asks me what sort of knowledge is needed on the subject matter, and they are invariably surprised when I tell them, until I explain why. Then it all makes sense...

We want the facilitator to have a general background; sometimes even just a high school background on the subject can suffice because if the subject matter is too familiar they might be inclined to offer their own opinion, which is not desirable. They have to be comfortable enough with the language to be comfortable with the team but at the same time, not interject.

Do you check their references?

Some are professional facilitators so I can visit their website and LinkedIn and see past performance.

Do you have any problems working with the facilitators?

Only time constraints. They all have a good grasp of English and some have interesting accents.

Can you give an example of a successful facilitator?

Sure. David Gleiser, a professor from Colombia, has helped his teams win several challenges. And Lisa Singh, from Dayton, Ohio has completed at least 10 challenges since she started with IdeaConnection, and she is currently working on two more.

Do you work with the problem solvers, i.e., the team?

When a team is formed I call every new problem solver. This is where we get into language barriers, and I make sure they are available and have the time to commit. I discuss the importance of each team member and stress the importance of seeing it through to completion. I also ask them if they are comfortable with working on a contingency basis, and they must also confirm that they are comfortable in transferring the intellectual property when a solution is accepted.

What kinds of problems could facilitators anticipate?

One problem working on a virtual team is anonymity so some team members are not aware that the team comprises real live people; there can be a lack of emotional connection and human responsibility. The facilitator must ensure the message gets across that "People like you are needed and if one person quits the whole team is let down." Then I listen to their reaction.

As I mentioned, there are of course language barriers. For example, someone may answer to my above statement with "yeah, yeah," which in our culture may sound dismissive but to someone from India this response means "I understand you."

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