Facilitating and Managing Meetings: An Advanced Soft Skill

December 26, 2011

As they work increasingly in teams, laboratory managers and their staff members spend a considerable part of their working hours in meetings. Given this fact, it is important that this meeting time be as productive as possible. Meeting facilitators help improve meeting productivity. Meeting facilitators are particularly useful when meetings are highly interactive.

What meeting facilitators do

Meetings occur because they are an effective means to share information, set goals, and both analyze problems and develop possible solutions (brainstorming). However, these types of collaborative decision making can be a complex process. Meetings often involve complex interpersonal interactions. There may be disagreements over goals and how to achieve them. Meetings may dissolve into several simultaneous discussions rather than remaining focused.  Even with an agenda it can be difficult to keep a meeting moving smoothly on schedule.
Meeting facilitators  can play a role in solving or, better yet, preventing these problems. This often begins with the facilitator working with the person presiding over the meeting to prepare an agenda that will assist in accomplishing the goals of the meeting and keeping it focused. Each item on the agenda should have a clear reason for being there and a specific time allotted to discuss it.

During the meeting the meeting facilitator observes and, as needed, directs the discussion – and disruptive individuals – back to the matter at under discussion. This enables the person running to the meeting to remain focused on the agenda and accomplishing the meeting goals rather than getting sidetracked by behavioral issues.

Meeting facilitator skills

Meeting facilitators need to be diplomatic individuals who remain quietly observing most of the time but insert themselves into the meeting to take action as needed. To do this effectively, they should be someone the meeting attendees will respect.

The facilitator should work with the meeting organizer to set the agenda. The topic, opportunity or problem should be clearly defined. Each agenda item should be important and have a clear reason for being included in the agenda.

Facilitators shouldn’t take the meeting over from the meeting organizer. However, during the meeting they may need to invite comments from the meeting participants and encourage them to remain focused on meeting goals, and record and display key comments and conclusions. Despite this last comment, facilitators should not be responsible for taking notes and writing the meeting minutes. Doing so would take their attention from the dynamics of the meeting. In doing this, the vacillator is guiding the pacing of the meeting.

Even large companies seldom need to have people working full-time as facilitators. Meeting facilitators who are full-time employees often have other duties in addition to facilitating meetings. Because meeting facilitators are seldom needed fulltime, companies may wish to bring in consultants as meeting facilitators. Using accomplished retirees as meeting facilitators can solve the respect issue.

When meetings involve individuals from different organizations, they often pose challenges for meeting organizers and meeting facilitators. The attendees are not unified by a single workplace culture and may not have fully bought into the meeting goals. The same is true for volunteers working for membership societies such as the ACS.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.

Effective Decision Making: A Key Career Skill

December 19, 2011

Making good decisions is perhaps the most important management skill. “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than the ability to decide,” Napoleon once said. (He made some excellent decisions and a few monumentally bad ones during the course of his career as the leader of France.) 

While some may believe decision making is completely innate or only gained through long years of management experience, it is also a skill that can be learned and perfected. Management strategies and tactics can aid effective decision-making. These include scenario planning, cutting your losses, individual decision making, and group decision making.

Scenarios can aid decision making

Wise decision making can be facilitated by following scenarios developed long before decisions must be made. Shell Oil made the use of scenario planning famous (Fortune Magazine). Company planners had developed various scenarios of future crude oil prices in event of a shut-off of crude oil supplies from the Middle East. They developed plans for how the company should respond to each scenario. Before the 1973 Arab oil embargo effectively doubled crude oil prices for its oil refineries, Shell already had plans in place and calmly moved to execute one. In a sense, no decisions had to be made. They were already planned when the scenarios were developed.

Today many firms in many industries use scenario planning to help guide their decision making.

Cutting your losses

A common decision making error is not to cut one’s losses soon enough. Early in my first industrial research job, I was fortunate enough to learn (in hindsight) an important decision-making lesson from observing the mistakes of others. A research project had continued for several years progressing to the point where a 50,000 pound per year pilot plant was built. Two problems became apparent when operating the pilot plant. The first was that the properties of the polymer produced in the plant were inferior to those produced in the lab. The second was that the product was too expensive to achieve the targeted sales volumes, particularly if the properties could not be improved. For three years the program was continued in a fruitless effort to solve these problems.

It became apparent that the company was throwing good money after bad. Millions of dollars were involved. The laboratory manager could not be persuaded to give up on the project and direct resources elsewhere. Finally the lab manager was replaced.

The new lab manager quickly killed the project and shut down the pilot plant. Some staff members and the former lab manager lost their jobs. Interestingly, the chemist who had originally developed product and process had moved onto another research program a couple of years earlier. By avoiding involvement in the bad decisions, he kept his job while others lost theirs.

Individual decision making

Some decisions are made on the individual level. Many individuals do not examine every possible alternative but rely on experience and rules of thumb to make decisions. This can lead to cognitive biases – systematic mistakes when making choices between options. In the case of the example above, it may have been a systematic bias towards optimism that resulted in the research program being funded year after year without the critical problems being solved.

Another non-quantitative, non-analytical tool used in decision making is intuition. More than just gut instinct; intuition often is the result of pattern recognition capability. Well honed, it can be a powerful decision-making tool and is often involved in making breakthrough decisions resulting in development of a revolutionary new product or process.

Group decision making

Decisions are often made by teams. Are teams smarter and capable of making better decisions than individuals? The answer can be yes if an important pitfall, “group think,” can be avoided. Group think can occur when the group discussing decision options is pressured, often subtly, into conforming to the view of a powerful individual.

Another problem is if there is little synergy between team members. This results in each team member making a decision independently rather than reaching a consensus together. One sign of this occurring is if the group tries to come to a decision by voting on options with little discussion.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.

The Internet Job-hunting Sweet Spot: Employer Websites

December 12, 2011

While the Internet can often be a very useful job-hunting tool, surfing it to identify job leads can be time-consuming and tedious. However a 2010 survey by Jobs2web, Inc. of 14.3 million web users indicates that certain strategies are more effective for jobhunters than others. The findings are summarized in Figure 1. These are for all types of job openings, not just ones for chemists.

Figure 1 indicates over it takes an average of 1,050 users of a major job board such as Monster.com or Careerbuilder.com to result in one hire. One reason for this is jobs on big job boards often remain posted after positions are filled. Smaller, specialized job boards such as the jobs board on the ACS website and ScienceJobs.com were not included in the Jobs2web study but reportedly are more effective than the big job boards.

Social media are twice as effective as the big job boards; it takes 785 visitors to a site such as LinkedIn to result one hire. Another popular method is for job hunters to type a description of they want into an Internet search engine. This results in one hire from an average of 465 job hunters conducting searches. 

To make one hire from the candidates who visited their own website, companies look at an average of 337 candidates. Clearly job hunters contacting companies through their websites are self-selecting to some degree with a larger fraction of the most appropriately qualified candidates applying for a position.

The numbers look better for people using a search engine to find for a specific type of job opening or who consult a company’s website. These job hunters are self-selecting to some degree and have more relevant experience than all job hunters overall.


If one considers only those Internet users who apply for a job by filling out application forms and/or submitting a résumé, the relative effectiveness of the different Internet strategies is similar. However, the numbers look better because, after reading job descriptions, many Internet users opt out and do not apply for a particular position.

According to the analysis, companies look through about 219 applications per job from job seekers who discovered the posting on a major board, such as Monster.com or CareerBuilder.com, before finding someone to hire. In contrast, companies screen an average of 33 applications from job hunters who find the job opening on the company’s own career site to make one hire. Describing the job you want and using a search engine is about equally effective. Companies make an average of one hire from 32 applicants who find jobs openings this way. Social media sites fall in the middle of the rankings with companies hiring one applicant from an average of 116 people who used social media sites to discover a job opening.

Again, it should be noted that these numbers are fro job hunters in general and not chemists specifically. Still, the trends are interesting.

Internet job search strategies

Just because one strategy of online job searching is more effective than another doesn’t mean you should exclusively focus on that one strategy. Instead use the findings of the Jobs2web study to prioritize the methods you use and devote your greatest efforts on the most promising ones: company web sites and Internet search engine results. For example, the major job boards are crowded with applicants so companies have to sift through a large number of respondents to their job postings. However, according to a 2011 CareerXroads study, about one-quarter of company hires do come through applications submitted through major job boards.

Going beyond the Internet

Remember that there are other effective job search techniques besides using the Internet. For instance, networking can be quite effective in identifying job leads. Many companies like to hire new employees from among people recommended by their current employees. An average of ten such recommendations results in one hire.

The key to effective job hunting is to use a variety of techniques to identify job openings for which you are qualified. Don’t rely exclusively on just one or two. 

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.

Who Is Your Ground Buddy?

December 5, 2011

A couple years ago, I was one of the adult volunteers who took a bunch of teenagers out for a weekend of camping and adventure.  On this particular trip, they went to the Challenge Course, a series of outdoor problem-solving and team-building exercises that culminates in a 200’ long walk, 35’ feet in the air.  Each of the teenagers gets to take this high rope walk, and it’s the highlight of the weekend.  In addition to two safety harnesses, each high-wire walker is assigned a ground buddy for the duration of their walk. 

The ground buddy is told that their job is to watch the walker, warn them about what’s coming up next, encourage them, and most importantly to never take their eyes off the walker until they are safely back on the ground.   The walker is so focused on the details – where to put their foot next, how to reach the next handhold – that they can’t see what’s coming up next, or the bigger picture of how far they have come. 

I have a great photo of one of the kids, 35’ in the air on that thin rope, with nothing but tree tops all around him, and have used this image many times in my career development talks.  I think we all need a ground buddy for our career – someone who can see the bigger picture, can tell us what to reach for next, points out how far we have come, and encourages us to take the next step. 

Do you have someone like this in your life, and especially in your career?  If you do, good for you!  Take that person out to lunch every few months, and talk about what’s new or different in your home and personal life, and how that affects your personal career trajectory.

If not, do you try to do some of this yourself? Do you step back on a regular basis and take stock of where you are, and where your current career trajectory is taking you?  Do you seek out advice from people who’ve been where you are now? 

If no one comes immediately to mind, you have some thinking to do.  Who in your network might have valuable life experience to share with you?  Is there someone you admire who is further along in the career you want to have, and might they be willing to share some of their experiences with you?  Most people are more than willing to help, and are flattered to be asked about their own career. 

You may have more than one person, who share different aspects of your professional life.  For example, I have some people I go to for help with technical documentation questions, but others for running a business questions.  Everyone has different areas of expertise – and you may even be able to offer answers on another subject to those who are answering questions for you.  

And that’s a good point – while you’re thinking about who can help you, don’t forget to think about who you can help.  While unsolicited advice is not always appreciated, do you make yourself approachable by those early in their careers? We all know that the best way to really learn something is to teach it to someone else, and sometimes explaining to someone else how and why you did things can make you stop and think about why you really did it that way.  You just might learn something about yourself in the process. 

 This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.