Choosing the Right Strategic Planning Partner

By Nancy Dunleavy, Founder, CEO and Chief Talent Scout

One of the most important (and sometimes daunting) business initiatives that any organization must undertake is developing a strategic plan.

It’s entirely different than an operating plan, and is described best as a formidable process that requires focus, forecasting and fearless facilitation.

Perhaps it’s because that process is so formidable, it becomes essential that you also make the decision to engage an outside facilitator to get you through it.

Why? Well, an outsider will be able to elicit unfettered feedback - their independence enables them to get the best information from all stakeholders involved (and keeps you out of the line of fire when the pushback starts, as it undoubtedly will).

So once you’ve settled on the decision to hire someone to work with you on your organization’s strategic plan, how do you choose a facilitator that will fit your needs?

Of course you’ll do your homework, talk to other organizations with good strategic plans, interview candidates, and call their references. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that a good facilitator needs to know your industry inside and out - they just need to know their own industry. A truly skilled facilitator knows how to ask the right people the right questions, build the process, and get the results.

Pay attention to your interactions with candidates while interviewing them. Do they know how to listen? Do they ask the right questions? Do they perceive and pick up on your priorities? Is their personality one that will make people comfortable or immediately put them on edge? A good facilitator will undoubtedly make you uncomfortable during the strategic planning process, because it’s their job to ask the searing questions. In short, you’d better like them from the start!

As you begin the strategic planning process, remember that the plan you will be creating is not an expensive luxury - it’s an invaluable necessity. Think of it as buying the premium ingredients needed to create a fragrant “smell-test”; yes, smell-test—that practical metric used by so many to gauge whether an organization really “gets it”.

Whether a prospective board member, a lender, or an accreditation surveyor is requesting it, the “plan” becomes the basis upon which their conclusions are founded and their decisions are made (or declined).

Done with intensity and intention, your strategic plan can become an eloquent messenger or, if outdated (or, heaven forbid-- nonexistent) your most dreaded villain. Don’t fall into the trap of being caught with your strategy down! It’s a slippery slope and completely avoidable if you take the steps to ensure that your business is able to articulate the “who, what, when, where, and why” of its near and longer term future.

A good facilitator will hold your feet to the fire—make sure that the hard questions get asked, and more importantly, that they get answered. They will become the irritant that challenges your committee to stretch its thinking to consider new options, and they will do so unemotionally.

Creating a good strategic plan means taking off your reading glasses and picking up your binoculars. A well-facilitated process will enable your organization to really see where you want to be and then map out the most efficient, effective path to get you “there” (wherever “there” is) on time and on budget.

It’s something like that reliable, friendly travel planning tool offered by Google Maps. Think of your strategic plan like a business Google Map, but on steroids.

Working with an independent facilitator will ensure that you don’t get slowed down by the speed bumps, detoured by the missing signs, or otherwise distracted by the billboards that are advertising the stop-off places along the way. You’re on the long haul and if you select a facilitator who “listens” they will pace your journey to ensure that you’ll arrive refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to roll.

About the author: Nancy Alba Dunleavy is the founder and CEO of Dunleavy & Associates is a professional services firm focused on building capacity, confidence, and bottom lines for nonprofit organizations, and the foundations and companies that support them. She serves on a variety of boards including Gwynedd Mercy University, the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and LEADERSHIP Philadelphia. Additional information about Dunleavy & Associates is available at