Driving Results: Managing Stakeholders Effectively

It doesn’t matter that you’re right if no one cares what you have to say. I can’t emphasize this enough.

So often what is emphasized in school and management/professional training focuses on analytical clarity, technical skills and how to be “persuasive” in the context of presenting and telling your story clearly (and even this last part doesn’t get enough attention).

These are all valuable skills, worthy of developing. But if you want to consistently be successful in getting buy-in to your efforts, they aren’t enough.

You need to effectively manage relationships with relevant “stakeholders” if you expect consistently good outcomes.

A stakeholder is anyone who can affect or is affected by the decision you are trying to reach. So if you are trying to re-organize a business unit, stakeholders might include customers, staff, management, corporate officers etc.

Why should I care?

It’s simple. Do want to get things done? Here are few practical reasons why you need to bring people into your process (as appropriate).

1 – People like to be consulted. It makes them feel included and is more likely to drive support, acceptance and compliance. We all have egos. If you don’t come talk to me, then I’ll assume you don’t value my perspective and that will rarely play out well.

2 – You improve your thinking and improve results as flaws are pointed out. If you view a change or project process as a win/lose you will usually lose in the long run. Hubris is a killer. So be humble and open to feedback. Maybe your core idea is good, but could be improved. You may also be missing huge, but non-obvious concerns. Seek feedback actively and visibly incorporate it into your work, crediting support when it’s given and you will dramatically improve your credibility.

3 – Both support and opposition become clearer. Getting in front of people one on one or in small groups forces them to engage you. If you are reasonably good at reading people, you’ll get a sense of where your idea/program stands. You’ll turn up both fact-based and emotional issues (both pro and con) that allow you to better navigate stakeholders.

These motivations (ego, power, performance measures, pay etc.) are important to understand. Once you’ve identified issues they can actually be managed.

4 – You are pre-selling. This gives people time to think things through, minimizes surprises and allows adjustments. I’ve written more about pre-selling here.

5 – You increase the likelihood of building trust. You can’t put everything in a contract or lock down every detail of an initiative. If I trust you, I’ll tend to give you the benefit of the doubt. I won’t trust you until we’ve had interactions and I’ve seen you behave honorably and at least partly in the interest of others (as opposed to only your own position). They will often be buying you as much as whatever the idea is.

6 – You eliminate as many stalling tactics as possible. Have your ducks in a row to avoid slow death by the clever stall.  In large organizations, there’s always another committee you can send something to to die. In a product launch gate review, you can be sent back for more testing with the next committee meeting not being for months just to check a simple fact. If you’ve identified resistance and anticipated objections, you can plan for effective responses.

7 – If you do all this you’ll tend to build support while minimizing ill-will. You can’t really force anyone to do anything in today’s business environment (at least not to do it well). Letting people weigh in and incorporating their perspective into your work is critical to getting them onboard.

Most people will get on board and at least not actively resist if they feel a reasonable discussion has occurred, that they were heard and they can understand the rationale of an opposing position. In essence, if it is a “task-based’ disagreement we can move on. If it is emotional conflict, we have a problem.

So it’s on you to drain the emotion from the situation as much as possible. That doesn’t happen without active engagement.

By the way, this is hard work. It takes a significant amount of effort. Many of my students and colleagues want to focus on “the real work” (ie: doing the analysis, building the software, testing the product…). Without this softer effort, the “real work” doesn’t matter. Remember, you’re getting paid for a result. Effort doesn’t matter if you don’t deliver.

So think “go slow to go fast.”

How do I manage stakeholders?

1 – List stakeholders. Who are all the groups and individuals affected?

Write them down. Don’t boil the ocean here, but be thoughtful about who you include. Clearly, anyone directly involved in the decision, but also consider potential de-railers whose support is required.

For example – Does an exec in question have a strategy head who they consult for everything? Then you better consult them too. Are you considering a new product and you sell through distribution? Better consult not just consumers and internal stakeholders, but channel partners as well.

2 – Develop an engagement plan for each group or person. Build a simple word or excel table. Put the names and groups in it. Evaluate their influence and their position on your initiative. Meet with as many of the stakeholders as you can based on their priority and your time.

Approach them with a simple message and ask their perspective. Mostly listen. Document their perspective, take note of their advice and specific feedback. Having met and done these things, determine who needs what type of interaction and build a specific plan for how to do that.

For example, some supporters may just need status report updates while an important skeptic may need to be invited to work sessions and be actively involved in crafting solution to build trust and buy-in.

This obviously scales in complexity with size of initiative. You can do this easily on a simple issue in your workgroup. Implementing SAP at a big company is a whole other question.

3 – Follow through consistently and adapt as you learn. Meet the commitments you make and clearly iterate your work and message as you learn. If you do this, you’ll minimize surprises and have a pretty good idea of where things sit as you go into critical reviews or launches.

When don’t I include people?

As infrequently as possible! But note that up above, I said “as appropriate”. You have to use your judgment on scope, confidentiality and speed.

If you are about to lay off people, you clearly can’t involve a broad group in the decision process. However, you can engage the management team to make sure it is communicated as well as possible and that broader concerns about retirement plans, placement and other employee concerns are considered.

You are also always balancing time and effort. There are only so many hours in the day. Having said that, do not underestimate the importance of time spent building relationships. It usually pays off in the end.

Think about how success is measured: it’s not about a test score anymore. It’s also not about “being right”. Now it’s about effectiveness and getting things done. That takes other people.

So in the end, you can engage people or not. But in the end, your odds of succeeding go way up if you or your team have effectively identified and managed your stakeholders.

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