Stakeholder engagement – what and why?
In my coaching and development work with senior execs, there is one activity that I can guarantee will always form part of our conversations, almost certainly more than once. And that’s stakeholder engagement. From forming a stakeholder engagement map to a stakeholder engagement plan or strategy, these discussions are almost always central to the success of our work together.
The reason? Everyone needs to know who their key stakeholders are, as well as the needs and expectations of those stakeholders, so that you can work out best how to work together so that you can each get your needs met. At leadership level, the stakes often get higher, and unmanaged or even unknown stakeholders can become a reason for projects to hit turbulence and for careers to get stalled.
What’s the secret to doing stakeholder engagement well?
On the flip side of that, if you follow the principles of stakeholder engagement that I outline today, you will be much better placed for success in your current and your future leadership roles, because you will have clarity on the important people around you – how they operate, their agendas and their expectations and how you can develop functional, mutually beneficial relationships with them. Today’s blog then is about developing your stakeholder engagement strategy.
This activity is particularly important during transition for leaders – either in the lead up to a role change, change of employer or even change of career; just after the transition is made; and also when change happens within an organisation due to restructure or changes in senior management. But refining your stakeholder management strategy is a worthwhile exercise at any point because without it, it’s likely that the network of people and the relationships around you will have shifted without you realising the consequences.
Is this politics, or is it relationships?
Another point to make here which brings up inevitable baggage is the word ‘politics’ – not Big P politics but the small p version. There aren’t many leaders I’ve worked with who would say that they enjoy politics, in fact the majority would say that they ‘avoid politics’ or ‘don’t play politics’. I get that, there’s something about the word that conjurs up images of shady characters scheming in darkened rooms, plotting the downfall of this or that person. Yep, that can happen, but you can take more control over those conversations if you’ve done the work, if you’ve figured out the people a bit and worked out the ‘give and get’ between you. And that comes down to honing your skills of observation, empathy, good communication and influence – which are all good foundational skills for leadership anyway.
When I work with leaders who are considering making the transition into senior exec roles or who have recently landed there for the first time, there’s often a note of regret in their voices when they realise that an increasingly large proportion of their time is going to be taken up by managing relationships, doing politics, influencing their stakeholders to get sponsorship for their projects or team and in particular working with people who they don’t necessarily feel have arrived in their senior exec positions on merit, but who have instead built a power base by being political. And I get that too. But that’s the world, it’s not a meritocracy, at least not for much of the time.
Learning from the relationship-building opportunists
I remember attending an event about 20 years ago – a development centre – I was an assessor, a psychologist observing people’s performance in various simulated tasks and then giving them feedback on what I was seeing. The idea was that this would give senior management an objective read on their talent pool…those people who had been identified as having the potential to move into exec roles in the next few years.
So me and other assessors (psychologists and line managers from the client organisation) sat in rooms observing scenarios and behaviour all day and giving some feedback on performance at the end – both to the project sponsors and to the participants themselves. Part of the day also saw some very senior leaders coming in to talk about their experiences of leadership and just to show their faces to the people going through the centre.
I distinctly remember at breaktimes and at lunch how there were some behaviours that I was observing that had nothing to do with the assessments we were making. A small number of participants during the non-assessed parts of the day were seeking out informal social moments with the senior sponsors who were there – meeting, greeting, making themselves known, even maybe honing their elevator pitch about their aspirations for a leadership role and it hit me like a lightning bolt that this form of influence…around the edges, in the cracks, where the opportunities arose…these were the moments that could have the biggest impact on someone’s later promotion chances.
Maybe even more so than acing the development centre. Is that fair? Is that playing the game? Well it is the game. At least part of it. As humans, we all have needs – to connect, to feel important, to be appreciated, to be safe and supported. And it was the development centre participants who were fulfilling some of those needs for the senior sponsors at the event who might have ended up being the most memorable to them. And if nothing more, those participants were taking the opportunity to start to build relationships with senior folk who may be able to help or support them at some point later.
How can you make those opportunities? With a stakeholder engagement strategy
Now if all this feels a little unsavoury (and if I’m honest, it did to me 20 years ago) it doesn’t have to – what I’ve learned is that you can fully live your values and still take or make the opportunities you need to build the relationships with your key stakeholders that will help you in your career and role. That’s how I support my coachees: how to do stakeholder engagement your way so that it sits right with you.
First up – build your stakeholder engagement map
OK, here’s the How To – starting with creating your stakeholder engagement map (see below). Lowest left box = Low influence and Low quality – you don’t need to put much effort in here. Top right box is High influence and high quality (‘Enlist support’) – these people can be your sponsors and supporters who make the biggest difference. Low influence and high quality relationship stakeholders (‘Keep happy’) – these people need some contact for the relationship to remain positive but they’re not going to be super important right now in actively helping you move forward in your role or career. The final box is High influence but low quality relationships (‘Deepen relationship’) – these are important stakeholders who at this point you may not have spent enough time with in order for them to be sponsors or supporters.
Once you have your grid, you need to start populating it with actual people and my advice here is to ‘be exhaustive’ – get everyone down and when you think you’ve finished, think again, think more broadly, maybe even outside your department or business area or even your organisation until you have everyone included.
Your stakeholder engagement map is unique to you – now to put it to work
Everyone’s grid will be different – for some people there will be a lot in ‘Keep happy’, but actually when they look at their high influence boxes, they see far fewer – this is comfort zone territory in stakeholder engagement…typically you’re spending most time with people you like and who like you but who aren’t making a big difference in terms of influence over your work.
In other grids, there will be a lot of people in ‘Deepen relationship’, particularly if you’ve recently moved role and there are a lot of new stakeholders to get close to.
Formulating your stakeholder engagement strategy – first prioritise your key stakeholders
Whatever your map looks like, you’ll need to prioritise your relationships now – what do you need to do and most importantly, with whom? Ask yourself who are the handful of stakeholders whose support you really need to achieve your goals and aspirations? Yes, this group may well include your line manager but you will almost certainly need to look beyond that relationship to broaden your visibility.
What can you do to improve the quality of your relationships?
When you’re clear on that priority group, be honest with yourself about the quality of your relationships – are there any people in your shortlist that you don’t get on with? Ask yourself what specific differences in style or interests, what obstacles or challenges might there be that are getting in the way of an improved relationship with them? Also, think beyond that direct connection between you and the stakeholder…think also about the people close to them and whether it might be worth you developing a better relationship with them as those influencers may help build your currency with the key stakeholder in time.
How can you find common ground and build on it?
When you think about how you can start to deepen relationships with your key stakeholders, think about how you can use your strengths and values and their strengths and values to build common ground between you. It’s also worth thinking through what their needs are – business and personal – and how you might be able to meet those needs. And to work on your leadership brand if you haven’t done so already – I talked about that last week at Season 10, episode 9, so take a listen for more tips.
Go through this process for each of your key stakeholders and then decide on what actions you’re going to take to get the relationship to where you’d like it to be.
Checklist for your stakeholder engagement strategy
Here’s my checklist for your stakeholder engagement strategy:
- Be clear on why this person is one of your priority stakeholders – what do you want from them?
- What are their objectives, their needs, their values? And how aligned or different are yours? (think about how you can leverage common ground and overcome differences in your agendas)
- What are their strengths and what might these look like in overdrive? And yours? (this helps in thinking about how to develop the relationship in a way that’s going to work best for you both)
- What are you going to do to build the relationship? (like ask for a meeting or a chat, talk about a project, get their advice, suggest they could be a mentor for you)
- Think about how you can add value to them (this can help shape your offer when you meet)
- Before you connect, prep what you’re going to say (at least to some extent) and think through what you’d like as an outcome – short term and longer term
- Make it happen.
Good luck building out your stakeholder engagement plan and your stakeholder engagement strategy. Even if you just end up developing a relationship with one or two more people than you’re doing right now, that will help. Relationships are what makes the world go round after all.