Business complexity demands that managers engage and influence numerous stakeholders to move projects ahead. Unfortunately, this isn’t an area of strength for most managers (See our recent post 5 Pitfalls of Stakeholder Management.) They need to be mindful of common pitfalls – and take care not to get trapped by them. But how?
From our work coaching managers and leaders, here are three tactics for engaging stakeholders that work.
Map Your Stakeholders
A stakeholder “map” that identifies the stakeholders managers need to approach is a great first step. It takes some time up front, but it’s worth it to have a visual that shows how different levels and views are represented.
Here are the steps managers can take to build out their map:
- Find colleagues who’ve been through a similar process and ask them about their stakeholders. This may lead to names for their map directly, or their colleagues’ maps can point out the types of individuals that should be included.
- Check in with stakeholders they’ve already identified, and ask them who else should be on their list. If some of the new names are unknowns or hard-to-gets, they can ask for advice on how to reach these new individuals, and what might matter most to them.
- Take a look at the map they have so far to be sure they are gathering the information from a full range of perspectives – not a biased few. Where are the gaps?
Years ago I worked with a lead researcher for an exciting new drug in the final stage of discovery. It was time for him to present his research to a cross-functional committee. After years of work he was excited about this drug’s potential to save lives, and ready to recommend it as a “go.” He went before the committee and presented his research, but his pitch was off. It was research-heavy and presented entirely from his own perspective. A bunch of different disciplines were in the room – marketing, regulatory, finance – but this researcher didn’t take into account what they cared about. And the committee voted “no-go.”
After this huge disappointment, we met to talk about what went wrong. I urged him to reach out to his stakeholders to learn how to rework his pitch. We identified the important stakeholders across functions. Fortunately, the committee gave him another chance, and this time he spent time with his stakeholders first. He came at the presentation with a business perspective, talking about the commercial value, how many patients could be served, revenue potential. This shift made all the difference, and they approved the drug to move on to the next phase.
Ask Questions that Draw Out the Real Story
Find the right people, and you’re half way there. But talking with a stakeholder doesn’t guarantee you’ll get complete information. Most often, managers don’t go deep enough with stakeholders. It’s important to do some digging to get to the real answers. Here are seven questions we advise managers to ask.
- From where you sit, what do you see as the key issues?
- What would be the most important outcome for you here?
- Is there any information that you (or your stakeholders) would want us to factor in that we haven’t yet considered? How can we get access to this info?
- Do you have any relationships – or history – that you think might help us? Hurt us?
- What barriers do you think might get in our way? How do you think we might be able to break down or hurdle those barriers?
- If you were me, how would you handle things here?
- Are there any questions I haven’t asked that I should have?
The answers have to be concrete. If stakeholders give vague or incomplete responses, managers need to push for specific examples and data. They’ll need it when they make their case. They have to listen carefully, and fight the tendency to rush it. It’s important to be consistent and ask the same set of questions of everyone. As they start to collect answers from multiple people, they should listen for patterns and themes – and gaps.
Evaluate and Weigh
Once they gather all this input, it’s time to weigh it all and figure out the path ahead. All stakeholders are not created equal. Managers need to be respectful of all their stakeholders, but they also need to make sure to consider who matters most, and make sure that their needs and insights get special weight. And VIP stakeholders often give the least direct input. That’s where sticking to a strong line of questioning can help.
These simple approaches will help managers find the right stakeholders, tap into their experience, and surface their needs and interests. Without wasting anyone’s time. That’s a win.
Stacey Shively manages the delivery of leadership development programs to Cambridge clients. Stacey’s background includes roles as a research associate at Harvard Business School and as a lecturer of leadership and organizational learning at Columbia University and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Her perspective is global and informed by extensive, hands-on experience working with global leaders and her doctoral work in leadership and adult development from Columbia University.