One of the biggest challenges that leaders face is stakeholder management. Managing our key stakeholders is important, because they can play a big part in what our team does, and what people think about us.
If you are smart about how you deal with your stakeholders, you’ll be able to navigate your workplace more easily than others who don’t pay attention.
Many leaders are caught unaware because they haven’t paid enough attention to important stakeholders in their workplace. But if you pay attention, you can reduce the risk of this happening to you, and even start to get the important people on your side.
Stakeholder Management: Leading Up, Down and Sideways
One of the difficult challenges that leaders face is the constant balance of managing different stakeholders.
As leaders, we need to manage down, to make sure our team members are productive and satisfied. We also need to manage up, keeping our own boss happy. Then we need to manage sideways, to foster positive relationships with other teams and leaders in our workplaces.
Maintaining this balance is not easy. If you focus too much on your team, you may fail to pay attention to the needs of your boss, which might attract extra scrutiny and oversight.
However, too much time spent managing up often means you fail to pay attention to your team, resulting in a lack of oversight and alignment with your team members.
If you don’t maintain relationships with other teams and managers, you may build a “silo mentality” where communication across the organisation is non-existent or dysfunctional. This can result in adversarial and “us versus them” relationships building across your workplace.
Listen to this related Thoughtful Leader Podcast Episode: #70: How Team Alignment Will Help You Get On (and Stay On) the Right Track.
What Happens When We Ignore Stakeholder Management?
When we ignore this critical part of leadership, we can run into several problems. Some common issues include:
- Slow progress: When key people don’t understand what you’re doing, they may demand greater oversight and slow you down. Sometimes, they’ll stop you altogether!
- Negative sentiment: People who aren’t involved (but who want to be) may spread bad information about what you’re doing. This influences others and makes your job even harder.
- Poor solutions: When you don’t involve the right people, you run the risk of creating poor solutions. When the right people are involved, they often know information that help you to avoid issues and reduce the risk of what you’re trying to do.
Ignoring stakeholder management can be a big mistake. When done well, you can gain allies to help you and reduce the chances of people stopping your progress.
Stakeholder Management Step 1: Identify Your Key Stakeholders
The first step in stakeholder management is to work out who your key stakeholders are. An obvious stakeholder is your boss, who clearly has a say in how your team operates. However, there are almost definitely others too.
When identifying stakeholders, first look for people who are influential in deciding what happens in your particular area or in how the workplace runs.
If you fail to manage them, these stakeholders are a source of risk. They are able to influence how others feel about you and your team. If managed well, these stakeholders can become allies, helping you to bring people on board with your ideas.
Next look for the people who your team works with. Perhaps you need something from other teams, or your team provides services to them. Either way, if these relationships are not managed, you run the risk of conflict or inefficiency building between teams.
Don’t forget to identify the stakeholders who may be one or two steps removed from you. For example, I’ve often found it can be helpful to cultivate a good relationship with your own manager’s boss, or with other senior leaders in different departments.
Sometimes you do need to be a little careful building relationships with senior leaders. This is especially relevant if your boss is insecure and may feel like you’re trying to undermine them. Being open about your intentions is usually a good way to make sure nobody feels too threatened with what you’re trying to do.
Don’t Forget About the Silent Stakeholders
Sometimes it’s obvious when stakeholders need to be involved. They ask you for information and updates, and they want to know what’s going on. Others are silent, watching and observing. You don’t know exactly what they think, but they probably have an opinion.
Don’t forget about the silent stakeholders, who can sometimes become valuable allies if you spend some effort getting to know them.
Step 2: Understand What Your Stakeholders Want
After you can see who your stakeholders are, you need to understand what they need or want from you. Having an open conversation to discuss their requirements is a great way to get started.
Sometimes, this will be easy. Some people will tell you exactly what they’d like to see or hear from you. This might be in the form of progress updates, or more involvement or oversight of the work of your team.
Be Perceptive to Notice the Hidden Stakeholders
However, often it’s not that easy. Some stakeholders won’t tell you what they want, but they may show you indirectly. You need to keep your eyes and ears open.
For example, if your boss or another senior manager keeps asking questions about specific aspects of your team, this can be a sign that they are uncomfortable and need more information. If you hear incorrect information being spread by key stakeholders, this may be a sign that they need to be more involved, so they instead say the right things.
When key stakeholders are unaware of what is happening, this may also cause them to jump to their own conclusions. Worse, they may make judgements about your team based on hearsay which may be incorrect.
Proactive stakeholder management can help to avoid this problem.
Stakeholder Management Step 3: Categorise Your Stakeholders
It’s useful to categorise your stakeholders so that you can decide how to deal with them. Even though they are all individuals, you can often take a standard approach to stakeholder management if you group them in some way.
I like to use the following stakeholder categories:
- Decision-Makers: These important stakeholders make the key decisions that may affect your team. Your boss is probably one of these!
- Influencers: Influencers can help you to make change, and spread the good word about your team. They are well respected (or feared!) and their opinion is highly valued.
- Detractors: These are people who can derail your plans if you don’t pay attention, or simply make things difficult for you. We might try to turn them into an influencer, or at least limit the damage they cause.
- Customers: These stakeholders rely on some sort of product or service from your team.
- Providers: You rely on these people to provide you and your team with products or services.
- Interested Bystanders: Some people just want to know what’s going on, without needing to be intimately involved. However, you never know if they might turn into influencers or detractors.
Next, we’ll look at how to use these categories to manage your stakeholders effectively.
Step 4: Develop an Approach for Each Stakeholder Category
Now it’s time to take action. Once we know who our stakeholders are and what they want from us, we can work out how to best serve them.
I find it useful to further classify our stakeholders as needing to be informed, involved or engaged.
Informed stakeholders usually just need communication. They like to know what’s happening in their area of interest, on a frequent basis. This means you simply need to decide the mechanism, which might include email updates or “town hall” meetings.
Involved stakeholders like to be part of decision-making or developing solutions. This could mean inviting them to participate in workshops, attending important meetings or having them review and approve deliverables, which helps them be a part of shaping the work.
I use the term engaged stakeholders to mean those that we need to pay closer attention to. We may use a combination of informing and involvement strategies, but often it is useful to spend more effort to engage these stakeholders on an individual basis.
These stakeholders are usually highly influential or play a key role in making decisions that impact you or your team. You may also take an engaging approach to limit the damage someone may cause.
If you have an influential, noisy or disruptive stakeholder, spending more time with them may reduce the chance of problems arising. It can be tempting to ignore troublesome stakeholders, but this can cause problems when they complain about you to everyone they work with!
Determine a Specific Method to Engage Each Stakeholder Category
To complete this step, select an approach for each of your stakeholder categories. If you can take a standard approach to cover multiple people, this is often best.
Otherwise you’re forced to spend too much time handling every individual need. Instead, you should determine who needs individual attention, and who you can treat as part of a larger group.
Lastly, you need to decide the specific method of engaging your stakeholders. You may send email updates to some people, invite others to meetings or meet regularly 1 on 1 to get their feedback. Your approach depends on the classifications you selected earlier.
Stakeholder management is an important part of leadership. It doesn’t need to be rocket science, but it’s important to pay attention to it.
Even spending 30 minutes to think intentionally about the key people in your workplace and how to deal with them can save you time, reduce conflict and have a positive impact on the way you and your team operates.