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- How to Manage Stakeholders
How to Manage Stakeholders
Read Time: 5 Minutes
Stakeholder management is a challenging area for most leaders. It goes beyond execution and leadership into influence. Influence is complex, and most leaders struggle with it. The standard approach to stakeholder management is one of appeasement, where the goal of the stakeholder meeting is to make sure they are all happy with me and my team.
The problem is that this fails to provide value in key areas (like getting material support from them, for example) and also leads to a platform where people are not incentivized to bring up tough challenges, assumptions, or mistakes.
It’s not just about psychological safety; it’s about leading the problem instead of the problem leading you. In other words, building authentic and effective relationships with your stakeholders allows for the discussion of problems early so that they can be solved early.
A problem is solved most cheaply when it is solved early.
A problem found is least damaging to trust when it’s found early.
We look at stakeholder management differently. It’s a unique type of relationship that needs to be approached uniquely. It is not a place to find and take marching orders; it’s a place to build trusting relationships and solicit organizational support. You have accountability to these people, of course. The best way to be accountable is to effectively set up the dynamic between you and them in a way that serves everyone.
Today, we’re going to go over 4 key ways to get the most out of your stakeholder relationships.
Build Trusting Relationships
I’ve been in some jacked-up stakeholder dynamics in my career. I took over a lot of dumpster fire projects as a leader, and often stakeholders were pissed off (sometimes extremely so) on my arrival. I had to develop an approach to rebuild trust and keep it quickly.
To make matters more complicated, on big projects that were seen to be failing, I was in the unenviable position of having to break a bunch of bad news as I went about my “discovery” process on the team, which pushed them even further over the edge.
After grinding through this challenge, we developed a framework for managing stakeholder conversations (and relationships).
When I say trust, I mean a couple of things:
When you say you’re going to do something, you do it.
I understand how you make decisions, and I support your approach.
I believe you’re telling me the truth.
The model we developed for getting back on track was called “CADO.” We decided together that all stakeholder interaction would be framed through the CADO model. Let’s break it down.
Challenges (What are the risks, concerns, or problems?)
Assumptions (What do you believe is true about the world today?)
Decisions (Where and how have the leaders decided to focus?)
Outcomes (The results you expect/goals you wish to achieve with those choices)
What we found is that when stakeholders were not in a place of trust, they would question every decision, meddle in our affairs/micromanage us, argue with each other, and spend too much time expressing frustration. We needed to change the conversation.
In the beginning, they questioned a lot of our challenges and challenged a lot of our assumptions.
“Why would you need that many people?”
“I don’t understand why this would take that long.”
“Why are you focusing there?”
“I thought that technology was already working.”
It was slow and frustrating because it was evidence of how NOT on the same page we were. Eventually, we started to get aligned. We started to move through these conversations more easily. They started to sign off on our decisions quickly, and it wasn’t because they weren’t worried anymore. It was because we showed them our work like it was a math test. We exposed our thinking to them. Many of their assumptions were challenges in that process too.
Next time you have a stakeholder meeting or presentation for your project. Try to frame your communication using the CADO framework. Let your stakeholders know why you’re doing it and what your goals are.
Understand Their Needs
If you have multiple stakeholders, chances are they all need different things, view the world differently, and have different concerns. You need to understand what those are.
I’d advise keeping your “presentations” to the stakeholders as slimmed down as humanly possible, but if you’re wondering what stays in and what goes out, knowing what your stakeholders care about is a great start.
On this project, we had three key stakeholders:
A global marketing & publishing director.
A division-level product lead for the product that we were integrating with.
A division-level technical director for the product we were integrating with.
The first was shrewd, not super concerned with the details, and needed to trust us (but struggled to). He wanted to know that the way we were communicating this to players and distributing it globally was a chief concern.
The second was a spiky x-engineer who felt the weight of the cynicism about this project on his shoulders. He was starting to worry he might need to get directly involved because of the poor track record.
The third was a very kind, thoughtful, and patient technology leader who had critical input for the project but was often drowned out in the intense conversation. He had significant concerns about the technical direction but was struggling to voice them/be heard.
So, we knew we needed to facilitate a valuable discussion that included:
Our global publishing strategy and how it would impact players.
How we’d rebuild trust & transparency within the group (CADO)
Create a clear roles & responsibilities framework so #2 could hold us accountable without meddling.
Ensure #3 had space to speak and that he had time with us (and our engineers) offline to ensure his feedback was included in the technical approach.
No doubt there was more, but we built our approach considering these key areas. Remember that at the end of the day, these are human beings and you’re looking to create a high-functioning team within your stakeholder group.
Make a list of all of your key stakeholders. Ask if each one of them is a contributor to the project or just looking to be informed. Ask how each one processes information and what key data points they need to have confidence in the project (and in you).
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, that’s OK. Find time to speak to them individually and ask them directly.
I’ve seen some messed up stakeholder updates/presentations in my days as a leader in games. Tomes of information, data, charts, hiring updates, etc etc etc. The imperative seems to be comprehensiveness instead of focus and decision-making.
The problem with the 140-page “staff meeting update” slide decks (that we painfully go round robin for 4 hours through 7 presentations) is that, at best, they are overwhelming and mind-numbing to the point that everyone is on their phones the entire time. At worst, they invite a bunch of low-level conversations about minor data points that don’t matter.
The result is that they take up a ton of time and rarely lead to decisions being made. They also will not build or rebuild trust. It's just a giant pile of information being moved around the organization.
This typically happens when an organization is focused on lots of people knowing things. This is not a value I share, and I place minimal emphasis on “making sure people know things.” I want the right people to know the fewest number of things to make the most important decisions.
In the spirit of this, I go back to the CADO framework and ask the question: What is the fewest number of data points I can put into this presentation to get the most valuable conversation going? Then, if no conversation is required - we give everyone the maximum amount of time back.
Focus on building the shortest communication you possibly can. Use the CADO framework as your guide and your identified stakeholder needs to ensure focus.
Build a 2-Way Street
As I said before, it’s a failure if a bunch of people want to “know stuff” about how your team is doing, but nobody is doing anything about it. Communication should result in useful decision-making.
This means that while your stakeholders can hold you accountable, they should be operating as investors in the project by directly aiding in your success.
The stakeholder deck had a section called “We need your help,” and it would have specific requests for them. They should engage with you and move mountains to help you succeed. It is also helpful if they say they can’t help you and understand the consequences of that. In other words, they’re likely to lighten up on you the next time you report that things are behind schedule.
You must have an open conversation with your stakeholders, not just about what they expect of you but what you need from them to be successful. You might be surprised at how receptive they are (and helpful). These are typically people with more influence and power than you. Leverage that to ensure your team’s success.
In your next stakeholder meeting, have a piece dedicated to things the team needs that require external support. Open up a conversation with your stakeholders about how they’d like to help you in general and how you’d like to receive support. See if you can get aligned around your expectation that they help you directly.
If you find that there are a lot of “casual observers” in your meetings, I’d try to get them out and get them an Email instead. If that doesn’t work, I’d clearly define that their role is different from the “investors” and ask that they stay silent and take a background role in the meetings.
Remember these four key things:
Use the CADO Framework for managing your stakeholders and building trust.
Understand stakeholder needs. Remember, they’re people, and they’re different.
Minimize noise and be concise in your communication.
Leverage the support of your stakeholders and build a two-way street.
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