In 2016 I wrote a post on the five foundation steps for stakeholder management success in key account management, that was well received and guided lots of leaders.
A lot has changed in those five years from new strategies and technologies, to of course the pandemic that completely changed the way we engage and serve our customers. Almost every business on the planet has been compelled to make adjustments, and in most cases transform the way they relate to their customers from an entirely virtual environment.
In light of these dramatic changes, this article takes things to the next level. It answers some crucially important questions I’ve received when working with leaders and their teams over the last five years.
Do any of these scenarios resonate with you?
- Our customers are more selective with their time – How do we capture the attention of senior executives in a new world where there are more issues aggressively vying for their attention?
- We have a lot of stakeholders to manage across our accounts – How do we meet their individual needs while keeping them engaged when they themselves are so dispersed and disconnected?
- Our contacts and stakeholders just aren’t making decisions – How do we deal with their disengagement and getting pushed back and back while they still expect more from us?
I’m pretty sure you’ll see one of these scenarios that may impact you today and it sucks how much of your time and energy is being invested to drive these stakeholder relationships forward in this new environment…
…it’s time for Stakeholder Mastery 3.0.
In order to change our fortunes, we first have to begin with a definition.
What is a stakeholder?
A stakeholder is either an individual, group or organisation who is impacted by the outcome of a project or relationship.
They have an interest in the success of a relationship or project and can be within or outside the organisation that is sponsoring a project or is most impacted by the relationship.
Stakeholders influence can be both positive or negative on project sign off, commercial profitability, resource access and long-term relationship success.
Due to their sponsorship interest, and both positive and negative influence, it is wise to have a stakeholder plan in place.
Why is a stakeholder plan critical?
- A plan provides clarity and buy-in to what you want to achieve as you’ve spent time considering what’s important to your customer.
- You get a higher reputation and visibility to drive new opportunities.
- There’s a reduction in frustration and cost of time due to non-decisions, ghosting and a lack of customer cooperation.
- Decision-making and resources are accessed faster when you need them.
- Relationships are deepened protecting against any key contact leaving.
Trust goes a long way
Stakeholder management and the health of those relationships are critical predictors of success. While you may get away with poor management of stakeholders in the beginning, over time you will see more resistance to decisions, less business and even a potential move to a competitor.
When should you adopt stakeholder planning?
Here are a few times when having a stakeholder plan are beneficial:
- Ideally at the start of a project.
- When the scope changes and new stakeholders are affected.
- When the consequences of changes in your relationship, project, product or service are unclear, or if certain parties may be adversely affected.
- When high-level sponsorship is required.
- When the project is complex and lots of different parties are involved.
All these components are important to understand. But before I share the new updated Stakeholder Management Process, there is one further item we must address.
The Stakeholder Reality
The approach you take to managing stakeholders will also be guided by the history with the customer, their business size, their willingness to embrace innovation in their business, their appetite for growth and the project you are working on.
There are some real stakeholder management risks; some examples I’ve listed below:
- People change job roles
- People leave companies
- People join companies
- People’s interests, desires and opinions change
- Relationships between stakeholders evolve or change
- Strategic priorities change over time
- Government regulations change
- Etc… the list could go on…
It is important to note that the set of stakeholders for one project may not be the same for another project at the same organisation, and changes will happen sometimes very quickly without notification. It is your job to ensure you are aware of any major changes. This new stakeholder management process will equip you to be ready.
Knowing the stakeholder reality isn’t enough. We also need to understand something else; what are the most common mistakes made?
Why? So you can evaluate what might be a risk today and be aware of this during the planning process.
To understand this it’s helpful to delve into the research around the discipline of stakeholder theory.
Arguably the origins in thinking of Stakeholder Theory started in 1984 when R. Edward Freeman addressed the theory of organisational management and business ethics. His premise was:
A business has many interconnected relationships that have a stake in the effective and ethical running of its business. Therefore a business should seek to create value for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.
What does this mean today?
Here’s what the great R. Edward Freeman said…
“The 21st Century is one of ‘Managing for Stakeholders.’ The task of executives is to create as much value as possible for stakeholders without resorting to tradeoffs. Great companies endure because they manage to get stakeholder interests aligned in the same direction.”
It’s about Alignment.
This is not just for the “executive”, it’s for you the leader, you the team member and you the partner. For everyone to win, all efforts to engage must lead to total clarity of direction and benefit to others.
However, there are eight common and deadly mistakes that prevent alignment, cooperation, understanding and mutual value and benefits from being realised, and any one of these can derail a project, relationship progress or result:
- Failure to identify stakeholders.
- Failure to understand stakeholder expectations, needs and concerns.
- Failure to understand the stakeholders power and interest.
- Failure to invite stakeholders to the table early (at the right time).
- Failure to keep stakeholders informed.
- Failure to engage stakeholders.
- Failure to identify, assess and manage stakeholder risks.
- Failure to communicate with stakeholders for change management.
To avoid these mistakes even before the process begins, take the posture or mindset of the Stakeholder Master and lean into being the listening leader for your customer.
I once worked with a team in the engineering sector who were struggling to manage multiple stakeholders from different places. No one was getting anywhere, making it a big problem.
- Dealing with multiple people who didn’t agree
- Handling difficult and hard to reach people
- Never getting a consensus
- Struggling to get decisions made
- And many more issues…
There was no plan, no clarity, no leader; it was a mess!
The truth was that they needed those stakeholders and they couldn’t escape them; neither will you!
Stakeholders exist internally and externally.
Stakeholders are friends and sometimes foes.
Despite these complexities, it is important to hold two things in mind for every stakeholder you choose to work with:
- Everyone wants to be heard – Their desire is to be understood
- Everyone is looking for someone to lead – They’re looking for solutions
In both cases, you have to be that person to listen and lead.
The listening leader is the posture of the stakeholder master.
The mindset is a posture that requires a shift from the reactive and tactical to pre-active (anticipation of events) and strategic (navigation or route to a specific result).
This article will help you in your steps to take on this mindset and give you the skills needed to listen and lead.
Importantly you’ll learn the exact process and principles that helped this engineering team:
- Build stakeholder consensus
- Re-engage stakeholders across multiple locations without working longer
- Get buy-in from hard to reach stakeholders
- Have decisions made faster
It will also help you to overcome similar stakeholder challenges and get you results in any environment. Let’s get stuck in 🙂
SIX STEPS TO STAKEHOLDER MASTERY 3.0
The six steps every serious customer leading B2B organisation must adopt to solve any
stakeholder challenge and generate consistent results.
Common Thread Thinking
This is about understanding what ties individuals, departments and organisations together.
It enables you to find those things that are highly-valued and sought after by both you, your customer and any other broader stakeholders influenced or impacted by what you do with your customers. This begins first with a focus on peer to peer alignment.
Consider two core principles:
- CB (Corporate Benefit) – Points to the common business outcome that connects your contact(s) and the stakeholders you identify
- IB (Individual Benefit) – Reflects your understanding of the individual benefit for each stakeholder in using or being engaged with your products or services
Both are critically important to establish a more comprehensive view of “Why” a stakeholder should engage with you. You’ll then use this as an internal and external conversation tool to apply to step No.3 later.
- It’s brainstorming time. Think about all of those people who have an interest in the outcome of your project or idea, who have power or influence over it and are affected by it.
They may come from a range of places: customers, their suppliers, your suppliers, managers, senior managers, employees, your immediate team, support functions e.g. Finance, HR, Purchasing etc, shareholders, government, regulatory bodies, the general public, trade unions. Where any of these might represent an organisation, be sure to consider who in those organisations will be most important to take notice of.
- Apply the CB and IB principles to each of the contacts you’ve listed. This will then give you a high level for identifying a smaller list of contacts you’ll use in the next step.
Now you’ve created a list of potential stakeholders it’s time to take the next step. If you end up with a huge list you’ll want to prioritise them according to their impact on your customer project or deal.
I’d recommend where possible you don’t do this exercise alone but you involve relevant people internally in your organisation to contribute. Why? You may have relationships unknown that could aid or accelerate your ability to engage with stakeholders later. The added benefit is getting internal buy-in early to the results of what you’re wanting to achieve with your customers.
Start by rating each identified stakeholder against your own criteria of importance or by using a simple but very effective mapping grid. If you have an account planning CRM great but I’d still suggest writing it out so it’s clearer in your mind. You can even flip chart the process and use it as a collaborative exercise with internal departments involved.
The Stakeholder Sentiment Mapping Grid below can guide you in this, as it’s designed to illuminate two things:
- The stakeholders relative importance to the project or goals you have with your customer
- Their current relationship with you which is reflected in their “commitment and willingness to engage”
Why is this important?
Both of these areas will determine where you focus your efforts but also clarify the honest reality of where your relationships might be so you can make the necessary adjustments.
Each area will eventually dictate a very specific engagement strategy. We’ll revisit this again in a previous step.
Below are important definitions from each area:
- Advocate – Those with potential high power and influence but little commitment to owning the problem, often C-Level executives
- Key player – High power and commitment to solving the problem your services solve, generally they are key influencers and decision makers
- Contributors – Someone with low power and relatively low commitment to owning the problem or overall outcome, often employees within a department, end users or identified individuals outside the organisation
- Supporter – Potentially low power and influence but is very committed to the solution and success of your relationship, they can range in responsibility from a line manager to a senior manager
NB: Remember, the influence and power scale is relative only to the specific outcome you’re working towards.
The position a person is on the map will determine the strategy of how you’ll approach and manage the relationship including the priority you place on their importance to the success of the project.
Once you have all contacts mapped you can transfer them to the second stage of the Stakeholder Sentiment Mapping Grid:
Below are important definitions from each area:
- Contact – Full name of each contact
- Position – Their exact job title
- Motive – Why being involved might be important to them (you’ll validate this later)
- Implication – What would this person or you miss out on if they were not involved
- Advantage – What is a positive or unexpected advantage this contact or you could gain from them being involved
All of this will be used in later steps, in the meantime here are some questions to consider:
- What is the impact of your services on their role?
- What is the consequence if they did nothing?
- Why would they want to commit to engage?
- Who would benefit from them winning?
Analyse Your Stakeholders
Here we’re focussing on verifying and ultimately validating what we’ve written down or uncovered in the MAPPING area.
Before building out a concrete plan we need to be sure we’ve tested our assumptions of where each stakeholders real motivations are. This is where the verify process comes in.
This will allow us where necessary, to make adjustments now or consider future adjustments ensuring full benefit to our contacts.
We’re not going to do this alone. We’re going to involve our customer at this stage.
Why? Because we’re going to need our supporters and or champions to be invested in what we’re about to recommend. We’ll do this in two parts:
- Invite your main supporters and or champions into your thinking “Why”
This is where you share your view of the CB and IB from the first step. You’ll also showcase the work you’ve done in considering the wider benefits and implications of your products and services to people across their business. This is a very powerful step as it will not only be unexpected but will also demonstrate to that person the high level of care and value you want to bring to their business.
Disclaimer: Firstly, we know this step works but you may not get immediate agreement. This can be strongly dependent on your current relationship. Nonetheless, it will open scope for a new kind of conversation you can come back to later. The way we deliver this matters.
- Decide on a group call
Once you present the CB and the IB and map with your contacts. We need to get them invested in the next step. This should be a group call inviting not all but a few key advocates and or others you identify that will be important to moving the relationship forward.
Why a group call? Because you get everyone hearing and experiencing the same message, collaboratively engaging around the same issues and agreeing on a way forward. One process and one call with multiple benefits.
What do you share? The purpose will be to share specific insights and validate areas of value you’ve already documented that may or may not be important to helping each contact in their role and department.
- Document and move on
The questions below are guidelines to stimulate your thinking about what would be useful to reflect on or ask:
1. What is important to them? What motivates them?
2. What capability do they have to carry out their role in the project?
3. What’s in it for them in this project? How do they, or their department, benefit?
4. Who is important to them and what are they influenced by?
5. Do they support or oppose the project? What is the strength of this (eg on 1-10 scale)?
6. How can you utilise their support to achieve your project goals?
7. If they oppose the project, how can you manage this? Do any of the supporters have leverage to influence them?
8. How would they like to receive information? Medium? Frequency? Level of detail?
To avoid lack of clarity, unnecessary time involved in gaining support, and other project problems that result from poor communication, it’s vital to create a communication plan. Avoid complicating matters by creating separate plans for each individual. Prioritise the most important and group the rest.
Now you’ve verified and tested against your first assumptions of what might be needed for the key stakeholders you’ve communicated with. It’s time to build out your plan. Below are four areas to consider.
Based on your understanding of each stakeholder and what you want to achieve. Realistically, what time will you and the stakeholder need to allocate to realise benefits for both of you? Remember to always communicate results first before discussing activities with your stakeholders. The more they are reminded about what’s coming as a benefit to them the higher the chance they will be to engage.
Recommendation: start with 10 min less than is in your mind. Use the Engage process to come as a structure to your calls.
What role do you want them to play? What does support look like? What do they actually have to do? How available will they need to be? Do they require coaching? What do you need to “contract” with them about? To answer this last question, brainstorm what might go wrong so you can discuss how to handle problems, e.g. lack of availability, lack of budget, lack of decision-making power. Discuss how to manage the consequences if you’re unable to meet expectations.
Consider the short, medium and long-term benefits you can pursue together. Don’t put added pressure on yourself or your stakeholder. Look at the big picture. Based on the role you can work backwards to decide on this together.
What needs to be communicated by you and your stakeholder(s) daily, weekly or monthly? Does that communication need to come from you or your stakeholder(s) directly? Might there be other people involved? Such as marketing, operations or other? If so, invite them into this plan also. Do this from a place of results and mutual benefits first, then inviting their perspective into their contribution.
NB: This process is not designed for you to do the work alone. You need to also share this stage with your peers and senior stakeholders internally. You need a shared language and approach. It also allows you to highlight challenges and address them faster.
This is where you’ll finally complete your full stakeholder engagement plan as you bring the knowledge you’ve gained throughout the stages so far.
Full focus in this stage will:
- Save you time in communicating this with new internal stakeholders each time
- Reduce or eliminate stress of knowing what to do and when
- Minimise resistance and misunderstandings with customer contacts
- Help you more effectively manage your customer relationships
- Steer your way through internal and customer organisational politics
We accomplish this through a stakeholder agreement. Informal terms that define how you’ll work with each stakeholder and move to success. Included in this stage are three last elements:
This step is about tracking the engagement we have developed in a consistent and concurrent way.
1. Frequency – What is the consistency of your communication?
2. Responses – How responsive are you and your contact to moving things forward?
- Follow up
The process of following up is fundamental in every aspect of business.
1. Intentional – What is the exact reason for this communication?
2. Valuable – What value is being provided in this communication?
3. Future Focused – Where are we going next?
4. Collaborative – How do we get there together?
The review is vital. The structure of this enables you to establish a pulse for how things are going.
1. Results – What have we experienced so far?
2. Challenges – What obstables have you encountered?
3. Actions – What specific actions do we need to stop, start, change, or keep doing?
Take each step slowly. The effective working of each step produces greater results, not just the steps themselves.
One of the biggest challenges to this process is managing those relationships across multiple customers, geographies and timezones.
To solve this we must design for the relationships we want and begin to think through the practices, tools, resources and technologies that will get us and our stakeholders results wherever they are.
We ideally want our relationship and stakeholder management activity to be:
- Systematic – easy to use and gives a predictable result.
- Leveagable – transferrable to anyone anywhere.
- Scaleable – impacting people you may not be able to see.
- Trust-building – increases personal and organisational reputation.
A key principle here is to:
automate the predictable and then humanise those areas that require greater areas of personalisation.
Despite common understanding, up to 50% of our regular communication with our customers are fairly predictable.
Before you rush off it’s important to know systemising isn’t done immediately.
We do this by using a Stakeholder Scalability Map.
The Stakeholder Scalability Map has three levels.
- Review – What do we notice about our current engagements? What do we need to solve for? Where did we see repetition? Where did we see nuance and change?
- Recalibrate – What do we need to stop, start, change, keep?
- Redeploy – Where can we automate? Where can we template?
This allows us to gradually test and validate communication success safely and with impact as we begin the stakeholder engagement process.
Remember: You’re not doing this all yourself. If you’re truly adopting a true stakeholder management strategy you’ll align the appropriate internal contacts with your customers also.
We’ve covered a lot!
But I can boldly promise, even if you did nothing but go through the first two steps you would gain more insight and value in what to do next with your contacts than practically any other resource out there.
If you’d like help and access to the FULL stakeholder mastery tools and training? Download the Stakeholder Mastery Checklist plus get invited to future events on stakeholder mastery.
Founder of the Customer Mastery System and The Irreplaceable Advisory Group