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Stakeholders in the Real World

WithYouWithMe - May 18, 2021

Stakeholders will come in many different forms within a project. Some are sponsors, your
boss(es), your clients or customers and some are users of an end product or service, or even
just other work colleagues somehow impacted by the project you’re managing.

At the beginning of a project when you are using your soft skills to get to know each of your
stakeholders, view all of them as your friends, give them the opportunity to talk and most
importantly give them respect.

How you choose to initially engage with them is up to you. My preferred method is to email
them first and introduce myself and give them some information about the project I’ll be
working on. Follow that up with a phone call to discuss a coffee/dinner meeting. Unless a
stakeholder is a great distance away, it’s been my experience that the good old face-to-face
meeting is the best way to get to know someone. Don’t underestimate the importance of
subtle body language in a meeting. These nuances are impossible to read in an email or
phone call and somewhat restricted in a video call.

Look for simple signs of resistance or fear – does the stakeholder sit across from you with
their arms folded and a grimace on their face? Do they tap their fingers nervously on the
table? Do they seem engaged or do they appear nervous or fearful? Do they avoid your
calls or leave your emails unanswered? Some of these traits can be clear signs of them
putting up barriers or otherwise feeling somewhat attacked or on the defensive. Do they
lean in towards you with a happy demeanour and get very excited about the discussion?
Great, you’re onto a winner there. Difficult stakeholders will almost always identify
themselves pretty early in the “getting to know them” phase of your engagement.

If you’re really lucky the stakeholder will openly tell you of their fears or the reasons why
they do not like what the project is working towards. It is very important for you to take
note of these. I prefer to have a note taker typing away and taking note of key points during
the meeting. You may wish to record the meeting (with permission of course) and extract
detailed notes from the recording. Ask the stakeholders to repeat their issues if you miss
something, or can’t keep up, and let them know that you will look into each issue.

The point is that at a later date, you can respond to that stakeholder and hopefully allay
their fears, or give them a whole bunch of benefits the project is aiming to achieve. This
should be done without the stakeholder asking. It should take the form of an email or a
personal call and go along these lines:

“Hi Peter. Thanks for meeting with me at the coffee shop yesterday, and discussing the X
project I am managing. I have researched the issue(s) you raised and discussed it with the
project sponsor/other stakeholders/relevant person. Have you got some time now for me to
go through them with you? By the way, I hope your son won his rugby game on the
weekend. I know you were excited about it.”

Straight away this shows the stakeholder that you:

a. Listened to them (empathy, engagement)
b. Are committed to working with them (commitment)
c. Did what you said you’d do (integrity)
d. Remembered something personal they discussed with you (this is optional) (friendly)

Doing what you say you are going to do is a very important aspect of a business relationship.
Fail to deliver too many times and in the mind of a stakeholder you become a flake – “all
talk and no action”. So if you fail this fundamental item, you go forward at your own peril.

Sometimes, stakeholders will come at you with unachievable requests. They are usually
things that are outside of your project’s scope or of no discernible benefit. Never rudely or
instantly dismiss these off hand. Always let the stakeholder know that you will look into it
and get back to them. Keep a register (a simple spreadsheet will do) of these items so that
you never forget to address them. Sometimes some of these requests may actually help
achieve a better outcome for all or part of the project, other times they will be useless and a
waste of time. The point here is to display that you are open and listening to everybody.
Engagement won’t work if a stakeholder thinks you’re a difficult person that will shut them
down straight away.

At some stage during the project you will have met or engaged with all of your stakeholders.
You will quickly learn who the difficult ones are. They will be the ones arguing with you,
probably not completing something that you have asked them to do, or reluctant to give
you information you need. These are the stakeholders that require more understanding. If
they are high in power and influence and their interest in the project is also high, then they
are your key stakeholders. Key stakeholders need to be given the utmost priority. You
should sit down with them and discuss each issue in full. Understand what their concerns
are.

Sometimes the difficult stakeholder may highlight risks or previously unknown factors that
may put your project at risk. So not all difficult stakeholders are a pain. Although difficult,
some of these people may actually help you. Listen to them. In the other corner, we have
people that just love to be difficult. You still need to listen to them, and if they have valid
concerns, address them – but if you come across someone that just has a difficult,
argumentative or stubborn nature do not spend too much time trying to satisfy them. You
have more important things to do and more important stakeholders to engage with.

My final point in this article is to highlight the meaning of the word engagement. It is a two
-way form of communication. The important thing to remember about engagement is that
it is a process of listening, seeking clarification if needed and reporting back to the person
you engaged with. It is a collaborative process. It is not telling people what to do or telling
people how the project is going to proceed. There will come a point after the engagement
process where telling people how the project proceeds is par for the course. You should
avoid telling a stakeholder that you reject their ideas just because that’s the way the project
is and they must do what you say. This is not helpful and will not produce an atmosphere
where stakeholders feel comfortable discussing their ideas or concerns with you.

Remember that you will gain valuable insights from good, as well as difficult stakeholders.
It’s wise not to shut anyone down.

By Andy Blazer – Associate Instructor, WithYouWithMe

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