Practical Tips for Managing Stakeholders
People are undoubtedly one of the most challenging and unpredictable aspects of any job. There are books upon books on understanding people’s personalities, motivations, strengths & weaknesses. That said, short of having to undertake a deep and rigorous psychoanalysis of every major person that you interact with on a daily basis, you can never fully predict or understand how people will behave and what they’ll care about. With varying degrees of difficulty and intensity, managing stakeholders is a fundamental part of most of our jobs. For this reason, I’ve pulled together some relatively universal tips and tricks that have helped me fairly reliably over the years.
Figure out who you really care about and why
Not everyone that’s interested in what you’re doing, is one of your major stakeholders (regardless of their seniority). Not taking the time to think about who your key stakeholders are and why, can have you run the risk of bending to unnecessary pressure, struggling to prioritise when you’re busy, and dropping the one ball you really needed to catch. I try to mentally group the main people I’m talking to into three fairly simple categories. It doesn’t take long but it’s helps putting some thought into it.
These are the people that are fundamental to both your personal success and that of your work. It might be your boss, the head of your department, or other key people that you want to both trust you and buy in to your plans and ideas. It’s worth taking the time to write down the names of these people and list out what they mean to your domain of responsibility and what they care about (commercials, productivity, setbacks, a big deadline, etc.). Revisit this list to check your presentations agains, to plan your research and reprioritise your to-do list when it’s getting hectic. If these people are on your side, and you’ve invested in preparing for their questions and communicating with them, your job will be a lot easier.
This list of people is also worth sitting down and thinking about. They may be less obvious than they first appear. It could be that an outspoken and respected person in a completely separate field and department will be your biggest ally when pushing through an idea or building rapport. Similarly, colleagues doing the same job as you will have a wealth of perspective and knowledge to help you refine plans and gain support. This will not only help improve the quality of your work, but create a network where you’re supported (and challenged) at the right times. If you have the respect of your peers and spend time cultivating relationships with people that carry influence around you, they’ll end up being the soft touch that makes your work life a hell of a lot smoother.
This is your danger zone. Not everyone that has an interest or need from you, falls into your top priority list and it’s worth figuring this out. Especially when you’re new to an organisation or a role. That’s not to say you can be rude, short or dismissive of these people––that’s not going to get you anywhere––but you can be more confident in negotiating the timeframes around doing a task or having a meeting/call on this basis, for example. Whose interests align with your main goals and remit, and whose are secondary should change the way you plan them in and handle them and that’s not a bad thing. It’s natural to want to please people, help solve their problems or spend your time with them but doing it without thought and strategy can sidetrack you from your main goals and priorities and that’s what you want to avoid by noting who falls into this group.
Think About How You’re Talking to Them
Your approach to communication is the one big thing that will see you be ‘very successful’ or ‘just okay’ when managing stakeholders.
Stay Regular (this is always good advice.)
You’ll communicate better if you let go of trying to look perfect or always making your updates the most well-rounded and complete they could possibly be, and just make sure you’re getting them out. This doesn’t mean spam everyone about anything remotely of interest (that would not only be annoying but probably send people looking for someone else to give them the headlines). Communicating regularly and openly, however, where you mention challenges that you’re still working on solving and quickly flag up roadblocks, will more often than not give people the impression that you have things in hand — you’re ‘on it’. There’s a balance to be struck to avoid information overload, but when you feel the temptation to ‘hold off until X,Y and Z is wrapped up’ or ‘delay until you can include Tom, Michelle and Jimmy’s monthly figure reports’, then have a good think about what you can tell stakeholders without that information. It’s much better to be preemptively updating people, than having them chase you down for answers, even if you could immediately surface them when asked.
The easier you make other people’s lives, the happier they’ll be. This is pretty much true across most personalities and levels of seniority. Think about who you’re talking to what they care about, and what they don’t. IF your email looks too long, it probably is. It’s okay to say ‘there’s more on this if you’re interested’ or offer to have separate sessions on the detail offline. People will appreciate getting the information they need as quickly as possible without having to sift through the babble of everything that was in your head. Also, be wary of things you’re adding in just to look good or sound clever, aside from being unnecessary it’s usually fairly obvious and can do the exact opposite of what you originally intended.
Just because you know who’s important and what they care about, doesn’t mean that they’re now God and you have to stay up until the early hours anytime they ask you for anything. Ask when people want things and why, if you can offer something else — say so, if you’ve got too many things on your plate see what can be pushed back and understand the reasons behind things. Most of the time, the reality is a lot more flexible than it sounds. Sometimes people ask for what they think they need, but could have their needs met with something completely different. Being strategic with your time and energy will please stakeholders and help you understand what the most important tasks really are.
The biggest advantage that you’ll ever gain when managing stakeholders and juggling people’s expectations is having a bit of camaraderie. Being genuine, and asking about people’s lives will help break down barriers and make it easier to talk about tricky subjects. Go to the after work drinks and the team socials, have a sparkling water if you’re on a health kick or don’t drink. Ask people how they are, talk about hobbies, be honest about concerns and problems. Pretending to be perfect isn’t something anyone will believe or trust, and having favour with the main people you talk to will carry you further than hard work alone can ever get you.
Being Well Prepared Tends to go Down Well with Everyone
Last and not least, use your knowledge of who your stakeholders are, how important they are to you, and what they care about to make sure you’re well prepared ahead of updates, presentations and meetings. It never goes down badly to have the answer to a question, the latest figures under your belt or have verified your direction and way of thinking. It’s not the same as trying to be perfect, and it doesn’t mean you should fear not having the answer if you’re put on the spot, but as much as you can try preempt what you’ll be asked.
A few handy ways of doing this are by 1) blocking out planning time to make sure you have the headspace set aside well in advance, and 2) boiling down your own thoughts to filter out the key points you need to make. What do you want people to walk away with? Why are you writing this email/preparing this presentation/booking in this meeting?
In conclusion — the above won’t teach you how to deal with clashing personalities, manage highly difficult people, or command a crisis, but it will hopefully make your life a lot easier with the majority of stakeholders you need to deal with on a day to day basis and have a bit more strategy and structure behind your communication.