Stakeholder engagement

Steps to creating strong stakeholder relationships

Stakeholder management is one of the most important parts of a project manager’s role. If your stakeholders don’t support the change, or don’t believe that the project will benefit them then your role as project manager becomes a lot tougher. Stakeholders may not be responsible for implementing the change, however they can certainly put a lot of obstacles in your way preventing a smooth and successful implementation.

I am not a fan of the term stakeholder management, even though it is widely used. The word management implies handling, controlling or giving direction to people. If this mindset is employed when engaging with stakeholders then no wonder stakeholders demonstrate resistance.  Your role as project manager is to engage stakeholders, building strong relationships by treating them like partners in the project where their opinions, concerns and insights are valued.

To get stakeholders onboard with your project and to be actively engaged you need to open up a two way dialogue with them. Stakeholder engagement is all about effective communication.

Improving your stakeholder engagement skills

Understanding your stakeholders

When you initiate a project do not skip or rush through your stakeholder analysis. You need to be clear on who your stakeholders are, the influence they have on your project, what their needs, wants, concerns and expectations are, and what type and level of communication is required. Don’t just rely on surveys and input from team members, get out there and meet with the potential stakeholders to ensure that you have a comprehensive analysis. Remember even though it is early days on your project, you can already start to assess the type of resistance you might meet and how to mitigate it.

Creating project buy-in

While roadshows and presentations are a great way to create general awareness about your project, you need to meet with your key stakeholders and have detailed discussions with them to get them onboard. Discussion, being the key word. These are not sales-type meetings where you pitch your idea, ask them if they have any questions about the pitch and then walk away. See these as discovery sessions where you spend less time on telling them what you want to achieve and more time asking them questions. Find out what they would like to gain from the project, what their concerns are and if they can see any potential challenges or issues you may encounter. When you show a genuine interest in your stakeholders, they will feel respected and it will help you establish rapport with them.

Follow up

A once-off meeting does not make a relationship!  If your stakeholders have raised concerns or questions that you couldn’t address in the meeting, go back to your project team and find out how they can be resolved. Do this as soon as possible. Don’t let questions hang and go unanswered as this leaves the impression that you do not care and aren’t really interested in them. Even if you don’t have any takeaway actions from the meeting, make sure to stay in contact with them even if it is just to follow up and see if perhaps they do have any concerns that they didn’t think of during the meeting.

Implement a communication plan

Stakeholder communication planning is a must for project managers. If you are lucky enough to have a communication or change manager on your project then this responsibility will fall to them, however most project managers have to do this themselves. Based on your stakeholder analysis you can draw up a simple communication plan which will tell you what to communicate, what media to use (face-to-face meetings, newsletters, emails etc.), to whom and how often. Make sure you actually implement the plan and ensure that you block out time in your calendar to do these activities. You do need to be flexible though and ensure that you are available to your stakeholders (within reason) outside of your designated communication activities.

Communication tips

The strength of your stakeholder relationship is dependent on how well you communicate and create a two way dialogue. Here are some tips to keep in mind when engaging your stakeholders:

  • The meaning of the message is in the response you receive – what you say isn’t necessarily the same as what people hear. Everyone filters information differently and so if their response isn’t as expected then try reframing your statements to ensure they understood you correctly.
  • The project is about them, not you – you may be the one responsible for implementing the change, however the stakeholders are the ones that will end up being affected by the changes and therefore their opinions and concerns matter. Make sure you spend more time listening and asking questions then talking.
  • Honesty and transparency builds rapport – don’t try hide information when things go wrong. Stakeholders have a right to know what’s going on in the project. After all they don’t want to be blindsided and may even be able to help you find a solution to your challenges. If you are always honest and transparent with your stakeholders, they will trust you. And trust is the foundation of strong relationships.

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