If you are running a department, project or team, there are two things you need to know about your various stakeholders (a) their relative importance and (b) their support for you/your project. To proactively engage stakeholders requires knowing who are the VIPs and who are the Fans.
Who are the VIPs?
Not all stakeholders are equal. Some matter more than others.
Those stakeholders that are most powerful and important you will want to treat like VIPs, rolling out the red carpet and giving them your full attention.
VIP stakeholders have power, access, and influence. They can help us gain (and sustain) the resources/support we need to drive forward on our work. Without their ongoing support our efforts might founder.
By contrast other stakeholders have little power or influence. Whether they actively support you or not makes little real difference to your success. As a result, they are not a priority. You may be happy to leave them outside the velvet rope!
The VIP status of a stakeholder is measured by how much they matter to us and to the success of our work. This is the horizontal axis in the stakeholder matrix below.
Her formal job title was Chief Marketing Officer, but she had an informal role too – that of ‘chief agitation officer’. She could say things that others would not say, she saw it as her role to ‘stir things up’, to question the orthodoxy and to make people uncomfortable, as she often did. The reason was that she had the ear of the CEO, being regularly seeing entering and exiting his office and having sideline conversations before and after Senior Leadership Team meetings. The youngest member of the management team and a ‘blow-in’ to the organization she had power, access and influence well beyond what the organizational chart might suggest. Dismissing her sometimes grating comments was a mistake that many function heads had come to regret. While she had little formal power, she had significant influence.
VIP or not? Sometimes it can be hard to tell. For example, there is a special category of important stakeholders – those who have little input to big decisions, but can either (a) make things run smoothly or (b) make life difficult. Examples include stakeholders in ‘support functions’ whose help is required to ensure the smooth running of an initiative – more on this later.
Who are the FANs?
Just because a stakeholder matters to us – they are a VIP – does not mean that we matter to them. Indeed, frustration regarding any stakeholder typically centres on the realization that they matter more to us, than we matter to them. The question is – are your VIP stakeholders a supporter or FAN of your work? This is addressed by the vertical axis on our matrix.
The degree of support or fandom of any stakeholder is measured in terms of engagement, satisfaction, loyalty and advocacy.
Whether a stakeholder is a FAN or not can be determined by the noises being made:
- Cheering – these are loyal supporters or true fans cheering on the initiative and those running it. They are powerful advocates who are clearly on your side.
- Silence – these are stakeholders who are little heard. They are mere spectators or bystanders – their silence is a sign of disinterest or disengagement.
- Rancour – these are ‘detractors’ talking down or perhaps even booing your initiative and those running it.
Engaging those who are silent (spectators and bystanders) can be a challenge, but those who are noisy and negative tend to command the most attention. These ‘detractors’, although engaged, are negatively disposed to your efforts. They may even be an active impediment to success, as well as a source of negative publicity / word of mouth.
Stakeholders, by definition, have a ‘stake in the game’, but this does not necessarily equate to a vested interest in your success. Some may be more inclined to drive a stake into your project or idea thereby crippling or killing it. Those are the ‘stake-holders’ to be really concerned about.
Detractors take from, rather than give to your endeavours. They may even sabotage your success. The question is why? Perhaps they suspect that for you to win, they must lose (i.e. lose power, influence, resources, etc.). Perhaps how you measure success is how they measure failure, with your goals, plans and KPIs being at odds with theirs. Finding out is key.
Where to focus attention?
The answer is VIP stakeholders and in particular those spectators and detractors in 3 & 6. As VIPs, they matter to you, but you don’t really matter to them, at least not yet. They are not invested in your success, indeed some wouldn’t mind if you failed. A first step is to understand why! Perhaps, your VIP Fans can help you – both in illuminating how to re-engage with the disengaged and disaffected, as well as in enticing them into your fan club.
‘We win and lose together’, for a long time that was the banner message on Lewis Hamilton’s website. If only this was true within organizations. The execution of ambitious strategies spurs internal competition as well as collaboration and creates winners as well as losers. Ensuring a win-win for VIP stakeholders is key. The question is how can your success help VIP stakeholders to win?
A ‘them and us’ divide can be a major hurdle to be overcome in re engaging with stakeholder detractors.
Got the Support of Support Functions?
The term ‘Support Functions’ is often a misnomer. The people in these functions rarely see it as their job to support you. Their primary job is IT, Compliance, HR, Procurement and so on. For the IT Function, issues of technology, security, SLAs, vendor relations and so on, come first. You come second, although sometimes you may feel like you come last.
This does not mean that IT and Procurement are crucial to the success of your initiative, however their ‘unthinking’ application of bureaucratic processes and procedures can be a real nuisance and a hinderance to your speed and agility. That is unless they see you as a VIP, or as being backed by a VIP.
If your project has the proper backing and support, Procurement’s embargo on the addition of new vendors or IT’s embargo on subscriptions to new cloud-based applications will quickly disappear. The question is what VIP’s power and support do you need to make functionaries in IT, Procurement and so on jump? Are you in a position to make your support requests directly (or indirectly) to the heads of these departments or functions?
Focusing on VIP stakeholders
The key principle is to know your VIPs and to ensure that celebrate your success – that they win when you win. In other words that they are fans.
Here is a framework to explore where you stand with your VIP stakeholders:1
Often, they know much less about our initiatives than we think. Tackling gaps in terms of information or understanding and, in particular misunderstandings, is one of the most obvious ways to re-engage stakeholders.
- How much do stakeholders know about your work/initiative?
- Do they have up-to-date information?
- Is it in a language /form that they can understand and trust?
- What are sources of information / influence do they rely on?
- Do they have enough first-hand reports / experience?
- What don’t they know?
- What are the potential areas of misunderstanding?
- What questions do they have?
- What is their past experience / frame of reference in this area?
- How successful have we been in getting people’s attention?
We assume just because our initiative has been sanctioned, or even declared a priority, that every body is on board with it. So, pause to consider:
- How interested are they in what we are doing? Why?
- What aspects interests them most? What aspects disinterest them?
- What appeals to them and what switches them off?
- How to connect with their self-interest?
- Are we communicating in a manner that they can engage with?
- How to generate more interest in what we are doing?
- What prior commitments/decisions/beliefs support or run counter to what we are doing?
- How much pressure are they under? How much time or attention can they give to what we are doing?
There is interest in an initiative, then there is interest in the people who are driving it. So, consider:
- To what extent is it the message or the messenger that determines their level of interest?
- Do we know enough about them as people? Do they know enough about us?
- What is the history of relations between both sides?
- What are their norms/culture/ways of working? Are they complementary to ours?
- Do the personalities gel?
Information is rarely enough to engage stakeholders, you need to win hearths as well as minds. So, consider logic as well as emotion:
- How much do they want/value what we are doing? Why?
- How much ownership or involvement have they had in it?
- How does it fit with their goals and ambitions?
- Does it connect with their Top 3-5 priorities? How?
- What is their vision of success? How do we connect with it?
- How does it connect with their self-concept/ego?
- How do we make them look good and feel good about themselves?
- Will supporting us affect their perceived status?
- What are the implications for them of our success? What are the implications for them if we don’t succeed?
- What concerns or anxieties might they have? Are there any risks for them?
(d) Actively Aligned
Rather than focusing on differences, focus on what unites people – what they have in common. When people are pulling in different directions, look for the shared priorities, results, or purpose. With this in mind, consider:
- What are their KPIs? How do we help/hinder them to achieve them?
- What are the shared interests/goals/priorities?
- What are the points of unity/agreement?
- What do we want people saying or doing?
- What is our ask of them?
- How can they demonstrate their commitment?
- This borrows from the popular marketing AIDA (Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action) framework.