Very often we focus our attention on stakeholder management and all the things that can be difficult about that area of product management. How about we skip that part completely and simply talk about the easy ways to achieve some stakeholder wins?
Below, we share some different ways to engage your stakeholders early doors from product people who have tried and tested them all.
- Borrow from tried and tested sales techniques, and make use of freely available resources
- Remember that active listening builds genuine empathy
- Make your first impression count
- Take the time to understand your stakeholders’ management style and needs
- Keep your opinions to yourself, use facts and data
- Be consistent in your communication, even when you’ve got nothing to say
Make use of the resources out there
There are plenty of freely available resources to help with stakeholder engagement and management, so why not use them. Product leader Karen Rawson says she’s found ProductPlan’s stakeholder analysis checklist very useful in her early days at a new job.
A couple of times Karen and her team have found it helpful to identify executives and internal influencers using a series of videos from Product Board, The dangerous animals of product management. They’ve assigned names to each animal type, understanding their characteristics, and behaviours and what success meant for them. She’s also used Julia Whitney’s Credit model to build trust and empathy once she’s more familiar with stakeholders.
Says Karen: “Once I have identified the stakeholders as ‘the people on the bus with me’, then I quickly determine the difficulties and risks and analyse these with individual stakeholders in mind.”
She uses Lynda Applegate’s Stakeholder Analysis Tool to interrogate stakeholder interests and expectations vs importance to success and then creates a stakeholder management plan to apply the results. Says Karen: “This helps me cut to the chase and address each stakeholder’s expected behaviour. Will they be a champion, a positive influencer? Will they detract in some way? I like to have a stakeholder plan on a page and keep that in sight. What I am purposefully looking for are the champions, or the neutral stakeholders who can be influenced by the positive evangelists.”
She then plans communication techniques, effective channels, and messaging frequency with the amount of transparency needed on costs, resources, risk tolerance, and limitations.
Make your first impression count
Alex Galasso, Head of Product at startup PM Hero, says it’s worth going the extra mile to prepare for your first encounter with any stakeholder. Walking a stakeholder through a new idea pays dividends: “If you or the stakeholder are new to a company—and relatively unproven—then it goes a long way to handhold them through the process. You get a soft buy-in right there – it becomes their idea as well, they get excited about it.” If you’re a new product manager with an established stakeholder, make use of their experience when you have an idea and get their buy-in that way.
A good relationship with stakeholders is founded on trust, so attention to detail is vital to make sure that the first conversation to get buy-in from a stakeholder “is perfect”, says Alex. “Once that first feature goes off without a hitch, you can bet the process will become much more informal.”
Graham Paterson, Product Partner at Connect Ventures says that building genuine empathy is the key to easy engagement. So think carefully about how you frame the questions you ask of your stakeholders. “Really understanding what that person wants and needs can help you communicate with them, and helps you to optimise for their outcomes,” he says. “Rather than asking what do you want to get from this project, ask what are you trying to achieve in your job?.”
It can help to borrow from established sales techniques to do this, Graham says. Good salespeople will ask questions and listen more than they speak.
Jeremy Hooi, Product Leader at Amperfii, says his mantra for successful stakeholder engagement is to “listen, care, and collaborate”. He says: “I believe it’s always important to take an empathetic approach to conversations with stakeholders, be intentional in listening to their points of view, and reconsider our ideas in that light. One piece of advice I give to product managers finding challenges in this area is to treat them like we would our customers: listen to their problems, pains, and desires with a goal to help (even though we have our own goals!)… and exercise curiosity. Their needs can be expressed initially as ideas which may be contrary to our own.”
Consistent clear communication
Be consistent in your communication. “Even if you’ve got nothing to say that day or that week”, says Graham, “then say there’s no update. When there’s a vacuum of knowledge, people will fill that vacuum with the worst-case scenario in their heads.”
For Becci Edmondson, Head of Product at MPB, an online platform for used photography and videography equipment, it’s all about transparency. “Most stakeholders understand that there are a lot of competing demands on a product team and that we need to make difficult decisions. When decisions are opaque and made behind closed doors, stakeholders rightly get frustrated. Bringing stakeholders along on that decision journey and working out loud (at the right level of detail) helps a lot.”
Get to know and understand your stakeholders
Liz Love, Chief Commercial Officer at product management software vendor ProdPad, says: “I’m now one of those ‘stakeholders’ so I can see both sides. My main takeaway would be to listen to stakeholders and understand their needs, as unless they’re complete (insert swear word here) and just causing political trouble, they’re probably raising objections for valid reasons.”
Franz Vitulli, Product Manager at The Bot Platform, a no-code bot building platform, says it helps to keep your opinions to yourself: “Keep sentences that begin with ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ to a minimum,” he says, “What you say should be backed up by data and facts. Keep them engaged as early as possible.”
Product leader Michael Glykis says stakeholders should feel involved and part of a team. “Start with educating them on the language. You may live in sprints and backlog grooming, they don’t.”
For Sarah Oliver, VP of Product at Xeneta, an ocean and air freight rate benchmarking and market analytics platform for the shipping industry, it’s regular meetings with stakeholders that works well. She says: “Having bi-weekly 1-2-1s with your key stakeholders works really well to share what’s going on for both of you and to help each other. This drives more transparency and builds cooperative relationships rather than defensive ones.”
Even with all these good habits in place, you may still struggle to get engagement. Filippo Morelli, Senior Product Manager at mobile communication services provider Kaleyra, has some words of warning.
He’s found that—especially in a company with a large product portfolio—your product won’t be on a stakeholder’s radar until something comes up. Stakeholder interest and involvement is decision-based rather than product-based. So regular meetings aren’t appropriate. Nor is something like a newsletter for people to follow your progress, because you then potentially just “spam them with updates”. Says Filippo: “My tip is that you really need to think about the decision that you need to make, and who is interested in that, rather than to think about your product and who’s interested in it.”