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Stakeholder Engagement Lessons I Learned The Hard Way

Stakeholder Engagement Lessons I learned the hard way

Google the term “stakeholders” and you get about 67 million results. What does that even mean? That 67 million people are talking about this, or that 67 million

Lessons I learned via Flicker CC Jeremy Brooks

people are looking for something related to the term, or both. Despite the fact that the term has gone from anonymity to almost notorious levels of ubiquity over the past few years, it is a concept that most companies still struggle with.

I am sure a lot of intelligent people have a lot of intelligent answers for this surge in popularity but my gut feeling for this is that companies are quickly realizing that their awfully limited priority group of consumers just doesn’t cut it any more. It is becoming vital to the success and even survival of a company to widen its priority group to cover most if not all parties influenced or that have the potential to influence their business, the stakeholders.

One the many challenges that most company face after the initial shock at the disturbingly long list of stakeholder is what to do with them. The popular literature tells them to engage and there is a lot of material available on how to do that; the models, the how-tos, the techniques, the whole nine yards. They will tell you what to do, how to approach it and what model to use, but not what to expect.  This post is about the lessons I have learned over the years after making many mistakes and getting my fair share of nasty surprises during engagement sessions.

So here are the lessons that no one tells you about but that will definitely help you in your quest to stakeholder stardom:

They don’t always want to engage:

We are always told or we just plain assume that our key stakeholder is out there impatiently waiting for us to come talk to him. It is so far from the truth, it’s laughable….in a sad way. Even though a certain type (read the conscientious type) or the one with high interest (as per the high influence/ high interest grid) are willing to start the process, it often takes much more than a phone call. You need to employ a clever mix of cajoling and sweet-talking before you get them on that table. That is exactly why I am such a huge fan of social media not only for the actual engagement process but for priming the stakeholders to take an interest so that when they are approached, they don’t veer off.

Sometimes you get to hear Rubbish:

I remember a meeting with stakeholders of a cable television operating company where one attendee was hell bent on steering the whole conversation back to the point that ONE out of his 250 channels has a bad reception. Sad but true, a lot of times the responses and the issues raised in stakeholder engagement are so irrelevant to the company that you will be a little taken aback. Use that as a way to understand how stakeholders think, even if the issues they raise don’t make any sense, the insight into their way of thinking is a valuable take-away from the session.

Sometimes you will hear what you don’t want to hear:

Engagements are not always happy cordial events. A lot of times, especially when the company is only just starting its CSR sustainability program, some misgivings tend to rise to the surface. Although you think you are prepared to handle this, it can be very disconcerting and you will feel as if you are being personally attacked (trust me…been there, done that). Try to take things in a stride; don’t try to defend the company if the qualms are justified, proof is in the pie as they say. Do mention that you value their opinions and promise to come back with a resolution soon after. And then keep that promise.

Talk less, Listen more:

It is called a dialogue for a reason. The best engagement session are the ones where the company representative only acts as a facilitator and lets the participants decide where they want to go with the conversation? While the temptation to butt in is high (ask me…I’m a former professor), try not to. The kind of responses you get from unbridled, uninhibited minds will be priceless and much more genuine than if you try and put words in their mouths.

You can’t make everyone happy:

Not all causes are created equal and it is important to know that not all issues raised in the session warrant an action. What is important for the company is to address an issue or a cause that has a strategic dimension and represents a solid need of the society. Prioritization of the CSR issues is paramount to the success of your CSR program. However, don’t forget to identify the unaddressed issues and have a resolution ready for the next session. “We didn’t think it is important enough” is not the most judicial response.

Be Less Formal:

These gatherings are called engagements for a reason. Try to be frank and open and let others relax so that people do actually get to connect. People are at their most helpful and evocative when they feel they are not being judged. In a formal, stiff environment you will hardly see anyone bringing out creative and workable solution, they are too busy keeping appearances.

Expect to go off tangent:

While it is great to have an agenda, do keep in mind a good engine session is the one that takes its own shape and form as it evolves. Do not force the agenda unless you are looking for specific information (like indicators for a CSR report). Let the session evolve on its own and you will be surprised with the outcomes.


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