As a manager and particularly if you work in project management, you will likely be accountable for managing business relationships and being a central point of contact, not only for the teams who report directly or indirectly to you, but for other internal and external stakeholders as well. Your success in managing these relationships at different levels—or the lack of it—can have a direct impact on the positive outcome of your business area and the organization as a whole.
Research shows that partnerships significantly boost the economy and provide value for businesses, with 52% of those surveyed in a 2019 Forrester study attributing a fifth of their overall revenue to stakeholder partnerships, and 96% of B2B leaders surveyed in a separate 2022 study stating their confidence that their partnership ecosystems would spur business growth.
However, navigating stakeholder relationships can be complex and tricky, and can even result in embarrassing legal repercussions if you’re not careful; but with systems and structures in place, as well as possessing the right skill set, it needn’t be a burden or a responsibility to be dreaded.
Beyond achieving business growth, stakeholder partnerships enable you to realize the full extent of your career potential as a manager, because they develop critical management skills such as strategic thinking, relationship-building, and conflict resolution, and encourage diverse perspectives along with the wealth of their contributions to your program, offer, or service.
Here are three core skills that enable you to tap into that potential, and forge and manage successful stakeholder relationships:
Perhaps it’s the most obvious, but undoubtedly it’s one of the main causes of failed partnerships. PR disasters, lack of trust and buy-in, missed deadlines, misunderstood or unmet expectations, project delays, and tensions all result from inadequate stakeholder communication skills. For these relationships to be effective and projects to run smoothly, you need to ensure your communication meets the criteria of being transparent from day one, establishing clear expectations, and liaising promptly if any issues crop up instead of delaying until later. Get into the habit of asking questions to clarify responsibilities, requirements, and expectations, and ensure meetings are held regularly.
You can create a stakeholder communication plan and use this tool to map out all your stakeholders and plan communications based on their level of seniority, interest, and impact. Be sure to utilize various channels, tap into the advantages offered by AI to boost your communication, and test to see what works comfortably for both you and your stakeholder.
Also remember to be adaptable in your communication style. Familiarize yourself with them and their individual styles of communication, and also flex your style based on what matters most to them, or their level of understanding on a particular subject. For example, if you’re managing a technical project, chances are that you likely will be working closely with, and obtaining scoping requirements from, non-technical stakeholders. You then need to think about adapting your communication style to translate technical jargon into something that is meaningful to them.
For a partnership to work, you need to think strategically. Strategic thinking involves asking yourself, what are we seeking to accomplish collectively as a joint team? What’s our end goal for this partnership? What do we need to accomplish together and what are the deadlines for our short-term goals this coming year? What are the best ways of working to achieve the end goal? How can both sides can provide added value?
This requires some creativity and lateral thinking on your part. Most importantly, strategic thinking ensures your relationship with the stakeholder furthers organization’s vision and values.
It’s not just essential to establish clear communication pathways; you need to be a great active listener. Active listening in this context entails proactively seeking out and welcoming feedback from your stakeholders, in a non-judgemental setting. Invite them to share their perspectives and any emerging concerns, on a regular basis.
One of the best ways to invite a full range of feedback is by getting into the habit of asking open-ended questions such as those that start with “what” or “how” as opposed to closed questions that require a “yes” or “no” response. For example, you could ask, “What improvements would you like to see featured in this service next year?” This helps you expand and generate more ideas.
Stakeholder relationship management can be tricky business; but armed with these three skills and approaching it with mutual understanding, empathy, and a solid collective vision, you can create a thriving partnership and strong business relationships that will last you for many years, even beyond the extent of your current job.