The term “stakeholder management” sounds a bit exhausting, like a chore at the end of a string of complex tasks. We may also tend to think of stakeholder management as a kind of ancillary, professional politicking, rather than something totally necessary to move a project forward.
When we think of it in those terms, or in some related way, it can be very easy to decide to avoid doing stakeholder management entirely.
But these ideas about stakeholder management are wrong.
What Is Stakeholder Management?
Let’s take a look at what stakeholder management actually is. It’s a way to:
- Strategically deliver better outcomes by bringing the right people in at the right moment.
- Incorporate the varied perspectives of those whose opinions can best inform a situation.
- Divide the work among relevant parties to reach goals optimally and efficiently.
We will go in-depth on defining stakeholder management by breaking it down into three parts. Thinking about it in this way should help improve your stakeholder management strategy.
- First, we’ll break it down into levels of involvement by showing how different stakeholders have different needs, and by showing that progress on a project can move forward more optimally when the right stakeholders are kept in the loop at the right times.
- Next, we’ll show how stakeholder management is not the same as just communicating often or too much. It’s a more nuanced approach to information-sharing that varies from stakeholder to stakeholder, and it can change as a project progresses.
- Finally, we’ll walk through how stakeholder management is actually all about relationship building, which can pay dividends when it comes to great output and career advancement in the long term.
Let’s jump into it!
Meet The Contributors
Adam Grenier is a growth executive who thrives on solving the exponential challenges of world-changing marketplaces and scaling teams to maneuver the chaos of the day-to-day. He has spent 18 years running marketing and growth functions for companies including MasterClass, Lambda School, Uber, HotelTonight, and Zoosk, as well as digital media for clients like Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, JCPenney, and Budweiser.Learn More
Alex oversees the development of technological tools, automation, and infrastructure at USDR. Alex most recently served as a Director of Engineering at Dropbox. Previously, he created Cprogramming.com, used by over 100M people to learn C and C++. In his spare time, Alex enjoys powerlifting, crossword puzzles, and running.Learn More
Ely is an EIR at Reforge and an advisor for startups transitioning from traction to hypergrowth. Previously he was Head of Consumer Product at Chime, Head of Product at Eat24, and Product Leader/GM at Yelp.Learn More
Ravi is the Co-Founder and CEO of Outpace and an active angel/advisor in consumer tech companies. His focus includes social, gaming, travel, healthcare, and marketplaces. Previously, he was an EIR at Reforge, CPO @ Tinder, and a product leader @ Meta, Tripadvisor, and Xbox.Learn More
1. Divide Stakeholder Management Into Levels Of Involvement
Part of why the idea of stakeholder management may feel a bit superficial is that the term itself is vague.
You often need different support from different stakeholders, yet many approaches treat each person the same. The stakeholders on a project might be key players whose contributions are required in order for the work to progress. Or, stakeholders may refer to more peripheral team members or cross-functional colleagues for whom progress updates are sufficient.
It can be helpful to systematize our stakeholders’ involvement into different levels of engagement for a project using an Awareness, Alignment, and Inclusion Framework. We’ll walk through this stakeholder management plan and use a product manager working at a tech company to highlight how varied involvement in the work can help the product manager more optimally move a project toward the finish line.
The Inclusion level should include stakeholders who are doing the work in a project. These stakeholders are essential for achieving a goal. We put them in the innermost circle of our framework because they are actively engaged in moving the project forward.
In a product development cycle, a product manager would likely put engineers, designers, and the analytics team in their inclusion-level stakeholders.
The Alignment level should include any stakeholders whose detailed input is critical to the success of the project, even if they are not involved in the day-to-day work. In a product development cycle, the inclusion-level stakeholders might include the customer support team and the sales teams with whom product teams need to align regularly.
The Awareness level refers to the outermost circle of stakeholders in this three-tiered framework. These stakeholders aren’t involved in the day-to-day work and do not need to provide detailed input for the project to succeed, but they do require visibility into the progress of a project. In a product development cycle, a product manager would want to keep executives and cross-functional teams in the loop, so those teams can factor the product team’s progress into their own work.
To improve your overall stakeholder management strategy, divide your stakeholders into inclusion, alignment, and awareness levels for any projects you’re working on.
2. Find The Best Communication Frequency For Each Stakeholder
While we may be tempted to see stakeholder management as a political maneuver, it’s helpful to understand that it’s actually more about being communicative than it is about touting your progress.
However, it’s important to differentiate between the right amount of communication and over-communication. You want to continually monitor and update how often your stakeholders need to be involved. For some situations, a weekly update is too often, for others, it’ll be just right.
You can avoid over-communicating by:
- Determining how often your stakeholders need to be updated and follow through consistently.
- Delivering audience-specific information so they know you’re bringing them along.
- Being an active listener so stakeholder concerns are always accounted for.
Adam Grenier, the former VP of Product and Marketing at Bloom Institute (previously Lambda School), says that it was actually dedicated stakeholder management that led to the successful launch of a product that is still being used today.
He explains that although there was an acknowledged need for the new product, the sales team, the instructors, and the product teams all had grown accustomed to solving problems in siloes using their own spreadsheets and data tracking.
When he went to build the product, he consulted each individual team on a weekly basis and provided a progress report that spoke directly to the issue that the team cared most about. He emphasized that weekly communication made sense for this highly-invested group, because they wanted to know their team’s unique data-tracking needs were being accounted for in the new product build.
Since he knew his audience well, he gave them the information most pertinent to their concerns, which in turn led them to invest more in the project. Without their support and alignment, the product may have been put on the back burner in favor of something else.
Another thing Adam did during his weekly status updates with his cross-functional stakeholders was to engage in active listening. He says:
“Good product managers listen, and great product managers continue to listen.”
We can generalize this statement and say that good colleagues listen and great colleagues keep listening.
It’s useful to view stakeholder management as a set of relationships you evaluate on a case-by-case basis. If you try to over-communicate with everyone, you’ll not only get lost in a sea of emails, Slack messages, and updates, you’ll probably lose your audience and give more credence to the negative perception of what stakeholder management really is.
3. Treat Stakeholder Management As Relationship-Building
To put our negative perception of stakeholder management to rest forever, it’s useful to reframe the nature of the relationship. One way to improve your stakeholder management and build relationships is to seek out what we call “bridge partners” with individuals you are aligned with in terms of goals and outcomes.
Bridge partners are professional counterparts with whom you can build long-term mutually beneficial relationships that grow and evolve over time. The initial objective, in this case, would be for the product manager to find a colleague with whom they touch base regularly in order to better learn the work of their bridge partner.
Establishing an effective relationship with a bridge partner leads to three key positive outcomes over time:
- Increased directional alignment
- More effective thought-partnership
- More motivated teams
We can also view our bridge partners, or professional counterparts, as a type of stakeholder management.
In this case, stakeholder management is a mutually beneficial alliance based on a desire to learn more about what the other person does. To be clear, a bridge partner may not necessarily be a person with whom you work with day-to-day, but they are someone who can help you better understand the other team members that you regularly interact with.
There are a variety of ways a person can leverage their bridge partner. In the example of the product manager, the bridge partner is a person from whom they can get advice on how best to drive daily product outcomes, or they can give input on how to identify new opportunities. Product managers can build bridge partnerships with engineers, designers, and data analysts who are also at the same point in their careers.
These relationships are mutually beneficial because they serve as long-term investments in each person’s career. This kind of partnership is a highly beneficial approach to stakeholder management in any type of industry or business.
What Stakeholder Management Means For Your Career
As you can see, stakeholder management is a substantive and necessary component of any collaborative project. There are three different ways to improve and implement stakeholder management directly into our work.
- Remember that stakeholder management is a bit of a catchall phrase, and that by systematically organizing our stakeholders into the Awareness, Alignment, Inclusion Framework we’re able to consider just how involved each person needs to be and how to communicate. This will help us organize how we communicate with each type of stakeholder.
- Stakeholder management does not equate to over-communication. You want to bring people along at the right time at the right cadence. This is something to evaluate continually as projects and relationships evolve.
- Stakeholder management is just relationship-building. It’s enormously valuable to form bridge partners, or professional alliances, with stakeholders on adjacent teams so that you foster natural partnerships and leverage each other to improve your overall outputs.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to manage stakeholders as a product manager, we recommend the Reforge Product Leadership program, where we break down management in the product space in-depth.