Here’s a stakeholder management joke question for you:
Why Did The Stakeholder Cross The Road?
- Because the project manager told them everything was going smoothly and they needed to come over and verify with their own two eyes…unannounced.
- To ghost their project manager, avoid voicemails, and ignore email check-ins asking about content whereabouts.
- They were chasing down another buzz word or trending methodology to bring back to the project manager to immediately implement mid-project.
- To pursue an entirely different job at an entirely different company without informing their project manager, nor having a backup stakeholder ready to take their place.
If you answered A, B, C, or D…this article is for you.
What You’ll Learn In This Stakeholder Management Article
Now, after you have a chuckle and before you roll your eyes at the expense of your stakeholders, I want to make clear my intention for this article:
- First, I want to acknowledge the variety of stakeholder “types” and do my best to define the most common with which I have collaborated in my career as a project manager. These include:
- Marketing Stakeholders
- Technical Stakeholders
- Sales Stakeholders
- Executive Stakeholders
- Secondly, I want to provide insight on how to best approach these different types of stakeholders—whether you work with one or multiple per project.
My goal is to inspire you, dear Project Manager, to look beyond judgment of your stakeholders—regardless of their title, preference to discuss everything over the phone instead of email, or that they still think a “hamburger menu” is something poorly laminated and found on a dirty table at their nearest dive bar. You’ll be able to tap into a bit of empathy and recognize how you can fine tune your stakeholder management style to get the most out of the collaboration with each type of stakeholder.
So let’s get to it! But first:
What Is A Stakeholder?
A stakeholder is either an individual, group or organization who is impacted by the outcome of a project. They’re interested in the success of the project, whether they’re within or outside the organization that is sponsoring the project.
I like this simple stakeholder definition (but if you don’t, find a deeper definition of stakeholders in this PMI article). This definition makes clear the shared interest a stakeholder has for the project. Too often I run into project managers who talk about their stakeholders as if they are an entity whose sole purpose is to slow down process, rob the project team of their assets, and make everyone’s life a bit more difficult. The truth is that your stakeholders are impacted by the outcome of the project (just like you are!) and any challenge that may exist between you and your stakeholders is likely due to the avoidable delta between their expectations and their reality. Therefore, the way you manage stakeholder expectations will affect the result.
So, how can we minimize or eliminate that delta? Internal communication, external communication, definition, and then—you guessed it—some more communication.
Given the importance of communication in managing stakeholders, I recommend that you check out this guide to creating a communication plan after you finish this article!
To determine how we can best collaborate with our stakeholders, it’s important to first define the types of stakeholders with which we’re working.
Types Of Stakeholders
Depending on the size of the company or organization, your client’s project may have several stakeholders involved. Similar to how product managers approach stakeholder management strategy, stakeholders within our digital industry may be categorized within one of four types.
- Marketing Stakeholders
- Technical Stakeholders
- Sales Stakeholders
- Executive Stakeholders
Below are brief descriptions of those types, including examples of key stakeholders’ titles you may see on your projects.
What types of stakeholders do you deal with? Comment and pitch in your ideas below.
1. Marketing Stakeholders
If you’re working on a website or web platform, it’s likely one of your stakeholders will be someone from Marketing or Communications in that company (e.g. Marketing Director, Marketing Coordinator, Communications Manager, Creative Director). If you’re working on SEO or an ad campaign, you will definitely collaborate with a marketing stakeholder. If you’re working on a platform migration or database audit, you may not necessarily be working with a marketing stakeholder.
How they are valuable:
- Their job is to understand the company, its brand, and its audience, each of which is invaluable to the success of your project. Consider them your SME (subject matter expert) for their company.
- They may provide you the company’s brand guidelines or put you in touch with the necessary creative resources to provide access to assets as needed. They will fuel persona definition (audience, user stories, etc.).
- They will have a large say and will likely be an (if not the) approval point for marketing, communications, and digital strategy for your project.
How To Manage Marketing Stakeholders
- Engage with them early and often. The worst thing you can do to your client’s project is make progress without involving a marketing stakeholder to review, weigh in on, and approve the marketing aspects of the project. You want to stay within the company’s brand guidelines and regularly provide the marketing stakeholder the peace of mind they need to gain trust in you, your project team, and your company as a partner.
- Allow them enough freedom to guide marketing decisions, but know when to manage them with best practices recommendations. They are the expert of their company; you and your project team are the experts of the digital implementation. There is a reason the marketing stakeholder has their job and there is a reason their company hired your company to do this work.
- Make sure they feel heard and acknowledge everything. While you may not agree with every request, opinion, or revision your marketing stakeholder puts forth, the very least you must do is acknowledge their message, route it appropriately (whether that be to your delivery team, your project’s account manager, or an escalation to your supervisor), and follow up with them to close the loop. If you fail to acknowledge, your marketing stakeholder will lose their peace of mind and sense of partnership. The little effort it requires up front is worth the larger effort you’d run into otherwise later on.
2. Technical Stakeholders
In the digital space within which we live and breathe, exposure to technology is inevitable. Where a client has technology, they usually have a head of technology—that could be an internal Technical Director or an external Technical Consultant. In smaller organizations, your technical stakeholder may be an in-house Developer or IT assistant.
How they are valuable:
- If you have any database (user, inventory, HR) to work with, the technical stakeholder will be your development team’s BFF. Data can be messy and there is nothing worse than working with data with which you are unfamiliar. If you have a technical stakeholder, they will be able to—and may even be happy to—support you and your team in cleaning up and streamlining data to make it work well for your project. Clean data up front saves you messy QA later on.
- They have context. It’s likely your technical stakeholder was there for the last project…and the one before that…and maybe even the one before that. They have seen what works, what doesn’t, what was painful, and how we can put our best technical foot forward.
- They are able to speak a technical language that no other stakeholder type usually can. Your development team will appreciate that. A lot.
How To Manage Technical Stakeholders
- Schedule a weekly or bi-weekly touch base with just the technical teams to collaborate. While there can be a tendency for technical turf wars to surface when you have a technical team and the client has a technical team, it doesn’t have to be so. Rather than sit by and watch tension grow as both technical and non-technical folks sit around a conference table discussing e-commerce payment options, set aside time specifically for the technical teams to sit down and do what they do best: talk tech. I see this strategy often overseen and underestimated.
- Only copy the technical stakeholder for anything involving all things technical and development (technical documentation, technical requirements, hosting, security, data, maybe Google Analytics). Unless they specifically request, do not feel obligated to copy the technical stakeholder on all project communications like you would with your main client point of contact (who, in my experience, has usually been a marketing-type stakeholder).
- If/when your development team may reach out to the technical stakeholder for information, make sure you are included on all of those communications, and vise versa. Request from the technical stakeholder that you be included on communications they may have for your team—even if you yourself may not weigh in on the discussion. Though you may not be the technical resource on your team, it’s important to stay in the know to verify that even technical conversations remain within scope.
3. Sales Stakeholders
Your client sales team is not necessarily who interacted with your company’s sales team. It’s more likely your sales teammate interfaced with the Marketing or Executives groups, actually. In fact, your client may not have a sales department or sales force at all. For example, many non-profit organizations do not have a sales force. It’s more common to find sales stakeholders for clients with an e-commerce project or custom real estate application. You may find a sales stakeholder in the form of a Sales Director or Sales & Marketing Manager to speak to and/or sign off on elements of the projects related to sales goals and how they may impact be impacted by the project, itself.
How they are valuable:
- Sales stakeholders will have information on sales goals their company has. While they probably won’t let you peek behind the curtain and see too much sales detail (nor should you care to), they can provide enough sales goal information to give you and your project team fuel for how to best set up digital strategy goals for the project.
- Your sales stakeholder is probably close to your C-level/Executive stakeholder. That said, their opinion of whether or not your project is working will have some weight. In other words: if your project does not, in their eyes, prove to have some benefit to their company’s sales numbers, they will communicate accordingly. On the contrary, if your project does, in their eyes, prove to have some benefit to their company’s sales numbers, they are more likely to champion the argument for additional budget for future work with you and your team/company.
- Sales stakeholders are usually out “in the field” more often than any other type in their company. While it’s common that sales stakeholders remain on the outer edge of a digital engagement, do not underestimate the value they can bring it when it comes to bringing relevant and timely happenings out in the market and with their company’s audience.
How To Manage Sales Stakeholders:
- When engaging with your sales stakeholder, keep the question “Will this drive sales?” in mind. With designs being created, technical requirements being written, features and functionality being researched and discussed, it’s easy to focus on best practice for what you’re used to implementing and forget the goal specific to your client. If you’re working with a client with a sales force, ask yourself if what you’re implementing will drive sales for them, document how it will, and communicate this to them clearly.
- Reach regularly to prompt their input. Sales stakeholders sell. Their focus is making sales. If they’re not at your meeting, they’re selling. It’s common that a sales stakeholder will not involve themselves unless prompted – even then it can be difficult to get them to sit down at the table to discuss your project. Because sales stakeholders have the organic field experience, reach out every other week to provide them a status of what’s going on and ask them if there is anything they have seen/experienced/challenged them since you last talked that is worth discussing, as it relates to the project.
- Feed them data. While you may not initially consider your sales stakeholder a data analyst, you should understand that data will speak volumes to them. If you do not yet have data because you have not yet built their website, be ready to explain your project’s digital strategy with data from past project case studies or proven trends from best practices your company adheres to otherwise. If you have launched a project for the client, have Google Analytics or some sort of reporting implemented on the platform so you’re able to show this data to your sales stakeholder.
4. Executive Stakeholders
Your executive stakeholders are typically at the Director level or above (Director, Vice President, President, C-level Executive). This is the type of stakeholder that ultimately determines your project budget and will, or will not, champion additional funds for your project. If your point person is not the executive stakeholder (common for smaller organizations) they probably report to the executive stakeholder (common for medium-sized organizations) or they report to who reports to the executive stakeholder (common for larger organizations). There will always be an executive stakeholder.
How they are valuable:
- Either they are funding your project or they are close to/report to the person funding your project.
- Typically, what they say goes. Period.
- If you can tell a story about your project and its benefit to this executive stakeholder and they are in alignment with what you have to say (let’s hope so), there is potential for a long-term partnership between your company and theirs, beyond this project.
How To Manage Executive Stakeholders
- Keep your updates at a 10,000-foot view. Unless the executive stakeholder specifically requests more details about a specific part of the project, include only the most important points in your updates. It’s a good idea to vet what counts as the “important points” with your main client contact before making your own assumptions.
- At the project kickoff meeting, present all of the deliverable review meetings, formal sign offs, milestones, and presentation meetings to the executive stakeholder to have them indicate exactly which they are interested in being involved. This way, you have a good idea of when to include the executive stakeholder without having to reach out numerously to verify. Your client point person will let you know if you should include the executive stakeholder in any additional meetings otherwise. This approach reduces the risk of becoming white noise to your executive stakeholder.
- Understand and communicate the “why” behind your project to the executive stakeholder. Your executive stakeholder does not need to know the technical details, the reasoning behind functionality best practices, or be walked through a Google Analytics dashboard. Your executive stakeholder wants to hear the “why” behind the implementation: Why is this going to work? Why is this best for the company? Why are users going to engage more now than they did with the last implementation? Why does this matter? Tell the story.
Stakeholder Management Strategies & Tools
Okay, we’ve got our four stakeholder types. Now what?
In this section I provide an example that shows how I’d approach managing stakeholders along with a few of my favorite tools.
Stakeholder Management Example
For the sake of having a working example, let’s pretend your project is a brochureware marketing website for a clothing company, “XYZ Ltd.”. The client (a company of about 30 employees) is not ready for an e-commerce website, but they want to showcase their inventory, provide information about the company, and publish weekly posts to a blog portion of the site. Their current site is 5 years old and was built by their in-house developer.
By the time the project is sold and assigned to you and your team, your sales teammate(s) who sold the project should have context to provide you before the project’s kickoff. While that context may heavily focus on the scope of the project at hand, it should also include information about the project stakeholders. (Learn more about the process of Project Initiation here.)
Within this internal project initiation, be sure to ask: Who is the stakeholder?
Below is an example stakeholder list a sales teammate may provide you:
- John Doe (Marketing Manager, XYZ Ltd.)
- Sue Flynn (Senior Developer, XYZ Ltd.)
- Ben Morgan (Sales Director, XYZ Ltd.)
- Kathleen Anderson (CEO, XYZ Ltd.)
- Sean Jacobs (Investor, Board of Directors)
In this example, you have all four stakeholder types:
- Marketing: John Doe
- Technical: Sue Flynn
- Sales: Ben Morgan
- Executive: Kathleen Anderson, Sean Jacobs
Stakeholder Management Tool: Use A Stakeholder Map
In our example above, we are working with a sizable group of stakeholders. To determine a stakeholder management plan, I strongly recommend your next step be a stakeholder mapping session with your internal team, using a stakeholder map.
This will help you plot out where each stakeholder lands as it relates to a combination of their influence on and interest in the project. This provides a visual and a source of truth for your stakeholders and how much/what kind of involvement they will have in your project.
Stakeholder Management Tool: Make A RACI Chart
Next, I suggest you and your internal project team make a RACI chart. This chart allows you and your team to define who is Responsible for, Accountable for, Consulted about, and Informed of the project deliverables, milestones, assets, etc. This RACI chart will include both client stakeholders and internal stakeholders, alike.
Internal stakeholders may include your traffic coordinator, account director, an executive, or any other internal team member who has an influence on your project (who may not be on the actual project team).
Stakeholder Management Tool: Write A Communication Plan
The last (but not least) step I recommend during your project stakeholder management discussion within the internal project initiation is to create a communication plan.
A communication plan is another way to formalize a process for managing your stakeholders—specifically regarding the communication. The communication plan should outline all of your stakeholders, their titles, the frequency at which you will communicate with them, the channel of communication you’ll use, and any notes regarding preferences specific to each stakeholder. While you as the project manager may eventually know this information like the back of your hand, it’s invaluable for the next project manager, account manager, or any other resource that may transition on to the project in the future.
Stakeholder Management Tool: Send A Client Survey
Largely, stakeholder management comes requires a significant amount of empathy. Empathy may be the soft skill buzzword of the decade, but it’s definitely required when you’re potentially working with stakeholders across every department of a company.
The next most important soft skill to sharpen is communication. With this, only practice makes (almost) perfect.
So, how can we find out how we’re doing? Client surveys.
Don’t limit your client surveys to the end of the project. Work with your account management team to put out client surveys to your stakeholders after every milestone or phase of your project. That way, you’ll be more likely to see trends of how happy (or unhappy) clients are from phase to phase. Take the opportunity to grow.
Note: it’s more likely you’ll receive the most honest feedback if you keep the surveys anonymous.
What Do You Think?
There is no silver bullet approach to manage any and all stakeholder types. The more stakeholders I collaborate with, the less I am convinced I have it completely figured out. Remember this: the most challenging and left-field stakeholders will be the ones from which you learn the most.
Have you worked with any or all of the four stakeholder types mentioned above? Which type of stakeholder do you work with most often? What other type of stakeholder have you collaborated with on a project?