Here’s a stakeholder management joke 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 eyes—unannounced.
- To ghost their project manager, avoid voicemails, and ignore email check-ins asking about content whereabouts.
- To chase down another buzz word or trending methodology to bring back and immediately implement, mid-project.
- To pursue an entirely different job at an entirely different company without informing their project manager or having a backup stakeholder ready to take their place.
Working with stakeholders (especially difficult ones) is not an easy task, but it is one that you can get a handle on with the right stakeholder management process.
This article will get you 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.
- What Is Stakeholder Management?
- 4 Types of Stakeholders
- 4 Stakeholder Management Strategies & Best Practices
- 6 Benefits Of Stakeholder Management
What Is Stakeholder Management?
Stakeholder management is the process of collaborating with stakeholders and maintaining stakeholder relationships and rapport.
Stakeholders can include anyone from clients to project sponsors to to suppliers to the CEO who's micromanaging your new website launch. You might have external stakeholders or internal stakeholders involved in your project.
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 project success.
This definition makes clear the shared interest a stakeholder has for the project. Your stakeholders are impacted by the outcome of the project and any challenge that may exist between you and your stakeholders is likely due to the avoidable delta between stakeholder expectations and the reality of the project.
So, how can we minimize or eliminate that delta? Internal communication, external communication, and then—you guessed it—some more stakeholder communication.
To determine how we can best collaborate with our stakeholders, it’s important to first define the different types of stakeholders with which we’re working.
4 Types Of Stakeholders
Depending on the size of the company or organization, your project may have several stakeholders involved. 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 stakeholder titles you may see on your projects.
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 (ex. Marketing Director, Communications Manager). If you’re working on SEO or an ad campaign, you will definitely collaborate 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 a successful project. Consider them your SME (subject matter expert) for their company.
- They may provide the company’s brand guidelines or access to assets, or put you in touch with creative resources. They will fuel persona definition (audience, user stories, etc).
- They will be an (if not the) approval point for marketing, communications, and digital strategy for your project.
How To Manage Marketing Stakeholders
- Start stakeholder engagement early and often. The worst thing you can do is make progress without involving a marketing stakeholder to weigh in on the marketing aspects of the project. You want to stay within the company’s brand guidelines build their trust in you, your project team, and your company.
- Allow them enough freedom to guide decisions, but know when to recommend best practices. They are the expert of their company; you and your project team are the experts of the digital implementation. There is a reason the stakeholder has their job and there is a reason your company was hired to do this work.
- Make sure they feel heard and acknowledge everything. While you may not agree with every request or revision from your stakeholder, the very least you must do is acknowledge their message, route it appropriately, and follow up with them to close the loop. Otherwise, your marketing stakeholder will lose their peace of mind and sense of partnership.
2. Technical Stakeholders
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:
- 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 support you and your team in cleaning up data and databases. 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 and what doesn’t.
- They are able to speak a technical language that no other stakeholder type usually can. Your development team will appreciate that.
How To Manage Technical Stakeholders
- Schedule a regular touch base with just the technical teams. 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.
- Only cc the technical stakeholder for anything technical and development related. This includes technical documentation, technical requirements, hosting, security, and data. Unless they specifically request, do not feel obligated to copy the stakeholder on all project communications.
- If/when your development team reaches out to the stakeholder for information, make sure you are included on all communications, and vice versa. Request that you be included on communications the stakeholder may have for your team—even if you yourself may not weigh in on the discussion. It’s important to verify that technical conversations remain within scope.
3. Sales Stakeholders
It’s 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 who can speak to or sign off on elements of the project related to sales goals.
How they are valuable:
- Sales stakeholders have information on their company's sales goals. While they probably won’t let you peek behind the curtain or see too much sales detail, they can provide enough information to give you and your project team fuel for how to best set up digital strategic objectives for the project.
- Your sales stakeholder is probably close to any C-level or executive stakeholders. If your project does not, in their eyes, prove to have some benefit to their company’s sales numbers, they will communicate accordingly. However, if it does prove to have some benefit, they are more likely to champion additional budget for future work with your team/company.
- Sales stakeholders are usually out “in the field” more often than anyone else in their company. They can bring value in the form of relevant and timely happenings in the market and with their company’s audience.
How To Manage Sales Stakeholders:
- When engaging stakeholders from sales, keep the question “Will this drive sales?” in mind. 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 it, and communicate this to them clearly.
- Reach out regularly to prompt their input. It’s common for sales stakeholders to not involve themselves unless prompted. Reach out every other week to provide status updates and ask if there is anything they have seen or experienced since you last talked that is worth discussing, as it relates to the project.
- Feed them data. While you may not consider your stakeholder a data analyst, understand that data will speak volumes to them. 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 (ex. Vice President, President, C-level executive). This stakeholder will ultimately determine your project budget. If your point person is not the executive stakeholder they probably report to the executive stakeholder or to someone who does report to the executive stakeholder.
How they are valuable:
- Either they are funding your project or they are close to or 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 stakeholder and they agree, there is potential for a long-term partnership between your company and theirs.
How To Manage Executive Stakeholders
- Keep your updates at a 10,000-foot view. Unless the executive stakeholder specifically requests more detail about a specific part of the project, include only the most important points in your updates. Vet what counts as important with your main 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 stakeholder and have them indicate where they are interested in being involved. Your client point person will let you know if you should include the executive stakeholder in any meetings beyond the ones they indicate.
- Understand and communicate the why behind your project to the stakeholder. Your executive stakeholder does not need to know the technical details 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?
4 Stakeholder Management Strategies & Best Practices
Here are 4 strategies & best practices for managing stakeholders.
1. Use A Stakeholder Map
To determine a stakeholder management plan, I strongly recommend holding a stakeholder mapping and stakeholder analysis session with your internal team. The outcome of this session will be a stakeholder map.
A stakeholder map is a power/interest grid that looks akin to a prioritization matrix, with level of interest on one axis and level of power (or level of influence) on the other axis.
Their level of power relates to the potential impact that they could have on the project, and their level of interest is related to how much they need to know about what exactly is going on with the project.
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 should be done as part of your project plan.
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.
Here's a summary:
- Stakeholders with high interest and high power or high influence must be managed most thoroughly. These are your most important stakeholders.
- Stakeholders with high interest but low power or low influence should be kept completely informed.
- Stakeholders with low interest but high power should have their needs anticipated and met.
- Stakeholders with low interest and low power should be provided with regular minimal contact.
2. 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 about 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).
3. 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 a way to formalize a process for managing your communication between your team and your stakeholders.
The communication plan should outline all stakeholders, 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.
4. 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 required when you’re 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.
It’s more likely you’ll receive the most honest feedback if you keep the surveys anonymous.
6 Benefits Of Stakeholder Management
There are a variety of benefits to effective stakeholder management, when it's done properly. Here's a few of the top ones. Much of this depends on the stakeholders themselves. Unfortunately, some stakeholders are just difficult, no matter what you do.
- More clarity on who is responsible for what: By setting expectations and rules of engagement up front (especially by using a RACI chart), your stakeholders will have a better understanding of what they need to deliver and when. This includes things like feedback and website content.
- Smoother communication: A proper stakeholder management plan will help you coach stakeholders on things like response times, what level of communication to expect, and how often they will hear from you.
- More deliverables completed on time: A stakeholder management plan will ensure that stakeholders know when items that they are responsible are due, so they won't hold up timelines (and if they do, they can't blame it on you).
- Less friction and stress: It can help ease the tension that comes from working with demanding or difficult stakeholders (although not entirely, in some cases).
- Faster decision making: You won't be waiting on stakeholders as much for information or input that goes into your decision-making process.
- Less project risk: You can expect fewer surprises and interruptions, as stakeholders will be conditioned to be more transparent and forthcoming.
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.
One final note: project management software can help you keep track of stakeholders in relation to timelines and due dates for deliverables and read more about managing client expectations here.