Demystifying Stakeholder Management

Bonjour Monsieur, comment allez-vous?”, were the first words I said to a French gentleman who headed a business function in my last organization. Translated, this simply means ‘Good morning, how are you?’, but being said in French made a world of a difference. This left him grinning from ear to ear and started off one of my most successful stakeholder relationships on a fantastic note.

Three things were in my favor that morning – 1. That I had spent a good chunk of my college life studying French and could remember some of it 2. That I had also spent time reading about cultural differences and knew of the national pride that most French people had, especially with regards to the language and 3. I had spoken to people who had worked with this business head in the past to understand a little more about him, before our first meeting.

While the first two points in my favor are not always possible, the third one is definitely in our control. Look at any CV today and in the list of skills, you will find ‘stakeholder management’ mentioned. Look at any job description out there at the moment and again, in the list of skill requirements, you will see stakeholder management. Think about any job that you have had in the past – is there any where you haven’t been told about the importance of improving/strengthening your stakeholder management skills?

The skill of ‘Stakeholder Management’ is something that holds relevant in every single sector of work and therefore, it has an integral role in the content we at Amani Institute deliver during our Leadership for Growth program, a program aimed at building leadership and management skills in mid-senior managers of small and growing organizations.

Let’s begin with getting on the same page about who a stakeholder is – According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), the term project stakeholder refers to, “an individual, group, or organization, who may affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by a decision, activity, or outcome of a project.” Effective stakeholder management techniques have been written about in multiple books and mainly revolve around tools and techniques to effectively build relationships with your stakeholders. In this article today, we will reference one such grid, which is a tool that you can immediately apply to analyse your stakeholders and then adopt different strategies to influence them.

Before sharing the tool, here are a few points to note:

  • The grid is an adaptation of Mendelow, A.L. (1981). ‘Environmental Scanning – The Impact of the Stakeholder Concept,’ ICIS 1981 Proceedings, 20.
  • Our recommendation is to create the grid for different projects/programs that you are responsible for – an individual appearing in one quadrant of the grid for one project may potentially move to another quadrant for another project
  • The tool is aimed at helping you first analyse who lies in which quadrant and then accordingly adopt different strategies to engage with them. As with most things in life, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution J
  • The grid can be used for stakeholders who are both within your organization and also outside of your organization, so make sure to keep both lists handy when creating the grid.

As a stakeholder of ours reading this article, we understand that your need now is probably to get to the actual tool. Your wish is our command – here we go!

The first step in this process is making a list of all the stakeholders for your current project/program that you are responsible for, internal and external (target audience, clients, funders, etc.) to your organization. When you have that list ready, you will then place each person into a grid, which plots stakeholders on the basis of two things –

  1. Their power/influence over the project (to affect change/to affect decision making, etc.)
  2. Their desire to support YOU / interest in the project

This is what the grid looks like:

The names provided in each of the boxes are purely to help you remember, and can be replaced with any other names that suit your purpose better. The descriptions for each quadrant are more important though:

  • Champions – They champion YOU and your cause/project. They have enough influence/power to be able to affect change that involves your project. They are typically individuals higher up in the hierarchy (hence high power) and have a good working relationship with you.
  • Cheerleaders – They are the ones who are always cheering you on. They are typically individuals lower than you (or at the same level) in the hierarchy and have a good working or personal relationship with you. Cheerleaders help when motivation levels are low and you need a pick-up/ego boost.
  • Irritants – At a similar hierarchical level as cheerleaders, the differentiating factor between the irritants and the cheerleaders is the desire to support/interest in the project. While they can’t affect the project significantly, they sometimes could cause delays or pose other obstacles.
  • Spoilers – The ones with high power/influence and no desire to support you or your project. With their power or influence, they have the ability to shut your project down or cause it significant trouble if they want to.

The position that you allocate to a stakeholder on the grid will then help you with the relevant actions that you need to take with them. You can also plot your stakeholders as per the weight of their power or support – for example, someone who is indifferent could potentially be close to the middle line vs. someone who is fully against the project will be on the extreme left of the Spoiler quadrant.

  • Champions – Manage Closely: It is important that you ensure regular communication with your champions, so that they continue to remain in that quadrant. Questions to ask yourself – How might I involve my champions in helping me build relationships with the Spoilers? What sort of information is important for my champions to know? In my last organization, this question became particularly important when I realized that I had ‘inherited’ a spoiler, due to professional conflicts this person had with the predecessor of my role. It was through the support of champions that I eventually gained the trust of this person and helped them look beyond the conflict that they had begun to wrongly associate with my role. Also, some of our biggest champions at Amani Institute are our past clients. These are people who we have worked with over the years in their respective organizations, who now make additional efforts to introduce us to other organizations where they think we would be able to add value. One of the main reasons for this is irrespective of whether we are working with them or not, we keep them informed of what’s going on at Amani, our new offerings, our challenges, etc. and help them stay connected to our world.
  • Spoilers – Keep satisfied & Understand their needs: While our first reaction may be to ignore the spoilers, it is best that we instead try to spend time with them to understand their needs. Questions you can ask yourself – What are the reasons that the Spoilers exist in that quadrant? What needs of theirs aren’t being met? What are their potential losses from this project (Status, control, etc.)? What would they gain from this project?

Early on in my career, one of the main projects I was working on was a ‘Skill Mapping’ exercise across the organization. This was required to make sure that each person in the organization was doing what they were best suited for, and to get rid of system redundancies. One of my spoilers was a senior function head in the organization, who refused to support this process and as a result, his entire team barely participated in the required activities. It was only when one of his team members (who was a cheerleader for me) informed me about the business head’s thought that this process was being used to fire employees that I realized what he thought he was going to lose through this process. It’s very important to think of categories of loss – power, status, control, money, etc. and then address those however possible. When we eventually made the context and outcome of the activity clear, I received some more support from him.

  • Cheerleaders – Keep Informed: It’s always nice to have cheerleaders by our side; the best way to do so is to make sure that you spend time with them when possible and ensure regular communication with them. Questions to ask yourself: How might I continue to involve the cheerleaders in this project? What is important for them to know? What skills of theirs would be best suited for the project? In the example I shared above, the cheerleader is the one who helped me understand the deeper issue. And this was possible because of the trust that I had built with them by ongoing communication of my work, what I aimed to do, what the outcomes were, etc.
  • Irritants – Monitor, and Involve where possible: While they can’t do severe harm to a project, the absence of irritants is obviously a blessing. So, for those that exist, attempt to involve them where possible and monitor their involvement. Questions to ask yourself: How might my cheerleaders help influence the irritants? What role to the irritants play in influencing the spoilers?

When you have all your stakeholders plotted on the grid, answering the questions in the section above will help you come up with strategies on influencing them. We’re pretty certain that images of your key stakeholders popped up in your head while reading the different categories of stakeholders.

Now go ahead and plot the grid – promise it will be a fun exercise!


Tuesday June 15th, 2021 by Shehzia Lilani
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