As we look ahead to redesigning the post-pandemic workplace and re-establishing business relationships, stakeholder engagement will once again be one of the more critical aspects of leadership. After all, many of your stakeholders — anyone from your frontline employees to suppliers to business partners — have been working remotely for the past 15 months. And many companies have found that engagement has taken a back seat to “just get the work done.”
As you seek input to re-engage with employees and customers, there are many advantages to identifying and getting to know your primary stakeholders. There are also distinct disadvantages if leaders do not engage with them. After all, any failure to understand their needs can lead to blind spots for managers and executives. Those blind spots often lead to disastrous outcomes, such as low employee morale, lost opportunities, or a disappointing bottom line.
Fortunately, as we work toward restarting stakeholder engagement, we can use research-based strategies to notice such blind spots —and overcome them. But first, leaders must identify their key influencers
Identifying Your Key Influencers
You might be inclined to begin restarting stakeholder engagement with all your stakeholders immediately. It might be tempting to address the concerns of all of them, all at once. Resist those temptations.
As many leaders have already learned, it is much more practical to focus on the most important relationships. For most leaders, especially those that have also been working remotely, this means sitting down with your leadership team. Your goal: To generate a list of stakeholders that most impact your organization. These are your key influencers.
Perhaps you don’t know who your key influencers are at the moment? As you work to identify the stakeholders you should engage with first, consider these three things:
Key stakeholders significantly impact your company’s growth. Or perhaps they greatly influence the thinking of co-workers, entire teams, or consumer groups (like you’ll see in the example below). The long-term success of your company hinges, in large part, on a successful continued relationship with these high-impact individuals. By default, they are considered key influencers.
Based on past performance or future business potential, your company cannot easily replace some stakeholders. Chances are, your leadership team already counts on these people, teams, or companies in many vital areas of the company. Collecting input from them might mean the difference between a continuing relationship — or not.
Mutually Beneficial Relationships
Typically with key influencers, the relationship between the company and the stakeholder is mutually beneficial. You can clearly identify the value the stakeholder brings to the company and vice versa. Your organization’s goals and desired results align well with their goals. As these influencers meet those goals, so does your company.
Restarting Stakeholder Engagement: A Case Study
I recently sat down with a coaching client, Bill — a healthcare entrepreneur leader looking to re-engage with key stakeholders. After a year had passed since they communicated about a launch initiative vital to his company’s success, Bill and his leadership team wanted to encourage the widespread adoption of their innovative medical equipment.
Throughout the pandemic, the initiative had failed to gain sufficient traction. Bill suspected that it might be due to the higher cost of their medical equipment. His first instinct was to do one-on-one outreach to key influencers in this business sector, especially those advocates in patient groups. Bill approached me after preparing a list of more than 40 key influencers. As you can imagine, he was having difficulty developing a strategy that would allow him to address each of them. Time wasn’t on Bill’s side. Because he needed to present his findings and results in an upcoming meeting with investors, he felt immense pressure.
When I checked Bill’s list, I noticed a wide variety of potential influencers, including many who did not have key decision-making roles and therefore had no direct impact. There were also people on the list whose past performance could not be readily determined and who Bill couldn’t definitively place in the “mutually beneficial” column. Ultimately, we pared his list down to eight key leaders who demonstrated all three attributes above. Because they had many similar concerns and priorities, Bill was much better able to engage each of them in a meaningful way.
For Each Key Influencer: Ask 8 Questions
Now that you have your key influencers identified, and regardless of the urgency, you might feel to begin re-engagement immediately, do a pre-engagement check. Otherwise, you might fall into the dangerous judgment error known as the false consensus effect. This refers to assuming other people are more similar to you and more inclined to do what you want them to do than is really the case. To avoid false consensus, ask these eight questions:
What are their feelings, values, goals, and incentives around this issue?
Bill’s key influencers — the eight leaders of patient groups — were willing to try a better product. However, they were wary of endorsing more expensive equipment. Or at least without being able to justify the higher price point to their respective patient groups.
What is their back-story around this issue?
Bill’s key influencers wanted to find the best equipment to endorse to their patient groups. Yet, they were cautious due to several substandard products they have tried in the past.
What is their identity and sense of self as tied to the issue?
The leaders of the patient groups take their responsibilities very seriously. For example, they tirelessly keep up to date with the latest research and equipment available.
How are they the hero in this story?
Bill’s key influencers are on the frontlines when pushing for a better quality of life for their patients. Most of them have been directly or indirectly affected by the medical condition the equipment seeks to address. They want to be part of the solution.
Why should they want to listen to your message and then become advocates?
The leaders of the patient groups will benefit from hearing Bill’s take on the product’s efficiency. As the head of his organization, his message comes with a high degree of credibility. The key influencers can share Bill’s message with confidence.
What might prevent them from listening to your message and taking action?
If Bill confirms that the medical equipment’s higher cost is the main point of contention, he needs to address this issue. Otherwise, the key influencers may not listen to anything else he has to say.
How can you remove any obstacles so they are more apt to listen and act?
Bill decided that he will immediately address the price issue in his meeting with the key influencers. He planned to discuss in detail how his organization’s innovative medical equipment was the best choice in terms of quality and warranty.
Who do you know that can give you helpful feedback on the answers received?
I connected Bill with Jolinda, for over a decade the leader of a well-organized patient group. Her group represented the interests of patients with different medical conditions not relevant to the equipment made by Bill. Still, after reviewing the answers to the previous assessment questions, she was willing to share her perspective as a key influencer. Your job: Find your “Jolinda.” Or two. Or three.
Re-engagement: One Stakeholder at a Time
Your organization’s relationship with your stakeholders will change over time. You will face different issues at varying difficulty levels. Regardless, you must learn how to identify your key influencers and perform a pre-assessment check before engaging with them. By doing so, you will be able to commence restarting stakeholder engagement successfully.