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Mindfully Managing Senior Stakeholder Relationships

Managing relationships with all stakeholders are critical to project success.

Particularly important, and often challenging, is managing the relationship with senior stakeholders – sponsors and clients.

Managing Relationships

Relationships are dynamic. They involve communication on multiple levels – explicit and implied, oral, in writing and implied. Relationships are based on expectations and responses. They are influenced by culture, perceptions, emotional and social intelligence, intentions and hierarchies.

Recognizing your individual power to influence your relationships is the starting point for effective relationship management. Everything you do or say is taken in by those around you. They interpret it based on their perspective and respond. The response may be overtly or subtly observable or not. It is often the non-observable responses that are most important to the long-term health of the relationship.

Senior stakeholders are sponsors and clients in executive or senior management positions. What makes managing relationships with them challenging is a combination of hierarchies and the fear and power issues related to them, limited attention span and limited access, as well as your individual ability to manage these factors.

The Situation

Imagine a situation in which a very senior executive mandates a significant change in the way your organization interacts with its customers and vendors. He expresses a strong desire to get it done within a year. The work required to make it happen involves procurement of facilities, goods and services, software development to change existing systems and/or acquire and integrate new ones, development and implementation of new procedures, hiring and training several hundred people and communicating with all of the stakeholders. You are pretty sure that the procurement process alone could take several months or more.

You are faced with what you may perceive as a command from your project sponsor or senior client, often delivered to you by an intermediary who may be your direct boss or the senior stakeholder’s representative.

If you meekly accept it while exhibiting a subtle doubt that you can fulfill expectations, you may be seen as fearful and untrustworthy. You could be setting yourself up for failure by not saying what you think and giving the senior stakeholder a false confidence in getting the result he or she wants.

At the same time, if you push back by bringing up the risks and uncertainties that would keep you from delivering, you could be seen as a ‘naysayer,’ someone that is not committed to plowing through barriers to make things happen.

The way you read your sponsor and craft your responses makes all the difference.

Managing Senior Stakeholders and Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence – the ability to discern and manage one’s own emotions and to discern and manage the emotional responses of others – is a critical factor. When hierarchies are encountered and the person in the superior position is emotionally intelligent, he or she can make it easier for subordinates to present their case with objectivity by explicitly promoting candid feedback.

As project managers, you are subordinate to senior stakeholders. It is important to identify your feelings when in direct contact with your boss or boss’ boss. As fear arises, you can accept it and find the right way to behave – responding as opposed to reacting. To find the right way it is necessary to read your senior stakeholder’s feelings and style.

As you get a sense of the stakeholder’s openness to hearing what you have to say, you may choose to be completely candid or more diplomatic. You might even choose to say nothing, reconciling yourself to yet another forced march to a dismal end. Of course, avoiding confrontation by not pushing back is a last resort. It is only an option when you have tried over and over again to be rational, objective and candid only to be faced with command and threats like “Get it done or we’ll get someone else who can.”

Cut Through the Hierarchy by Treating the Superior as a Peer

As you become more comfortable with accepting any discomfort that comes with pushing back in the face of power you can begin to play with the idea of leveling the playing field from your side. In other words, treating your senior stakeholder as a peer.

This shift in your perception frees you from unnecessary self-imposed constraints. It does not mean that you should go in and slap him or her on the back or get overly familiar. It means recognizing that the senior stakeholder is just another one of us, who, like everyone else, has strengths, desires, needs, stresses, weakness, biases, mental models and preconceived beliefs that influence what they say and do.

Since you are treating them as peers, you can interpret their commands as questions. For example, “We need the full organizational change to be done by September 2018.” becomes “Do you think it is possible to have the full change done by September 2018?”

With that perspective, you can mindfully and objectively come up with the optimal way to communicate, convince and generally relate.

Attention and Access

In addition to hierarchy and its impact in obstructing effective relationships, the ability to get the time and attention required to build and sustain a healthy relationship gets in the way. You need to be able to state your position and manage the relationship. In our example, setting reasonable expectations requires that you explain the risk and realities that might keep you from delivering a satisfactory outcome. You might find that as you are explaining your position your senior stakeholder abruptly cuts you off to answer a call or text, impatiently dismisses you, or just zones out.

Senior stakeholders are busy. They have many things going on simultaneously and may feel that the issue they have with you is low on their priority list. Their time is limited, as is, in most cases, their interest in details. To manage a healthy relationship with senior stakeholders, you must make sure that your message is delivered succinctly (brief, to the point and clear). if you are trying to get across the message that there is uncertainty about your ability to deliver the desired results in the desired time frame, start with an engaging statement like “I’d love to be able to say that we can absolutely commit to delivering, but in good conscience I can’t.”

Let him ask “Why?” Then he’s hooked. To reel him in, you need to avoid long detailed explanations. Identify from one to five high-level reasons and state them as if they were bullet points in a presentation. Pause and ask whether he wants to go into further detail and carry on from there.

The point is to engage and give your stakeholder choices. Respect her time and need and interest in detail.

When you show someone that you care about them and their needs, are candid and can express yourself clearly and succinctly it is likely that they will be open to an effective professional relationship.