Don’t Manage your Stakeholders from your Ego
Updated: Feb 26
Consider your stakeholders as valuable resources rather than obstacles you need to overcome.
Let's Start with a Story
A colleague product manager told me a story. She was launching a big change to a product that she was working on for several months, and when she talked with the product marketing manager he had a lot of concerns and demanded that she delayed the launch. He was not the only stakeholder that she felt was a challenge she had to overcome, but he was the one that caused the biggest delay and frustration.
When we started to try and get to the root cause, she asked herself what she could do differently. She concluded that she should have involved him much earlier. Her reasoning was that involving him earlier would have prevented him holding her back.
That was a good insight, but not deep enough. She was still looking only from her perception point and not from his. She was still not asking herself enough questions about the interaction. Questions such as:
What does he care about?
How could I involve him early to get his inputs and improve the product and the launch?
How can I motivate him to care about this launch and feel like a team member?
What may he need from me?
It was a one-sided relationship that was driven by ego and ownership rather than by outcome and empathy. You can find similar reasoning to hers in Addressing executive swoop-ins, Stakeholder Management, and The Art of Managing Stakeholders Through Product Discovery.
Who is the Owner and Who is the Approver?
Usually our ownership and our responsibility are very clear to us. It may be less clear who needs to approve our decisions. Many times, we may feel that there are many stakeholders from which we need consent. If this is your case, you may rightfully feel that you are not trusted enough and that your stakeholders hold you back and slow you down.
In an ideal world and an ideal organization, the only approver for what you own is you. You should not need an approval from anyone else. You should be holding all the cards because you are the one that knows best and is familiar with all the details.
But even if this the case, do not let your ego lead you. Regardless if you are really the approver or not, your various stakeholders and your team hold priceless knowledge and information that you might not have and that you should cleverly employ to get the best outcome for your product.
One way for a product organization to help you easily make the right decisions and be your own approver is to define product principles. Product principles are derived from the company/product vision and mission and enable autonomy and alignment for better decision-making day to day.
Product principles describe the nature of the products we create and how we build things (not what we build), and reflect our beliefs, values, and the overall vision of our product. They are a usually a set of rules that define what we are optimizing for and what we care about more (i.e., what is important). For more about product principles, see Framing Product Decisions and Product Principles = Better Products.
Change the Equation
Since your stakeholders and team can give you priceless input, never approach them because you need their approval, even if in reality that is what you need. Many times, making a solution sellable and likeable internally is harder than making it valuable externally to customers. If you approach your stakeholders for the right reasons and with the right attitude, the approval will come by itself, unnoticed and without a struggle.
When you involve them as early as possible and as equal team members you get both their input early on as well as remove their possible objections. You make them your allies. They become invested. They see the process you are doing and they start trusting you, because they know you made the maximum effort to get all inputs and get the best product out there. They understand that you are acting from data and not from ego.
Who are your Stakeholders
As a product manager you have many stakeholders: sales, support, marketing, business development, engineering, finance, compliance, legal, your product team and your VP product and sometimes in small companies even the CEO. Treat all stakeholders equally by their relevancy and ability to provide input, not by rank.
Remember that your stakeholders are not your customers. Don’t ask whether their input is right or wrong or whether they are more or less senior than you. It shouldn’t matter. Ask yourself only whether their input and what they suggest improves or not the solution you already have in hand within your timeline constraints.
Improve your Communication
Try to maximize any interaction with your stakeholders. Communicate with them as frequently as there is new relevant information that they may be interested in or can give input on, but not too much, so they don’t feel that you are overloading them.
Before each planned meeting with one of your stakeholders, ask yourself a few questions:
What do I want to get out of the meeting?
What do I think they want to get out of the meeting?
What do I think is the best approach to make us both satisfied from the meeting’s outcome?
After every interaction, whether planned or unplanned, ask yourself the following questions to improve:
Did I get what I wanted from the interaction? Why?
Do I think they got what they wanted from the interaction? Why?
Am I satisfied with how I approached and handled the interaction?
How could I do it better if I could repeat it?
You should be the one managing your stakeholders (managers and peers) and not the other way around. Treat them respectfully and with empathy. If needed, tailor the way, type, and frequency of communication to each stakeholder. Remember that they are there to help you achieve your outcome. Remember that they also have their objectives and needs (e.g., making sure you comply with regulations).
As long as you are able to look at things from their point of view and approach them for the value they can give you or you can give them and not because of a formal approval process or because you are concerned of their reaction, you will probably make it right and succeed..