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A Framework for Initial Stakeholder Engagement

Initial engagement with stakeholders is important because setting up these connections well, gives you a greater chance of a successful outcome for your change initiative. Remember, you may need to cast your net deep, wide and high.

Imagine a situation where you are responsible for implementing a change that impacts your entire organisation and could be of huge benefit over time to many people including the CEO, the executive, employees and clients/consumers. But to implement it requires a huge multilayered response that is costly and will be disruptive. The change process will impact at both at a high level and at the multiple levels in the organisation at which work must be done to create the change. Many people from the top down and across the organisation would prefer to maintain the status quo. Maintaining the status quo will result in short term stability (no change required) and won’t cost anything in the short term, but it could result in harm to the organisation, employees, staff and potentially clients further down the track. Imagine that unsuccessful implementation of the change could end up costing a lot, in both human and monetary terms.

If there is one thing that is certain at work, change is a constant. And we know that anyone who will be impacted by the change in any way is a stakeholder. From a leadership perspective when we need to implement change we know how important it is to effectively engage with stakeholder groups and individual stakeholders. There would be many stakeholders involved in the example above: potentially clients, clients’ families, employees and their families, sponsors, managers, directors, CEO, other organisations and possibly shareholders. So how can we make sure we do that effectively?

First of all we need to identify exactly what kinds of stakeholders are connected with the change. We need to consider:

  • What their potential level of impact on the change is
  • How they might be impacted by it
  • How the proposed change might make them feel
  • What their default response might be
  • How much information will they want and need
  • What exactly you require of them
  • How you can help them to think differently.

From the example above it is clear that there could be a large number of stakeholders involved across the organisation and outside of it and each group could have different perspectives and a different level of influence.

What this means is, that engaging stakeholders is not one size fits all. For that reason, it is important to firstly identify the type of stakeholders you have and how they are impacted or can impact the change. These fall broadly into the following groups. There are those who:

  • Are sponsoring the change so have a vested interest in its success. They can also impact its success and will evaluate its success as well. You may be accountable to them and they also report to someone.
  • Will be implementing the change and can influence the success of the change. You may be collaborating with them on how the implementation will occur.
  • Are directly impacted by the change and can also influence the success of the change from this perspective. You may also need to collaborate with this group and seek their support.
  • You need to seek support or assistance from in some way, although they may not be directly influenced by the change and may not be very interested in it initially. Their involvement is likely to require them to make a change too. They may not be a part of your organisation.
  • Are directly impacted by the change but have no influence over it.
  • Are interested in the change but not directly affected by it.

So how do we effectively engage with such potentially diverse groups of stakeholders? The following principles will assist you to frame your communication with the individuals within each of these groups in a way that is meaningful for them and results in a good outcome for you. It will also assist you to work out the level of engagement required.

  1. If you think back to the example above, each group of stakeholders and the individuals within them will want and require very different kinds and levels of communication. Some will require information only, others instructions. From some you will be seeking collaboration and from others to gain information and knowledge. What is important to one group may not be the same as another and if we don’t talk to people from the perspective of what is important to them, they can’t hear us. You will need to make sure your communication with each group begins from the perspective of what is important to them as well as what is important to you in relation to the change. This includes the amount and type of information giving and gathering that you do.
  2. All change is associated with loss. Even if the gain is greater there is always something lost when change occurs. You will need to work out and acknowledge what your stakeholders will be losing and also help them to see and understand what they will be gaining instead.
  3. Be clear in your own mind what you need from each of these stakeholders and what they might need or want from you – both individuals and groups, and by when. And then make sure you are clear on the outcomes you are seeking from your communication with each group or individual before you enter into every conversation.

Once you know what you need from your stakeholders, what is important to them and what they need from you, you can now work out how to help them support the change from their perspective.

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