Forest for the the trees: how not to treat your stakeholders

Thursday, December 17, 2015 - 11:16

Guest post by AIM Senior Research Fellow Dr Samantha Johnson

Once upon a time there was an intelligent, attractive woman named Joan. 

Joan was very successful in her field; she was a budding engineer in one of the big four consulting firms. 

Joan’s technical skills saw her promoted quickly, not once, but twice.  In her new more senior position, she was sent on a prestigious management development program.

Joan found herself in a beautiful country lodge nestled in the hills of Southern NSW.  She had three days’ worth of very smart, casual clothing; expensive make-up; a good book (just in case the other attendees were boring) and a hidden bottle of a South Australian cabernet merlot (just in case they weren’t!).

Joan was in a good place.  She’d had nothing but positive feedback from her superiors and colleagues for almost three years and was confident in her abilities and her potential.  Not only was she a terrific engineer, but she was becoming a terrific manager too. Oh, isn’t success grand!

On the first day of the course, Joan presented at her best.  She looked great as she smiled and shook hands with the other successful young professionals.   Joan settled into the training room, opened up the folder in front of her and looked forward to the first session.  She prided herself on her openness to learning.

Joan led her course participants through several interesting discussions during the day.  They talked about the complexities of working in engineering consulting – she was learning those real fast!  They talked about emotional intelligence – she was good at that, she used her emotions to let people know where they stand and it always worked.  And they talked about their personalities. Joan was proud of hers, she was Dominant and Consciousness – direct and good with details – and that’s important for an engineer.

That night over dinner, Joan had an unfortunate run in with two other course attendees, who happened to be up and coming federal public sector professionals.  They disagreed on a consulting approach to government. Government was one of their biggest client groups, so Joan knew how to work with the government.  They discussed and they argued – just a little.  Joan was adamant.  They were wrong.  She dismissed them and their perspectives.  She was there to learn, not to make friends.  These young public servants weren’t going to influence her, she wasn’t likely to run into them again now, was she!

Day two was just as much fun as day one.  Joan got her 360 performance feedback and just as she expected, her ratings and the commentary on her performance, were exemplary.  Joan knew her friends at work wouldn’t let her down!  She’d do the same for them!

A few others on the program were not as happy as Joan.  They’d sought feedback from stakeholders, people they didn’t see daily or chat over lunch with.  They were encouraged to communicate differently, listen more, be open to stakeholders’ perspectives and achieve results that mattered to both their organisation and their stakeholders – and sometimes that was tricky.

Joan felt sorry for them, getting feedback like that.  But what could she do?  She was pretty happy with hers.  She had stakeholders too, but she wasn’t fussed about their opinion of her.

Oh dear.  Dinner wasn’t smooth sailing again.  This time her beef was with the waitress in the lodge’s restaurant.  Joan had an aversion to mushrooms and the meal she had ordered was riddled with them.  But they weren’t explicit in the menu description.  The waitress begged to differ.  Joan was appalled.  Anyone who calls mushrooms ‘fungus’ ought not to be in the food industry!  

Again, she brushed it off, she’d never come back to this little lodge anyway. And she needn’t worry, the course presenters were consoling the waitress and negotiating with the lodge manager.  They’d sort it out on her behalf, after all, they’re the ones who have to keep coming back, not her.

Day three.  Joan was happy again.  She floated into the training room and took her seat, beaming.  Today was going to be great, they had 3 senior executives coming in as a panel of guest speakers and a senior manager from a client’s organisation.  This was ‘real’ senior management stuff and she was excited.

The guest presentations were good.  At the end they invited questions.  Joan’s old mentor had told her that these were great opportunities to be noticed and stand out from the crowd, so she jumped in with the first question.  It was a doozy, too.  Joan enjoyed showing off her intelligence.

She stumped all four of them!  No one answered her question!  They just looked at each other, clearly gob-smacked.   She figured her question was simply too complex, perhaps they needed earlier preparation, and she would have been happy to do so.  Although she was reluctant to put a critical comment about the company CEO in writing; it was far safer to be verbal in the training room.  You know, because of Chatham House rules.  She dismissed their silence as stupidity or aloofness.  Either way, it didn’t matter, they didn’t know who she was.

Joan wrapped up her management development experience well.  She gave the presenters good feedback, but she did point out that there was room for improvement for them, too.  She was sure that some of their material was old – she’d read similar material during the last twelve months – and she thought they could have controlled conversation and stuck to time far better than they did.  She gave them both a 2 out of 5 – they were ok, more or less.  She was a little relieved that the feedback was anonymous, she’d be a bit embarrassed if they knew it came from her.  But then again, there are plenty of management educators around, she'd be unlucky to bump into these two again in her career.

Joan’s a fictional character.  But she’s a real profile.  Judgement, self-awareness, perspective and of course, stakeholder engagement, were not Joan’s strengths.  Where do you stand with these?

The other attendees built strong relationships and broad networks.  They paved the way for effective stakeholder relations.

The course presenters mended relations with the lodge staff and management. Luckily, they were long time stakeholders.

The course presenters smoothed over the embarrassment felt by the guest presenters and assured them that there were great benefits in their return to the next course; there couldn’t possibly be another Joan. 

And as for the ‘ok’ course presenters?  They knew they’d see Joan again. There aren’t that many management educators around, after all. 

Don’t be a Joan.  Stakeholders are everywhere, every day.  Look out for them, they’ll almost always know who you are.