Effective stakeholder engagement makes the consultancy world go round
Someone asked me recently what I enjoy about working as a consultant. Without needing to think about this for very long, my response was “stakeholder engagement and developing great client relationships”. For me, this is because I genuinely enjoy finding out what motivates others, how they fit in to the tapestry that is their organisation, what their take is on particular organisational dynamics and issues, and what approach will appeal to them.
While consultants often add most value when they develop client relationships that last over a number of years, stakeholder engagement is not just about long-term relationships. It’s also about getting the right stakeholders involved at the right time, even if this is in the context of a short-term, one-off piece of work or project. And of course, quality stakeholder engagement can develop a one-off piece of work into a long-term client relationship.
Over the years, I have come to realise that a consultant’s relationship with stakeholders must be mutually beneficial. A one-sided, ‘wanting to please’ attitude on the part of the consultant can lead to a reluctance to be honest with clients, particularly when this involves saying “no”, or “I don’t think that’s a good idea, for these reasons...”. Mutually beneficial implies that quality client relationships are about both parties getting something out of the relationship – beyond the transactional exchange of services for fees. On an individual level, this might involve positive interactions with people you have built rapport or share a professional interest with, or connecting with those you find intellectually stimulating and who you can gain expertise and knowledge from. At an organisational level, this might involve opportunities to work with other parts of the business, or make a difference on a larger scale.
So why is effective stakeholder engagement so important? At best, quality stakeholder engagement helps a consultant to identify their client’s real needs, expectations and hopes, and design and deliver a relevant and meaningful solution that adds real value. At worst, a lack of effective stakeholder engagement means your intervention is doomed to failure.
So how, then, do us consultants effectively navigate the potentially complex web of client relationships, which might need to be developed before and during a consultancy intervention, and maintained afterwards? There are a number of factors that influence success:
- Our access or entry point to the organisation – who, how, when and why?
For example, we may already have an excellent relationship with an individual who holds influence in another part of the organisation, but we also go on to consider how we might leverage this relationship to connect with additional relevant stakeholders.
- Who the decision makers are
We always establish right from the word go who will be making decisions at various stages of the project (and how the decision-making process works). We collaborate with our key stakeholder to develop relationships with those decision makers.
- The scope of the project
From a pragmatic point of view, it doesn’t make sense for a small piece of work to engage too widely, as this could slow things down and overcomplicate the process.
- The timeframes in which the work needs to be completed
Managing the tension between “we need this project delivered as soon as possible”, “we want to get this right” and “buy-in will be critical” is a common challenge. We invest the time in stakeholder engagement as early on as possible, so that this tension becomes more manageable.
- Who will actually be affected by/reap the benefits of the intervention
Not all stakeholders are decision-makers – we also need to consider those who will be affected by the intervention. The extent of this will depend on the nature and scope of the piece of work.
- Organisational values and culture
And last but not least, “the way we do things round here” has a huge impact. If the organisational culture is one that encourages wide participation and involvement, we’re likely to need to engage more widely.
Because of the key role that personality plays in how people go about their relationships with others, I’d like to end by bringing the focus back round to the individual. Great consultancy involves remembering to stop and reflect on your style and preferred ways of engaging with others. In OPP’s Consultancy team, we are constantly thinking about when and with whom our natural styles work, and taking steps to flex and adapt so as to appeal to the preferences of others. It’s this flexibility that we think helps us maintain the positive, productive relationships with our clients – and it’s why we love our jobs!