Managing stakeholders

6 minute read

In Module 3 we looked at Liz Whitaker’s more advanced and nuanced understanding of Mendelow’s Matrix, including the characters that you might encounter in your stakeholder set.

To refresh your memory, Liz Whitaker developed a more detailed version of Menelow’s power/ influence matrix, and defined certain characters’ you might find within the four quadrants.

In her book ‘The Power of Personal’ Liz goes into some detail on how to manage some of these characters. Below is a brief overview of how to handle some of these characters. She developed this approach predominantly with the focus of growing and developing a business, but many of her observations and tactics are equally as applicable to managing stakeholders within sustainability driven projects as well as brand level exercises.

‘Ambassadors’ are those individuals and organisations who are a fan of what you are doing, they will talk you up and recommend your work to others without you asking or even knowing about it. In the context of running projects with sustainability aims, they are invaluable as they play a significant role in preparing the territory ahead and winning hearts and minds for your project. In order to maintain healthy relationships and return the respect that these characters show you, giving them early access to information and keeping them informed of and involved with development is key so that they at no point feel that they are less important to you/ do not have your full attention.

Ambassadors can be both internal and external stakeholders – for example a senior board member is a powerful internal ambassador. A high profile friendly journalist who promotes your good work would be valuable external stakeholder, or a loyal client who’s values are aligned with your own and who would promote you to their peers (you potential clients).

Characters to convert1

This relates to people or organisations who fall within the Upgrader quadrant – those who have the potential to move over into the VIP zone but whose loyalty you need to foster.

The ’prize’ is person or organisation who, if they are converted into a loyal ‘VIP’ is likely to bring others along with them. Often these stakeholders need careful nurturing and evidence that they can trust you. It is worth making these targets a priority and investing time and resource in them.

Internally, these prizes might be senior and/ or well-respected colleagues who tend to set opinions and inspire others to following their wake. Externally they could be influential and well respected commentators, journalists or public figures.

A ‘trojan horse’ is an organisation where you know someone on the inside. Seeking to leverage a contact to help you win the trust and loyalty of their organisation is a delicate game as a certain amount of give and take is often required. A key sense check is to treat them as you would like to be treated yourself of someone approached you out of the blue asking for your help – be careful of appearing to use people.

As with prizes, the internal trojan horses are likely to be individuals embedded within teams who exert some substantial influence over their colleagues – perhaps someone who has been with the business a long time, or an expert in a certain field who’s opinion is sought and respected. Externally these stakeholders might be suppliers, clients or media.

An ‘assassin’ is a person or organisation who has a lot of royalty (influence) but is not loyal and supporting you/ your organisation/ the project you are undertaking. The influence of ‘ambassadors’ (people or organisations who have high influence (royalty) and high loyalty of your project or organisation) can be crucial to combat and neutralise the negative influence of potentially dangerous assassins who have the potential to turn others against you. This is a time to role out the most senior people within the organisation/ running the project to address the (perhaps only perceived) grievance that the assassin has with you/ what you are doing. Most assassins feel wronged and that they have not been listened to – they are therefore often open to reconciliation once they feel they have been respectfully and adequately listened to.

Internally, assassins might be senior players who feel threatened or looked over. In the context of sustainability projects these might be individuals or teams who are worried that a change in direction or policy may have a negative impact on their part of the business. Engagement with them to understand the source of their concerns and how to address, or reassure, them is therefore key. Externally, assassins may be disgruntled former employees, partners or clients who, rightly or wrongly, feel hard done by, or dangerously, that what you are trying or achieve is insincere or poorly motivated. Such characters have the potential to influence reputational damage so meeting them head on to work through their grievance, and if necessary, make actions to redress them is time well spent.

Characters to watch2

A ‘mirage’ is an organisation or person who looks like a ‘prize’ but who, no matter what you do, will never make the move to the VIP quadrant. Perhaps they have conflicting stakeholders of their own which mean they cannot lend you the support you are looking for. It’s important to keep them happy by sharing information and keeping them up to date, but not worth expending lots of time and energy on them.

These may be other business divisions with different priorities, or potential clients who’s fundamental loyalties lie elsewhere for legacy or more complicated reasons further up the hierarchy.

An ‘eager beaver’ is ‘much-admired and popular character who could repay your loyalty many times over in the right circumstances.’ These individuals or organisations are ambitious and likely to one day exert great influence but at the present moment are restrained for some reason. They are worth the investment to nurture.

Internally they may be junior, although they may not have a lot of decision making power as they are popular and respected they may exert influence over their direct peers and therefore play a role in wider grass roots support. Externally they may be up and coming journalists, or small, new firms who could become clients or partners.

‘Pirates’ are competitors. Unlike ‘assassins’ they are not out to wilfully harm you but they want your VIP clients and stakeholders, or your resources, for themselves, and they tend to be honest about it. Pirates can be a source of information, they are worth monitoring and learning from.

Internally they may be other teams or individuals with project proposals that are in competition with you – there may be limited resources or personnel and they would like to requisition a portion of what is allocated to your project for themselves. Externally they are likely to be rival businesses with a similar USP.

A more extensive breakdown of the different characters you may find within your stakeholder group and how to handle them can be found in Liz’s book The Power of Personal.

1Whitaker, L., 2019. The Power of Personal. Great Britain: Rethink Press, pp 157-189

2Whitaker, L., 2019. The Power of Personal. Great Britain: Rethink Press, pp 191 – 211