Now that you know who’s who, how does one go about engaging different stakeholder groups? Some may be more important than others. Each will have their individual needs and agendas. In this piece, we’ll explore how to prepare for an engagement, the unique nature of some stakeholders, and what to do with all the information gathered during the process.
First Things First: Have the End Goal in Mind
Before you begin any type of stakeholder engagement, it’s important to be explicit about your goals. Are you trying to build a new sustainability program or strategy? Do you want to pitch an updated message to consumers? Is the firm downsizing with you having to figure out who to keep and who to let go? Each scenario will change who you engage with and how.
To add a bit of perspective when goal setting, doing a brief competitive analysis is often helpful. How do you stack up against your peers? Are you planning something innovative or just a regurgitation of what already exists? Look for the niche areas and capitalize on them.
Whatever the goal, it must be shared among those within your immediate team. Whoever is going to be reaching out to stakeholders must all be on the same page. If not, one risks in-fighting and confusion as the process proceeds.
Remember, too, that you are an external, unbiased observer. To get the richest results possible means keeping your opinions to yourself. Keep in mind the stakeholder should be doing most of the talking.
But, Who Do We Engage?
With a shared vision, your team will now need to figure out who to engage. In a perfect world, one would be able to interview a perfect, statistically relevant collection of respondents. In reality, this is rarely the case. Having a good mix of stakeholders is typically the best remedy.
With that said, not all stakeholders are created equal. There are some that should appear in any engagement project while others will depend on the project itself.
Internal business leaders are always part of an engagement. The higher up they are, the better the insights will likely be. Seasoned executives with a holistic knowledge of the business, including future growth strategies and targets, are your ideal candidates. Having a mix of different department and regional heads adds to rich results. In engaging leaders, you are inviting them to be active participants contributing to your team’s goal. That way, when push comes to shove they are more likely to help than hinder what you have in mind.
Opinions from supplier partners or customers are also a critical element. With supplier partners it’s important they know their responses are confidential and will not lead to any negative consequences. For customers, you should avoid any type of remuneration or gifting unless absolutely necessary. Engagements are built on open and honest discussion. Fear of retaliation or swaying opinions with freebies won’t generate the responses you need.
It’s nice to have insight from an industry association or consumer organization. These groups usually have a broad sense of current trends. They can also help support your initiatives through their networks.
Other groups may be critical depending on the industry or intended goal of the engagement.
Industries like extractives, heavy manufacturing, and healthcare will want to include government officials in their engagements.
If your business contributes greatly to the local community, either through job creation or taxes, you’ll want to interview government, civil society, and community stakeholders.
For those looking at reputation management, civil society stakeholders are an important part of the dialogue.
Once you’ve figured out your end game, and determined which stakeholders to engage, it’s time to start talking to them. Some organizations prefer one-on-one interviews while others like focus groups. Studies can include 10 stakeholders or 300. The process and scope are entirely up to you.
Armed with all your new insights, and hopefully a few throat lozenges from all that talking, you’ll want to find a way to quantify the information. In the sustainability world, this often results in a materiality matrix. The materiality matrix is an easy-to-understand grid that prioritizes all stakeholder insights. From here, organizations can adjust their original hypotheses and goals. Oftentimes they use the matrix to justify modified spending or strategic direction.
Engaging stakeholders is a time- and resource-intensive process, but not one to be scared of. In fact, there is more to fear from ignoring stakeholders than not. A thorough engagement process, when properly executed, will yield rich results that can help differentiate and position sustainability programs for success.
Fulcrum’s Exploration series discusses critical issues facing today’s sustainability professionals. The goal of the series is to educate, inform, and generate discussion. If you liked some of these ideas, Fulcrum has plenty more. Set up a complimentary strategy session to dive deep into issues specific to your organization.