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27 expert tips on engaging stakeholders in emerging markets

Last week we held a training workshop on engaging stakeholders in emerging markets.

Below are the tips the dozen or so experts who assembled for the two day meeting came up with at the end. They are in no particular order.

I hope they are useful. Some are of course blindingly obvious.

1. Training helps! Everyone believes they are an excellent communicator, most people are not! Take training. Make training available. Everyone in your company is a communicator, but make sure communications are kept memorable and simple, and trust your people to do the right thing.

2. There are no secrets. Resist the urge to compartmentalize information. Treat all communications as if they were going to be posted on the internet for all to see (because, that may just happen). Act authentically but remember everything can and often will, end up on the record.

3. Perception rules! Remember there is no such thing as reality: There are only perceptions. This is why brand power works, because they are made of perceptions based on your view of the world.

4. Interest alignment. Constantly search for alignment between company/project interests and stakeholder interests. Be creative – sometimes real opportunities lie outside the box. Interest intersections, where your interests and stakeholder interests align are valuable gems. Think inside and outside the box to find them.

5. Partnerships are good. Developing partnerships with on the ground NGOs are vital. So are partnerships with governments, development agencies and others with shared objectives. Look for shared interests and objectives and build on them.

6. Help stakeholders understand why and what. Show communities what is happening with their data, or risk negative speculation about your intentions. Think of ways their data may be used to support their interests and objectives.

7. Officiousness kills. It will destroy trust and relationships. Resist the urge to hide behind policy and procedure. Work with relationships, not policy.

8. Understand your risks. Risk assessments for stakeholder management are very important. A sustainability issues matrix can help to understand, prepare and manage risks. Make the matrix fit the realities of your project and your stakeholders. One size DOESN’T fit all.

9. Stakeholders are human too. Sometimes they will lie. So will your bosses and your reports and your colleagues, and probably you too. That’s life. Get used to it.

10. Own your shortcomings. Your mistakes and shortcomings don’t go away if you don’t acknowledge them. Own them, learn from them and move on. Nobody expects perfection. Honestly owning a mistake or shortcoming and moving on can build trust and strengthen relationships.

11. Realistic timeframes and budgets for stakeholder engagement are vital – and make sure your CFO understands and approves a realistic budget. Help them to understand the cost of your failure.

12. Early is better. Stakeholders don’t expect perfection so don’t wait for everything to be perfect before you start stakeholder engagement. Engage early, engage often and build trust.

13. You are motivated by shareholder value. Own it. Don’t ever try to hide behind do-gooderism at the corporate or individual level. Your company is not a charity. Nobody will believe you if you try to present it as one.

14. Share credit – it will multiply. Credit shared is goodwill created. Acknowledge, recognize, praise and promote partners and collaborators (government, NGOs, communities, organizations, etc). Do it every chance you can. You gain much and lose nothing.

15. Press conference = you lose. If you are in a stakeholder engagement press conference you’ve already lost! A press conference is not engagement: Any kind of confrontation means you have lost and need to rebuild.

16. Smile. Let your humility and humanity show. Relax and enjoy meeting people and learning and being human: Early tension in meetings can be quickly relieved by smiling and being relaxed.

17. Do the right thing! Use the phrase: “Let’s get caught doing the right thing!” to build simple internal buy in.

18. Understand before understood. Communication is critical. Listening is key. Seek to understand before you try to be understood. Think about how you say things: Use soft language, not hard, emotion generating terms.

19. Everyone is the face of the company. They should be trained in stakeholder engagement. Right person to right position: If you delegate, train and build capacity. Make sure your people know how do it right, never assume. This means your bosses, your reports and others across the company.

20. Own your stakeholder relationships. Use third parties as necessary (they can be very helpful) but don’t contract out stakeholder engagement or difficult communications – your company must be the face stakeholder see and learn to trust.

21. Expectations change (but seldom reduce). Stakeholder expectations will shift and change. But, guess what, corporate, government and other expectations shift and change too. That’s life. Accept it and prepare for it. Engage, monitor, scan and adjust as required.

22. Learn from success and failure. There are lessons in success and failure. Analyze them both. Learn why you succeeded or failed and adjust.

23. Simplicity is good. Complexity will cost you. Simple guidelines beat complex prescriptive procedures every day of the week. Be realistic. If your stakeholder engagement plan, process, procedure is too complex who is going to follow it. Don’t turn stakeholder engagement into box ticking! Train and trust your people. Give them room to be creative and responsive but let them know where the boundaries are.

24. Interest intersections are critical. Mapping stakeholders and interest mapping is vital, and must be reviewed often. Find and develop the interest intersections where win, win, win can be found.

25. All is not the same. The importance of taking note of culture cannot be underestimated. Things change from country to country and project to project. Rigidity will often crack and break. Allow room for adaptation to culture and use it when necessary.

26. Stay in touch. Ongoing communications even when there is no obvious demand – Be open and transparent, it builds trust. Think about being counter intuitive with regular communications about the good and bad. Get the balance right. Communicate frequently enough that you are not forgotten but not so frequently that you are ignored. Don’t always wait for a big win, or failure.

27. Don’t be left at the starting line. Compliance is the price of entry. Go beyond. Don’t rely on compliance, or believe that claims of legality offer you any protection. If you have to use them you’ve already lost.

Leading companies in the field of business and human rights will be meeting on November 10th in London to debate the above, and much more. Join BP, Anglo American, De Beers, Ericsson, John Lewis, RBS, Amnesty, Oxfam and many many more by taking a look here and signing up for the event.