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If your stakeholders are too ‘safe’, what then?

Not all stakeholders are as useful as they used to be

The sustainable business world is full of stakeholders who can be a little too ‘safe’ for companies.

What do I mean by this?

Let me put it simply, lest I confuse myself.

There are NGOs, non-profits, institutes, associations, membership groups, some academics, some think-tanks (self styled) which although sounding edgy in name, are not really.

At least not as edgy as they could be. Some depend too much on corporate funding for that.

Others are simply not made up of edgy people. Rather career incrementalists, or ‘non-profit’ consultants with made up jargon that re-invents the wheel, badly.

This is becoming a problem, in my uninformed opinion.


Because now we have lots of leaders, not just Patagonia and Interface. (Thank god)

And they can get too comfortable if they are not kept on their toes.

Right now they keep themselves on their toes, with some challenging targets, many brought forward from 2020 (and rightfully so)

But ‘stakeholders’ need to play their roles too. And many feel to me like they have been co-opted a bit.

I’m not suggesting partnerships and collaborations are not not needed. They are. But if they are not game-changing (as some are, but many are not) do they do the good that a bit of added edge might instead?

The other day I was speaking to a senior manager at a major brand. He told me how a report in which his company compared poorly compared with some others on very specific issues, (not a general ranking, which I am not a supporter of) whilst getting some credit, had catalysed real progress in the business. Progress he was hoping to turn into opportunity via innovation.

That gives food for thought. If other stakeholders were a little less tame, and combined their praise with challenge more, how many more examples like this might we see?

Find me an edgier stakeholder

From the company point of view, what do you do, if all these stakeholders who you used to find challenging, are not so useful any more?

You can’t give too much ammunition to genuine campaigners without risking legal breaches, your company reputation and your job or career.

So what then?

I’d say use your brand power (sickly term but you know what I mean) to convene stakeholders. But broaden the pool a bit. Go beyond just the same old NGO and non-profit names and work a bit harder in who you invite to meetings.

Instead of ‘briefings’, events and press conferences with nice but tame stakeholder panels, set up some debates, get some people in you know disagree with you, set the rules of discussion and disclosure, and give it a try.

Bring in some senior execs from across the business and see how they react to being challenged a bit more. Not by those who oppose the existence of your company, but by those will genuinely difficult questions.

Here’s a few practical examples of stakeholders who may be a bit more useful in offering challenge than the same old names in public or semi-public (Chatham house rule) meetings:

If you are a retailer, how about these as some stakeholders who could comment in public/semi-public fora:

  • Farmers from your country of origin 
  • Small suppliers from your country of origin
  • SME business associations 
  • An emerging market supplier who is trying to become more sustainable 

If you are in FMCG:

  • Smallholder farmers, in one commodity or another
  • “On the ground” development NGOs who are not necessarily campaigners but can offer detailed challenge
  • Local micro-finance institutions
  • Local governance experts, for example those who look at the conditions for more sustainable growth and what holds that back in a specific country or region. 

If you are in say, heavy industry or extractives 

  • NGOs or others engaged in institutional reform research, be that in water or governance or anti-corruption
  • Community group leaders representative of groups surrounding sites where you operate
  • Local governance experts, as above
  • Political risk experts, who may give you insight on the limits as much as possibilities of your influence 

Yes the above may be a little risky.

And yes, I know some companies do some of this already. But a lot stick with safer stakeholders.

Doing something like the above is also less risky than having less refined risk/solutions radar than you might have done, because you invited too many tame stakeholders to too many formulaic meetings that have a diminishing return on improving your company’s business planning, targets and strategy.

Stakeholders like this are also not easy to find.

As integrating sustainable business strategies/policies/targets becomes more technocratic, more granular and more technical, finding challenge between the lines becomes harder.

But it’s surely possible to do better than many ‘leaders’ do today. Many of the public/semi public stakeholder debates that I see, are at risk of becoming dull, and predictable. Or already are.

Stakeholder views which lack challenge can lead you down the path to dangerous complacency. So if you are in the ‘leadership’ pack of companies, surely considering a bit more ‘edge’ in your engagement and conversations/discussions is worth a shot.

(There’s a whole other post in here somewhere about how now we ought to start redefining leadership and what it means, given too many leaders means not enough pressure on followers, but that’s for another time) 

We’re hosting a two day training seminar on how to engage difficult stakeholders in emerging markets on October 30 and 31 in London. Take a look here for more details and join us.