Business leaders agree that the job of navigating stakeholders is becoming more complex and time consuming. In a world of 24-7 news and social media-empowered interest groups, it can feel like chasing a constantly changing story. Add in a transformation programme or a crisis and the challenge intensifies.

Managing a diverse array of stakeholders is central to the role of today’s business leaders. Tania Cabrera, Relationship Manager for Non-executive Directors at Criticaleye, says: “You need a clear understanding of who your core stakeholders are including their wants and needs. Having a plan in place to manage each group is good practice as it makes sure you adequately consider all of them.

“You also need to be flexible, because as you progress through a business transformation or tackle an unexpected crisis the needs and influence of different stakeholders will shift. You should have a strategy in place upfront but be ready and equipped to adapt when things change.”

We spoke to members of the Criticaleye Community to find out how they are navigating this ever-changing business landscape.

Managing social media and its flattening of hierarchies

Fiona Ross, Chair, Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ)

Using social media, people can now communicate directly with a company, its employees, customers and the wider media and this has completely transformed stakeholder engagement for all of us. One voice is now as loud as a thousand voices.

There has been a democratisation of stakeholders and a flattening of hierarchies: in the public sector, my number one stakeholder would always have been my Minister, but now a random 22-year-old could put something up on Twitter that might have just as big an impact.

‘Managing’ isn’t even the right word anymore as it indicates some kind of control. You can do your best in the sense of ensuring the right communication, meeting with stakeholders, holding focus groups, issuing customer surveys and so on. All of this will have some value, but it can be quickly derailed by a media storm, which can originate anywhere.

In terms of stakeholder messaging during change, you need a North Star – unless people understand the destination then they won’t go on the journey. In the old days you’d sit around the Board table and come up with your own North Star and then you’d set sail. Today you need to test it in advance – then you can say you’ve reviewed it with ten different stakeholder groups and it looks like it’s generally heading in the right direction.

Then you have to hold tight while you are buffeted by criticism, naysayers and what can be a very active social media campaign against the change – both internally and externally. That can be very hard to do.

Sticking to the direction of your moral compass

Ross Wilkie, SVP Communications & Government Affairs, Pharma & Worldwide Markets, GlaxoSmithKline

When managing stakeholders within healthcare, there’s a balance to be struck between ensuring a sustainable, growing, profitable company and society’s expectation and right to lead a healthy life with access to the latest medicines.

Coronavirus is a very big stakeholder piece at the moment, both in terms of how we respond to it as a business, but also as a healthcare company trying to find a solution for it.

You’ve got to work out how to engage with stakeholders, such as our employees and the Chinese Government, from an operational perspective. That would include the impact on our ability to supply medicines made in China; to run clinical trials there; to operate efficiently when you can’t get employees in or out;  and how we look after the wellbeing of our 6,000 employees there.

On the flipside of that you’ve got other groups such as NGOs. For example, the World Health Organization asking us: ‘What can you do to help us tackle Coronavirus? What medicines do you have approved? Is there anything in your pipeline we can accelerate?’

You are being pulled in two ways: making sure your business still runs effectively and safely while being asked to invest time, money and expertise to try and help the global health problem. That’s a very tough place to find yourself in.

It’s about being super clear with your stakeholders about what your moral compass is. We are in the privileged and challenged position of being one of the companies that can help combat this outbreak, so it is morally and ethically right to do what we can to combat it. That has to drive our decision-making. That’s the value set we have within this company and it is also our license to operate.

Broadening your view of stakeholders

Bridget Rosewell, Chair, DVSA and SID, Network Rail

When I arrived on the Board of Network Rail nine years ago, the train operating companies were very clear that they were the customers and that it was their role to deal with passengers. Since then, there’s been a dramatic shift in how we think about that, which has crystallised with the arrival of the new Chief Exec and our mantra of ‘putting passengers first’.

There was a period when the business thought about itself as operating to deliver whatever the regulator wanted; then a length of time when it felt it was a project delivery business; but now we think about it much more end-to-end.

We needed much more engagement with other stakeholders, whether that was regulators, government or indeed passengers, and so there has been a greater focus on communications. When I joined the Board, it was more about communication with suppliers and the train operating companies, now it’s much broader, including with staff who are working on the frontline.

There needs to be an understanding of what passengers want. Recently we’ve held workshop sessions involving Board members, senior leadership and people from all levels, to make sure knowledge is spread across the organisation. Stakeholders taking part in these discussions have included people from customer groups, operating companies, government, a transport focus organisation, unions – everyone we could think of.

Today, there is a wider variety of stakeholders expressing interest and they are becoming more vociferous. For example, there is good pressure around diversity and minority groups who were much less visible 5-10 years ago. That’s a positive thing – diversity of stakeholders may make your life more difficult but it’s important that they are there.

Identifying and engaging with subcultures

Rachael Brassey, Global Head of Change, PA Consulting

Stakeholder management is difficult because it involves dealing with different people with various expectations and information needs, all at the same time.

When you consider that today transformation tends to be less once-in-a-generation and more of a constant evolution, then clearly managing that landscape of people with different degrees of buy-in and different levels of knowledge about what’s happening is becoming ever more demanding.

Organisations are finding it almost impossible to take a step back and understand the needs and wants of all the stakeholders they are trying to manage through a change.

One pitfall is not ensuring that stakeholders understand the ‘why’ behind the change and what that means for them. You can spend a lot of time on analysis, but you need to break your stakeholders down to the right level of granularity so that the message is meaningful for people. There is a judgement call to make about the degree to which you break it down and bespoke the message versus the speed of getting it out there.

Another mistake is not understanding the culture of stakeholders and their willingness to change. There are often strong subcultures in an organisation, for example those working in technology or those in policy. You need to work out how to engage in a meaningful and authentic way with those people – understanding whether the change might challenge their subculture or even whether you can use that culture to make the message land more successfully.

It’s about making sure you spend enough time understanding the stakeholder landscape in detail and that you are mapping the levels of influence, power and culture. You can easily fail to spend enough time identifying the key decision-makers early on.

Emma Carroll, Senior Editor, Criticaleye

Next Week’s Community Update will offer insight from Day One of Criticaleye’s HRD Retreat 2020.