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Insights 2 Nov 2010

Stakeholder Engagement – Designing Effective Conversations

By Jeff Erikson

I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to facilitate two meetings on consecutive days between a client and its important stakeholders. The purpose of the first meeting was to explore a wide range of sustainability issues, and identify where the company should concentrate its resources. The second meeting was focused on specific short and long-term responses to a crisis the company had recently experienced.

Coming out of the two meetings, I was struck by how valuable it can still be for companies to convene a group of bright people who have a different perspective on the business than they do. A decade after “stakeholder engagement” came into vogue, it remains a high-value activity – if done well.

With that in mind I offer the following tips on how to ensure your stakeholder meetings achieve your objectives:

  • Define the purpose and objectives of the meeting – If you are not sure why you are meeting, chances are your stakeholders won’t know either. Be sure you are clear about what you expect to achieve (and what you don’t) by the end of the meeting.
  • Get the right people in the room – Who are the people that have the appropriate knowledge, perspective and stature related to the topics to be discussed? The company representatives should have the responsibility and authority to take action on the ideas presented by the stakeholders. And the stakeholders as a group should contain diverse perspectives, opinions and knowledge, and be willing to constructively challenge the company’s positions or strategy.
  • Clearly articulate terms of reference – We always develop a written Terms of Reference so that expectations are clear to all participants. The Terms of Reference includes the meeting purpose and objectives, roles of participants, topics to be discussed (and sometimes those which will not be), confidentiality requirements, and meeting logistics.
  • Understand the issues – It is important for the meeting facilitator to understand what issues and challenges may come up during the meeting, so that he/she can ensure they are addressed appropriately. One can supplement the individual knowledge of the facilitator by conducting pre-meeting interviews with the participants to probe their views and ensure all critical issues are covered.
  • Be clear on roles and expectations – All participants in the meeting should know well in advance what is expected of them. If the meeting is primarily to understand external perspectives, company participants should be coached on the need to mostly listen, and to engage in a way that furthers the discussion
  • Design the meeting with intent – Effective stakeholder meetings don’t just happen; they are designed. How much time should be spent by the company describing their business and its challenges? When is breaking into small groups more effective than remaining in large ones? What is the best sequence for discussing the various issues? The way these questions are answered will have a significant impact on how effective the meeting is.
  • Get the stakeholders the basics – Prior to the meeting, stakeholders should be provided with some basic information about the company and its sustainability challenges, programs, performance and strategy. Much of this can be in the form of the company’s sustainability report and other basic company-provided information. But news clippings – including some which may be less than flattering – are another way to tee up a great conversation.
  • Set the right tone – All of the above contributes to setting the right tone for the meeting prior to the participants’ arrival on site. At the beginning of the meeting, it is essential to put everyone around the table in the right frame of mind. One of the tools I use is a set of simple meeting guidelines which articulate what we all expect of each other throughout the day.
  • Be both disciplined and flexible – Have a plan which includes timings for each segment of the meeting. Approach the meeting with the intent to adhere to the timings. But if the conversation is getting really juicy, don’t be afraid to let it run long. And alternatively, if the conversation is dragging, move on to the next segment if that will be more productive.
  • Be prepared – Know what the points of contention are. Be sure you have a response if the discussion goes awry. Expect the unexpected.

When done well, stakeholder forums can be a valuable opportunity to exchange perspectives, gather valuable insights and strengthen important relationships. Investing time and effort in their planning and execution will ensure effective conversations.

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