Do you ever find yourself wanting to know what’s really going on with your stakeholders? You’ve sent them e-mails and surveys, even made phone calls, and you still don’t feel you have your finger on the pulse of what your stakeholders really want and struggle with. Sometimes information is best sought the old-fashioned way: through an actual face-to-face, honest-to-goodness visit so you can see for yourself. Below are three observations on engaging your stakeholders:
1. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a visit is worth a thousand phone calls.
Don’t view the visit as a burden but as an opportunity to get to know your stakeholders on a more personal level and make your program that much more effective. While you may talk to your stakeholders regularly—once a week, once a month, or quarterly—you aren’t getting the full picture until you meet them where they are, on their own terms.
This could be for a number of reasons. Maybe it’s just human nature to feel more comfortable on one’s home turf. Or maybe seeing your stakeholders in the context of their environment—political, geographic, or personal—helps you to understand them more completely.
2. People just want to be heard.
On the popular 1990s sitcom Frasier, the title character, a psychiatrist-turned-radio talk show host, would open each of his segments with the phrase, “I’m listening.” Program managers should take a cue from Frasier and avoid falling into the habit of thinking that they know what their stakeholders need more than the stakeholders themselves. No one likes to be talked at, so be sure to give your stakeholders a chance to be heard, even if they’re telling you things you already know or aren’t immediately relevant to your domain.
For instance, even though you may already know about the damage that hurricanes, strong winds and tsunamis can do to the tropical parts of the U.S., allow your stakeholders to detail what these challenges mean, to build trust and provide you with insights that you probably would not have gleaned on your own.
A visit, whether formal or informal, is a perfect opportunity to actively listen to your stakeholders. You may still come with a robust set of questions you need answered, but don’t forget to build in time to let your stakeholders lead a discussion on what they believe their biggest challenges to be, how they hope to address these challenges, and any limitations on proposed remedies. This will allow them to expound on any political struggles they are facing.
3. Once you meet your stakeholders where they are, you start to see them more as partners.
Once you meet someone face-to-face, it’s a lot easier to remember his or her name, right? The same concept applies to your relationship with your stakeholders. If your position requires you to frequently interact with stakeholders—whether they are working group participants, grant recipients, engineers and scientists, or executive-level decision-makers—use this time to really get to know them. Casual conversations over coffee or lunch can tell you so much more about your stakeholders’ points of pride, fears, and goals than an hour in a stale conference room. You will deepen your own investment and interest in what your stakeholders are doing. By getting to know your stakeholders both in the context of your program and as people, you will cement your partnership with them.
I have been fortunate to participate in grant program site visits from one end of the United States to the other. On the long transcontinental flight home, I found myself thinking about these three trends as they apply to grants monitoring. Formal site visits allow grant administrators to learn more about the context in which recipients are working, providing a more nuanced understanding of their successes and challenges. They also provide an ideal forum for allowing recipients to discuss their implementation of the program in their own words, which in turn increases their trust in you as the administrator. Finally, physically spending time with recipients often strengthens administrators’ communication with their recipients so that they are more than a voice on a phone call.
What methods have you used to engage your stakeholders in a more meaningful way?
Arleta Cobb is an associate consultant at Corner Alliance.