Insight & Analysis

28 Expert tips for engaging stakeholders in emerging markets

By Wayne Dunn

Wayne Dunn

Wayne Dunn is an award-winning global CSR expert with extensive teaching, writing, lecturing and Advisory Service experience. He is supported by an extensive faculty and advisory team.

Compiled from contributions made by faculty and participants at an Executive program on How to effectively engage stakeholders in emerging markets.  Edited by Wayne Dunn
None of us is as smart as all of us
That was pretty clear this week in London as I spent a couple of days with a brilliant group of participants in a Stakeholder engagement program that Toby Webb (Innovation Forum) and I ran.  
We had a fantastic faculty for sure, but the experience and diversity of the participants brought as much to the overall experience as Toby, myself or the rest of the faculty.
The program, which focused on Successful stakeholder engagement in frontier markets included
      20 hours of lectures, cases, group time
      6 speakers/faculty with well over 125 years combined experience in frontier markets and combined experience in over 75 countries
      7 case studies / scenarios
At the conclusion of the program the combined expertise of the faculty and participants identified 28 tips for engaging stakeholders in emerging markets. 
Some are glaringly obvious.  They are presented below in random order.
1.       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.
2.       Communication Training helps!  Everyone believes they are an excellent communicator.  Most of us are not!  Take training.  Make training available.  Try to make it mandatory.  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
3.       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 
4.       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.  Recognize the importance of perception in stakeholder engagement.  Prepare for it and work with it.  Perception is reality!
5.       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.  Gems can be hiding in unexpected places.
6.       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.  They can help you to go further and be stronger when you get there.
7.       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.
8.       Officiousness kills.  It will destroy trust and relationships.  Resist the urge to hide behind policy and procedure.  Work with relationships, not policy.  Make sure your team is fully onboard with this.
9.       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 DOES NOT fit all.
10.   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.  Work with it.
11.   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. Don’t be afraid to be human and fallible.  Honestly owning a mistake or shortcoming and moving on can build trust and strengthen relationships.  Trying to hide them can do the opposite.
12.   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 financial cost of stakeholder engagement failure.
13.   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.
14.   Strategic Compliance.  Know why you are complying!  Effective stakeholder relationships requires a balance of compliance and strategy.  Don’t be seduced by the illusion of certainty in compliance.  Know what you want to be compliant with and why.  Don’t be afraid to venture into the uncertainty and ambiguity of strategic engagement practices.  That is often where the breakthroughs are found and value is created.
15.   You are motivated by shareholder value.  There is something in this for you and your company.  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.
16.   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.
17.   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. 
18.   Do the right thing!  Use the phrase: “Let’s get caught doing the right thing!” to build simple internal buy in.  Listen to the little voice inside – it is a great compass.
19.   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.  Try to understand the interests and motivations of your stakeholders.
20.   Everyone is the face of the company.  Every contact between the company and stakeholders builds or takes away from relationships.  Everyone should be trained in stakeholder engagement at some level.  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. 
21.   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 stakeholders see and learn to trust.
22.   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.
23.   Learn from success and failure.  There are lessons in success and failure.  Analyze them both. Learn why you succeeded or failed and adjust.  Don’t expect the lessons to be absorbed without doing the work of analyzing and capturing them.
24.   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?  Would you?  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.
25.   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.  Remember, be creative and think inside and outside of the box.
26.   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. 
27.   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.  Share the ebb and flow of dailyness once in a while.

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 meaningful defense or protection.