Why caring should be in the center of your L&D stakeholders’ management?

The beginnings

8 years ago, when I started working as a Learning and Development (L&D) professional I’ve entered the world of many relations. Amazingly, with every single year, I’ve discovered how complex is this landscape of interactions in the world of enabling the growth of others. And it never ceased to amaze me until now. What first stroke me was how hostile HR seemed to be for “business” people. You could almost smell it in the air. HR, with all the complicated processes and regulations. Road blockers. Difficult to work with. It was still the time when the concept of HR working for its seat at the executives’ table was a thing (I understand how bravely have I used past tense here). And it was only HR as a holistic concept.

Then the war for a seat started to be more and more vivid for particular Centers of Excellence (CoE), specialized HR, or domains around a more specific topic of human resources management. My impression is that the “L&D having its seat at the table” discussion has started with fast and furious digitization – when analog skills to be taken for granted and digital ones became the flavor of the month. Everyone felt the looming need for faster upskilling or even reskilling and invited L&D to become part of business discussions and “do something”. Feeling how exaggerated that might sound I hope you understand the point I am trying to make.

I have never liked the idea of fighting for a seat at the “decision-making” table. I was working on creating value when sitting on the folding chair I brought to the table. I was also lucky enough to have a boss who once said “there is no business and HR, we are one team”. How is that and why other stakeholders are too important not to care about? Let’s dive into the topic.

How many tables are you sitting at?

Talking about stakeholders’ management brings in mind the Stakeholders’ Management 101 question. Who is a stakeholder? Taking one definition from my all times favorite Merriam-Webster dictionary – one who is involved in or affected by a course of action. Who is that in L&D? Learners, a matrix of managers and team leaders, HR CoEs, vendors, purchasing team, finance department, internal trainers, external trainers, consultants, the IT team, the legal team…You can name at least a few more groups. Are these homogenous groups of people to which you can apply similar logic of “stakeholders management”? No. These are teams of people who are individuals with their beautiful complexities. You might say – yes, but there are processes and procedures in place that are aligned and applied. Yes, but that still doesn’t take their personalities, mindset, approach, and individualism out of the equation.

Now – imagine any development process you are a part of as HR, freelancer, trainer, a teacher in your company? How many tables are you sitting at when tackling tasks around this process? Is it one – yours – you are inviting everyone to? I don’t think so. If we are getting to the moment where I should provide you with one actionable tip for your Stakeholders Management 101, I would say – think carefully about how many tables are you sitting at. Take a moment and list them, on paper, in any notepad/notes-making tool you are using. Done? Great. Let me invite you now to a technique I’ve learned during coaching studies. Take a different angle of looking at things. From your boss’s perspective, what are the tables you are sitting at? And your learners’ angle, how they might perceive it? Are you even sitting at the table with them? Are you their stakeholder? If not, why is that? Getting back to another definition of Merriam-Webster – you might not be a person entrusted with the stakes. And how to be entrusted with stakes? Build trust by creating value.

Be your lobbyist

It’s easy to say to build trust and create value, right? You might see it as a chicken and egg scenario. How can I build trust and create value, if my stakeholders don’t see me as a valuable asset in their thinking about L&D? Actionable tip number two – stakeholders management is too personal to take it personally. Yes, this sentence which might look very illogical is something that taught me a lot. Due to the number of individuals we work with it’s important to apply two rules. First – always try to understand why before what. Second- stay curious and caring for your stakeholders.

Embark on the journey of being entrusted with stakes. Show up, ask questions (you are the L&D, so I believe the methods are endless for you here – design thinking, coaching, feedback models usage, active listening), and prove genuine interest. That’s all. Get others’ attraction of you as a professional and start building on what you already have. Make another meeting happen and build upon it. Show results as you go and point out various perspectives. Clear out the complexity everywhere you can. Looking good, right? Don’t fall into one biggest trap though – stakeholders management doesn’t start and finish like a project. Stakeholders management is a never-ending process. When do you know it becomes your second nature? When eventually people stop being those involved in the action and are those, who accompany you as human beings in your work environment.

How to ensure your stakeholders won’t be just guests, bystanders in your L&D journey and become your network or even your friends? You must have come across the book by Dale Carnegie “How to win friends and influence people”. This is a book for Stakeholders Management 101 class. But the true power is in methods you will build on your own, using your unique value – authenticity. Words like genuine, curious, caring popped up already several times. Being authentic should have an important place among them too. I am a fan of Brené Brown and her vulnerability studies. Authenticity and vulnerability are the most difficult but make wonders. Try to get to the point where you don’t have a mask of an L&D professional. Reach the moment, where you are not hidden by the 2-line long name of the role. Become a stakeholder, who cares about the second person, another team, someone’s project or idea you listened to. This is how you step into the track for stakeholders management mastery.

Magic of structure

Being your lobbyist – showing up, speaking for your cause, asking questions, and being authentic needs a good structure. A structure can be a routine, based on habits or techniques that work for you. And no – I don’t want to prove that you can manage your stakeholders with some tools. It’s not the case. But the tools can support you when you need to take the next step but are not sure in which direction. Would you like to hear about my top 3 techniques? Here we go:

1. Build a stakeholders map

We’ve already touched upon that when thinking about tables you are sitting at. Before we jump into the more technical part of creating a stakeholders map, let’s hold our horses for a second. It’s time for another Stakeholders Management 101 question – how do I decide who is a topic-relevant stakeholder to be mapped? Here, a good old RACI model comes in place. Getting my head around people, who are Responsible, Accountable, who should be Consulted, and Informed helps a lot. There are so many interpretations to this matrix, you will find something that will work for you. If you mix the experience of being consulted (C in RACI model) in project x with being now accountable (A in RACI) in a new project – y, with a new task force, the angle of looking at things is different. Taking into consideration my adventure with PRINCE2 I always also want to make sure my stakeholders are a cross-functional team. This way they not only bring various knowledge and perspectives to the table but also expertise-related expectations. These may lead to interesting ways of approaching challenges. If you are not sure every stakeholder is captured in your project’s ecosystem, don’t you worry. First of all, the team you will identify will give you plenty of hints on whom else to engage. Be careful though, not to over equip the map with heads and roles who will be very grateful if they are not taken into consideration. Secondly, by looking closer to connections on your actual map, you will get a very practical check on potentially missing links. Let’s do it by getting technical.

Your stakeholders’ map can be drawn on paper, in any graphic designing program, or by using a mind map software (e.g. FreeMind, MindMup, XMind, Miro, or MindMeister). Step 1 is to make a list of names. My approach is to have one map for one project. It’s always easier to start with a brand new one. Step 2 is to list tasks from your project next to names. If you execute it properly your life is going to be much easier. Grab a highlighter (or digital form of it). Step 3 – take the list you’ve created. Make sure to capture all correlations by drawing lines where connections are already established. Good. Step 4 – now, think about other stakeholders that should be linked. Maybe someone is not yet on the map and should be included? Seeing this, do you have any conclusions that strike you? Consider where there are no lines. Should they be drawn? Any connection you didn’t make before? Are they critical? Step 5 – jot down all your outcomes. Step 6 – have a reflection session on your own or with your team (I truly believe in the power of taking both approaches). What does it tell you about your stakeholders’ management so far? Now, think about steps you can take to increase the number of meaningful interactions fostering not only your L&D projects but also you as a professional.

2. Establish connections

Your stakeholders are not aliens, but they might act strangely at first when you contact them. We tend to work in schemes and along already tested routines. So when you will suddenly contact someone you didn’t use to be in touch with, there might be some resistance. Some people will welcome you with open arms. Some might ask, what are you doing in the suburbs when you are usually jogging in the center. Don’t assume and don’t get discouraged. Humanize the relation and create synergy. Be vulnerable enough to put yourself at ease when asking or answering questions, but also – keep professional. Yes, vulnerable and professional at the same time is possible. I won’t be touching here on social media experiences you might create along the way. Establishing connections this way could be a topic for a whole different article.

3. Maintain connections

When you are happy that your hunt for valuable stakeholders was successful, don’t stop there. When you had one meaningful discussion which started as a chat about your pets, don’t get too full of yourself. It’s a good start but the devil is in details and this is the beginning of establishing a trust-based relationship. To maintain connection you might consider some of these tips:

Checking up with – keep the meetings with stakeholders regular. You can mutually agree on how often will you stay in touch. Depending on the relationship you will build, you can always check up with someone not only in a recurring call or meeting but also via chat or phone calls. If you know your stakeholder had a birthday or maybe has just finished an important project how about connecting on these matters? Offering help and support and not only requesting something in return might be worth considering. Again – don’t stop here. What are other formats you might use for check-ups? Methods often taken for granted, like e-mails or various project management tools can perfectly serve the purpose. Don’t underestimate a value of a well-timed, personalized e-mail or project dashboard where together with your stakeholders you are keeping the track of your joint efforts.

One person – one page – this is a technique I derived from the Getting Things Done method by David Allen. Knowing that your stakeholders’ meetings will be regular, but probably not daily, make sure to make notes. Capture all the topics you need to address as they occur. One of my stakeholders’ management tips is to keep people busy only with topics they will see value in. Take a OneNote page or any other solution for making notes and put the name of the person as a headline to the page/note. Now, when you come across a topic/idea/task you need this person to have a look into, write it down on the page dedicated to this person. The scenarios can be various – you can keep the names in alphabetical order. Consider also putting the names in the order of the meetings you have during the week. When the meeting will come, open the page and spend time on topics you wanted to address. You can even encourage your stakeholders to do the same. Sharing your tips is also a good trust-building exercise. The miracle of this list is sometimes you will discover that some topics will be erased from it. How is that? It might turn up it was already solved or not that important for your stakeholder right before the meeting. This approach works well for stakeholders who are Accountable or Informed in projects. They might be also often appearing in multiple projects. When we have one page for them, we have a clear list of where our paths are crossing.

Build support groups – in stakeholders mastery there is a moment when your one-to-one stakeholder can become a member of a support group. I don’t know about you, but it often happens to me that certain projects make people think about similar solutions. Rather than discussing them face-to-face, they become a bigger topic for a task-force. Support groups in my definition might also become support per excellence, so a group you might lean to when in trouble. It all depending on how far will you get together when building.

Run reality checks – I am reading at the moment the book by Alberto Savoia – The Right It. It brought to me the newest addition to my stakeholders’ management tips. The author is using the term “Thoughtland” for all the ideas we have in mind but develop in bubbles. Why do we do it? We like assuming facts and not confronting them with no one. This often ends up badly, as projects that are wonderful in our minds become nightmares when executed. Running reality checks help the process of correct understanding, consulting before developing the idea, and eventually avoiding possible mistakes. If you reach your point in stakeholders management mastery to run reality checks, use it as much as possible.

Let’s close by opening

Wrapping up the points of stakeholders management I made in this article – I would like to leave you with some key takeaways.

People are wonderful, complex human beings who have their roles at work but also have their own goals. Try to understand your stakeholders as much as possible. Don’t assume they want or don’t want to cooperate with you. We are in a good place as L&D – often in a position to open many doors and be enablers for those striving to grow.

Build synergies across topics you are working on and humanize the relationship. Take care of your stakeholders. You are building with them connections based on trust and this is the biggest value anyone can offer.

Equip yourself with some techniques that will help you keep your relations with stakeholders regular. Be authentic and vulnerable. Run reality checks so that you won’t live in the world of unicorns, where some actions are only talked about and never seen.

There are so many aspects of this topic that were just briefly mentioned in this article. Think hybrid work models, company structure, communication. From practices to tools leveraging. All very important. All needing to dedicate them more time and place within stakeholders management topic.

This closure is just an opening for your journey with stakeholders’ management topic. Think it through as this might be a very meaningful reflection to carry (and care!) on in not only your learning and development career.

I am a believer in an approach, where learning is effective when linked to personal and business objectives, navigated, and bringing learners joy. Fan of microlearning. Building eclectically and seeing things come to life gives me the most satisfaction. All that, done with engaged cross-functional teams, empowers me in my L&D actions daily.

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