How to build strong stakeholder relationships as a product manager

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As a product person, I know there’s always an infinite number of requests and problems that my teams could be working on. These can come from users, or different stakeholders within the business and they’re usually mostly linked to something they want to unlock or move forward relating to their goals. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should action them, or that we will entertain them at all.

We want to be cooperative with our stakeholders. After all, we’re encouraged to be collaborative on a daily basis. Ok, I get it. But we also need to stay true to our current strategy, our plans for the roadmap agreed with the leadership team and to prioritise bringing value to the product and our customers.

Sometimes we might think that if we have a refined process then everyone understands how to get into the queue and wait for their turn. But this only adds to the pile and it might leave our stakeholders thinking that if they follow the steps their request will be done (creating a dependency on us). When in reality this may not be the case, for a myriad of reasons beyond the stakeholder’s domain that are harder to comprehend. Ultimately, this creates a false sense of hope or commitment that will impact our relationships within the business.

These are some of the tips and ideas that I use to make my stakeholder interactions more productive.

Map your stakeholders

Knowing the lay of the land within your organisation (or your client's organisation) will help make your interactions with stakeholders more productive and help you and the team make better decisions when it comes to prioritising how they spend their days. You can build an “Onion map” (thanks Emily Tate for teaching me this) to place different stakeholders closer or further away from your team, as shown below:

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Foster a relationship and show empathy with stakeholders

Developing and maintaining relationships takes effort, you need to work on it. As we’ve seen above, not every stakeholder in your map may be interested in the day-to-day of your product, but it’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure that your work is visible to them in a certain way. You can check in periodically over a cup of coffee to learn more about their areas of expertise and show what you’ve been working on. At the same time, you need to be willing to listen and have empathy when they come to you for help or with a request. This doesn’t necessarily mean saying yes to everything, but always making a conscious effort to understand where they are coming from and being honest with them.

Take advantage of the CREDIT Framework

A great way of doing some of the previous points, is taking advantage of the Credit Framework developed by Julia Whitney:

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Commonality

Find areas of common interest or overlapping objectives that your team and the stakeholder share. Doing this before explaining where your priorities differ to push back on their requests may help gain empathy and rapport with the person you are engaging with.

Difference

Honouring difference simply means acknowledging another’s contrasting point of view, and treating it with respect. This is the opposite of antagonising someone when they disagree with you. Sometimes merely playing back their point of view, and asking “What I am hearing is …… did I get it right?” can defuse an unhealthy and unproductive meeting.

Empathy

You need to be able to see the world from the stakeholder’s shoes in order to do your best work with them. Doing stakeholder interviews is a great way to build that picture and fully understand their points of views.

Reciprocity

In its purest transactional form, this means giving something to get something. Of course quid pro quo may not be the best way to go in the long term, but helping out when you don’t need to or showing interest in their world can still help.

Trust

You can build trust by showing credibility and being reliable. Credibility means you know your stuff. Reliability means you do what you say you are going to do. Show examples of both repeatedly and this should earn you trust over time.

Check for alignment with your product/business goals

If your company uses a way of tracking performance across different areas in a centralised way (e.g. Cascading OKRs), you can ask your stakeholders to explain why they believe their requests are something that will benefit the company and how it links to the overall strategy of the business. This may help with prioritising a request that creates higher value for the company overall. If this doesn’t show a clear link, or if other competing priorities rank higher, you may still need to push back and explain your rationale. You may need to refer back to your leadership team for support on this, depending on how big your organisation is, but ultimately this helps create a healthy discussion about strategy.

There’s no magic trick

Ultimately, you need to find the right mix that works for you and your current situation. There’s no single trick or tip that can help us in dealing with stakeholders, especially during difficult situations. But it’s in our team’s best interest that we know how to work with them. This will help move our products forward and create wins for the entire company.

Do you have any other tips about working with stakeholders? I’d love to hear them! Please send me a tweet.