As a product manager, your success is directly proportional to the satisfaction of your key stakeholders. If you engage effectively, you will create a group of advocates who will help further your cause and your career. If you don’t, your roadmap could begin to slide. How can you engage with stakeholders effectively to build strong relationships? Product Lead Parul Goel shares three key principles that will help engage your stakeholders as you march toward your product vision.

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On When Do You Build Stakeholder Relationships

One of the many mindsets PMs often have is “I will build stakeholder relationships as I need them.” However, Parul says this transactional method isn’t the best to cultivate real strong connections.

“I used to have a very transactional mindset around this, which is, if I need something from you, I will approach you and I will try to build that relationship with you. It’s almost like waiting to dig a well when there is a fire, and it’s too late. If somebody else also told me that if you’re having the first conversation with somebody when you want something out of them, you have missed the boat. This transactional mindset showed up in my behavior. For one, I didn’t really believe in investing in stakeholder relationships. I would set up times when I needed them. I realized that wasn’t very successful. Then I saw, Oh, wait, people have these one-on-ones with their stakeholders, let me also do that, so then I kind of swung the other way. I set up one-on-ones with all of my stakeholders, which was a pretty large group. It was a huge burden on my calendar. I was just running from meeting to meeting, and I didn’t really have the time to prepare for any of these meetings. Basically, I would show up in these meetings and I didn’t really have a strategy, I didn’t really have a way to add value for them. If anything, that probably back-fired. 

Since then, this is what I have realized is a better mindset, which is, I want to build long-term relationships based on trust and mutual respect. I want to look beyond what I need from them right away, I really want to have a longer-term view it, to be able to build these relationships. …

Once I changed my mindset, how I showed up changed. When I used to have a transactional mindset, I used to see my stakeholders as something like they’re holding something of value to me, they’re holding the approval, they’re holding in the affirmation that holding alignment and that I saw them in a very one-dimensional way. I had to work really hard to change that, to be genuinely interested in people; I don’t care if you approve my next requirement or not, I’m going to build this relationship regardless Because building strong relationships takes time, I realized I am not going to be able to do this ‘peanut butter’ approach. I have to focus on a small group of people. I had to be a little bit strategic there because I did focus on people who could influence my product, who could influence my career, but I actually thought a lot broader than that. I reached out to people that I thought I could learn from, I reached out to peers with who I really enjoyed working with. It wasn’t just about getting ahead or about getting approval, it really was hanging out with people I like and I could learn from it. Now because I had a smaller group of people I was focusing on, I could meet make these interactions meaningful. So if there was something going on in my world that they would be interested in, I would think of it and ping them. So I would also try to add value to them, rather than just being a one-way street.

If there is one thing that you take away from this conversation, please let it be this: Don’t see your stakeholders as somebody who’s holding value, or they’re holding value that you need out of them; see them as genuine people and invest in building long-term relationships. Because once I did that, stakeholder management actually became fun. Instead of stakeholders, I also had friends and mentors, and it actually became a lot more enjoyable and enriching.”

On What to Focus On When Engaging Stakeholders

The next common mindset is “I must get the stakeholder to support me/my product.” This can cause us to not ask many questions about what the stakeholders want and just push our ideas hard in order to be successful. Instead, Parul says it’s best to align interests – find a win-win situation.

“ … When I engage with stakeholders, I’m really focused on myself. It shows up in my behavior, I’m very agenda-driven. I have an outcome in mind, I’m looking for approval or something from them. So I advocate really hard for what I want, I don’t really ask a lot of questions about them, what’s important to them. This narrows the conversation upfront. It feels like when sometimes outside of grocery stores, there are these people who are supporting a cause, and they want to tell you about it, they want your signature, and you try to kind of go a long way to avoid them. But sometimes you forget, and then you kind of politely nod when they’re talking to you. So it’s kind of like that feeling that you don’t know me, you don’t know my values, you don’t know what’s important to me, and then you’re giving me this spiel. I feel like that’s how I was coming across for a long time, and personally, because I was so agenda-driven, I felt a lot of pressure that this conversation has to be successful. I have to say the right things so that this person agrees to whatever I need or whatever I want out of that. It really wasn’t a very pleasant experience for me either.

So now I think of it very differently. My intention is that I want to try my best to align our interests, so there are two things that have changed here. Number one is, it’s not really that I am looking for a win for me, I’m looking for a win for us and how do I make it a win-win situation. The second thing is, I’m also admitting that I can try my best. I might not succeed, this person might have completely different goals than mine, and maybe our interests wouldn’t align. It’s not going to be completely in my control, so that also takes a lot of pressure off. So once I did this, how I showed up, how I started approaching these meetings changed. For one, I was a lot more curious about them. What are their cares? What are their priorities? What do they care about? I was trying to align our interests. The second thing is, I actually listened to their answers. It wasn’t that I was just trying to check a box to say, okay, I asked questions about them, now I can start talking about myself. I actually cared about what they were saying and I still advocate because my goal was still to make my product successful but I was able to do it a lot more effectively because now I knew what was important to them, how I could align our interest. 

I noticed a change in how my stakeholders would respond to me when I made this switch. I didn’t really come across as somebody who was very self-involved. I would highly recommend getting to know your stakeholders, advocating for your product but making it relevant to them. You will have a lot more success if you do it this way.”

On Thinking About Conflicts

The final common mindset is “I must avoid conflict.” Parul said she would fly into space just to avoid a conflict, running as far away from it as she possibly can. She realized that it actually comes down to how she deals with conflicts as opposed to avoiding them all together because, in product management, stakeholder conflicts cannot be avoided.

“I am very, very conflict-averse. So for the longest time, my goal was I must avoid conflict. This is an unrealistic goal. The whole reason stakeholder management is a thing is, of course, there are conflicts. People have different goals, organizations, different teams within organizations have different goals. You are absolutely going to run into a conflict. What’s really more important is how do you deal with it? How do you work through that conflict? 

In one of my last initiatives at PayPal, I was working on launching something and there was somebody in our stakeholder group who was known to be difficult to work with. I knew we were not on the same page. I knew I wanted to go to market as quickly as possible. … I knew there was a clear disconnect but she wasn’t really engaging. She didn’t show up to the program meetings, she wasn’t really responding to emails. This made me think, we have our lucky break, you don’t have to really pay attention to what her needs are. So we went ahead and build the product, but before we could launch, we had to demo it to the stakeholder. In that demo, all of the reservations I knew she had obviously came out, and just because she hadn’t attended the meetings or attended the requirement sessions, that wasn’t really a big enough reason for her to hold those back. My team had worked really hard …, to go to market quickly. Eventually, we were able to work it out but that demoralizing incident that happened was really on me because I knew there was a lack of alignment but instead of working through it, I worked around it. I was choosing the path of least resistance. I was trying to avoid confrontation. …

So now I see it very differently. It’s my job to work through conflict and misalignment, I’m not going to be able to avoid it, I have to work through it. In fact, I have also learned that conflict can be a really good thing because there are people who are passive-aggressive, you don’t even know that there is a conflict unless people bring up that there is a conflict. …  So now when there is a conflict, number one, I don’t avoid it, I engage in it. I also try to engage with empathy. I have what I want, and the same is true of the other person as well. So I don’t want to be dismissive, I do want to hear what they have to say. The second thing I have realized is, sometimes conflicts arise because people have different information or they’re making different assumptions. If everybody has the same information, there is a good chance they will reach the same conclusion. So from my side, I try to over-communicate things such as this is the intention and this is why we made this decision. … The third thing is, I lead with conviction. … I keep an open mind, and based on the information, I build my conviction. If that conviction is that I don’t agree with the stakeholder, I lead with that. I try to do the right thing rather than support my product or make somebody else happy. … Think of conflict as your friend; it’s your opportunity to figure out where there is a disconnect and solve for it.”

About the speaker
Parul Goel, Director of Product Management Member
About the host
Maheep Bhalla AT&T, Product Management Lead

Maheep is a customer-focused Product Leader. He believes that a Product Manager wears multiple hats but should always champion the voice of the customer.

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