Building Strong Relationships with Stakeholders 


Building Strong Relationships with Stakeholders 

Product Direction

As a Product Manager, your success is directly proportional to the satisfaction of your key stakeholders. If you engage with your stakeholders effectively, you will create a group of advocates who will help you further your cause and your career. If you don’t, it is unlikely, your roadmap will ever become more than a PowerPoint slide.
In this talk, I will share three key principles of effective engagement that will help you bring your stakeholders along as you march toward your vision for your product. You will learn why engaging with stakeholders effectively is one of the key product management skills and a few simple and actionable steps you can take to build strong relationships.

Parul Goel

Parul Goel, Director of Product Management,Indeed

Hello, everyone. My name is Parul Goel. I am the Director of Product at Indeed for billing in orders platform. And I'm going to talk to you about Building Strong Relationships with your Stakeholders. I thought I would start a bit telling you about why this topic became important to me. Why am I here talking about it today? So, when I first started my product management career, I had a very different expectation and around what my job would be, I thought I would be building capabilities and features solving customer problems and just launching features after features. And so, when I realized, "Wait, there, all of these people in the different parts of the organization who can actually, who get us into, what am I building? How am I building it? When am I building it?" Came as a shock to me and I have to say, I didn't really take it very well. My first project as a product manager was to simplify the customer experience and I was really excited about it. I had worked really hard with my engineering team, with my user experience team to define this new experience. And we were going to launch it but of course I had to get approval from my new friends, from my stakeholders. And one of the stakeholders, I want to call him Chris, wasn't ready to give his approval. He was his concern was that the experience was too simple and it was going to negatively impact his team, his metrics. And we were at a standoff? Our project couldn't move forward because he wasn't giving his approval. He wouldn't budge, but I also wouldn't budge. I didn't know that the situation was kind of blowing up and there was this particular meeting where we had a really heated argument like in front of other people in public which ended up with me in tears. So, things had gotten really bad. And at that moment, I remember feeling like this is the first thing that could happen to me. This person is getting in my way. He's not letting me do my job. I was sad. I was frustrated but in the hindsight that was one of the best things that happened to me early in my product management career. Because it opened my eyes to what really the job is, it is solving for customer pain point. It is releasing features after features, but it's not doing it in isolation. It's bringing your stakeholders along. In fact, today I spend most of my time making sure that everybody in my group, my team, my stakeholders - we are all heading in the same direction. So, after this, I became really interested in the topic. I kind of started observing what do other people do? What works? What doesn't work? For many years, I reported to a manager who was really good at this. So, I learned a lot from her, tried new things. I had some successes; I had some more failures but I learned a lot in the process. So, what I would share with you today, the three strategies that I have learned to build strong relationship with my stakeholders. So, starting with the first one build relationships before you need then. So, there is conventional wisdom that says don't wait until there is a fire to dig a well. This applies to stakeholder management or building stakeholder relationships as well. If you already have trusted relationship with your stakeholders and trust is a key word here, then any collaboration you have with them, whether you need information from them, whether you need support or advocacy from them even your disagreements are going to be more productive. So, I want to give you an example from my personal life. Actually, my husband's personal life. He's someone who's very good at building relationships. This includes his extended family in India, his family, friends in India, he routinely calls them up to check on them to see how they're doing. If there is anything that he can do to help them. So, he's really taken the time to build and nurture these relationships. And you might have heard that for the last two months or so. India has been really ravaged by the second wave of COVID. The stories coming out of India have been horrible. They've been horrific. People are dying because of shortage of medicines, hospital beds. They don't have access to medicine and oxygen. So, why is this hard story was playing out my in-laws both my husband's parents, they contracted the virus. They live in India and we live in the US so we were thousands of miles away. They're really scared. If we felt really helpless it wasn't very dire situation but because of the relationships my husband had built with doctors in his family with his friends in India. He was able to get them the help that they needed. He was able to get them into a hospital. He was able to get them some of the medicines they needed. Most importantly, he had seven of these doctors on his speed dial. He would call them up on pretty much on a regular basis and say, "Oh, this is what's going on. These are their symptoms. What should I do?" And just having access to that counsel at the time was just very valuable. And I can assure you that this interaction would have looked very different if he hadn't nurtured these relationships, like imagine calling somebody while they're busy and saying, "Oh, remember me? I met you at a wedding five years ago and I need your help. It wouldn't have worked out the same thing. So, this was a very high stakes situation but having relationships in place really paid off. Now, for me, I have not learned these lessons the easy way. So, when I first started, I didn't really know the value of relationship building and so I wasn't really investing in them. I wasn't putting any work towards it. Then I started seeing the value of them and I swung the other way. I was like, "All right. I'm going to set up monthly one-on-ones with all my stakeholders." And it was a huge burden on my calendar and theirs. Plus, I was so busy going from meeting to meeting. I didn't really have a strategy of what are they going to say in these meetings. What was my agenda? I didn't really have the time to prepare. I don't think these interactions, these meetings would really meaningful for my stakeholders. So, if anything, it might've backfired under the bed but now I know better. So, this is what I would do differently and this would be my recommendation to you as well. First one is identified who your stakeholders are. Who are the people who are either directly or indirectly impacted by your product, who has the veto to say no to what you are doing? And make sure each of them knows who you are, what are you working on? And why should they know you? Why should they care? But if you have a large group of stakeholders know that you're not going to be able to build strong relationships with all of them. At least not at the same time because building relationships takes time. So, prioritize a little bit, apply that skill of prioritisation that product managers are known for it. Know, maybe focus on the group that has in the past has had most friction with your team or people who are most influential for your context and focus on that. The second thing I would say is prioritize quality of time spent rather than quantity of time spent. And this translates into a few things, for one meeting is one rate of interacting. They might have other ways they prefer. They might prefer Slack or chat, or I had a stakeholder who preferred texting and he told me if you need me, text me. So, I would text him and at around eight or nine PM at night. He would be like; can you talk now? So, I was able to get his time within 12 hours of my request which was a big deal for me. And the third thing is making this time, make this interaction meaningful for them which takes preparation. I spent at least five minutes for all of these stakeholder meetings. I think about, is there something going on in my world that will be useful to them? Is there anything I can tell them so that they're not surprised in the next
stakeholder meeting? If I need information from them, I give them context about how am I going to use this information? What are the problems I'm looking to solve for with this information? Because they might have other ideas that can help me, but in general, show up in for these interactions, with these meetings well prepared so that they get value out of it. And if you were to do this consistently and have quality interactions even offline follow up on whatever commitments you had made, you can see that trust being built between you and your stakeholders. So, that's my first principle build relationships before you mean that. Second one is known that it's about their priorities. Now as product managers, we built for our customers. Do you think our customers cared about our products? Do they care about Indeed? Do they care about PayPal? Not really. What they care about is finding a job. What they care about is sending money. Our products are just mediums to solve their problems. This is true of our stakeholders as well. They have their own priorities. They have their own problems, their own OKRs to worry about. I think it is fair to say me or my product is not really top of mind for them. This is the lesson I learned when I became a stakeholder for somebody, this other product managers that have time with me. And he did this beautiful presentation about his vision, his roadmap, his product strategy. What was he building? How was he helping the customers? And towards the end of the meeting, he was like, well, I need your team to make a commitment that they will align to this timeline. They will build the thing. And he had actually failed the one question that I cared about, why should I get involved in this? What's in it for me? Does it drive my product adoption? Does it help my customer? He was so focused on his plans. He didn't really connect the dots of what's in it for me. And so, I felt like, "Wait, this was a waste of my time, this half an hour." Except it made me question. Do I show up this way? Like in my stakeholder interactions, do I make them so one-sided and the answer was, yeah. I have done that in the past. So, going back to Chris who was a very unhappy stakeholder in my early days as a product manager. The truth was I had not taken the time to understand what his concerns were. What were his priorities, how was I going to negatively impact them? And had I done that actually I could have easily addressed them. The second thing is over-indexing on my product and priorities, which is what this other product manager also did. Just talking about my product, my priorities, my roadmap when really the stakeholder is concerned about their product, their priorities, their roadmap. And the third thing is I have also approached these interactions like a transaction. Like you scratch my back, I scratch your back and you do what I'm asking you to do for me and then you will also see benefits in return but these are relationships. They're not transactions. They don't quite work that way. So, this is what I would recommend instead to be able to build a strong relationship, you have to invest in learning about their work. Who are their customers? What are their priorities? What are the problems that they're solving for so that you can find opportunities to help them? The second thing is they are your stakeholder, which basically means there is some overlap in their world and your world, like make that connection for them, do the analysis for them. And so, they can really see why they should care. So, speak their language, of course, talk about your vision, talk about your roadmap but using their language, make it relevant to them. And the third thing, and this is an important one is be transparent because over time you will realize that you're not going to be able to start adding value to these stakeholders on day one for some of my stakeholders especially in Ops, I have actually made their lives worse on day one because I have pushed out something with manual processes but over time, I have improved it for them by automating. But if there is trust, if I tell them this to them upfront that okay. After phase one, there will be some additional work for your team but starting phase two, we will start automating. It is a difficult message to deliver but being able to deliver that, being able to be upfront and transparent also contributes towards building that trust. So, that's the second strategy. Give them a compelling reason to care about your product, your project for you. And now the third one, which is 'lean in' when there is a misalignment and I promise you that are going to be misalignments. In my product management career at any given time, I have had at least one stakeholder who is not aligned usually more. And today this really is most of my job is to keep people aligned. So, when that happens, number one, no, it's not you, it's not them. This just is the nature of the job. This is why stakeholder management is such a big thing in the world of product managers so it is bound to happen. But it's how you show up when this happens. How do you show up when things are not going well in a relationship that is what matters? And looking back, even here I have had some missteps, so I was kicking off a new initiative and one of my stakeholders had a reputation of being challenging. And I kind of knew that we were not on the same page. I was trying to get my product live as quickly as possible. So, I was optimizing for timeline and she was optimizing for efficiency. She was looking for automation. So, I knew there was misalignment there but she wasn't really very engaged in our initiative. Right. She didn't show up for stakeholder meetings. Her team didn't participate in the requirements gathering. And I was like, "All right, this is my lucky break. So, we continued, I continued with my team to build a product. We did the requirements, we built it. We worked really hard to take it to the market, but before we could launch it, we had to get her approval. We had to do a demo for her and get her to sign off. How do you think that demo went? Do you think just because she didn't show up for these meetings, her requirements have changed? No. In that demo that my product and engineering teams were present. She was like, no, like this product is not ready that is at least three more months of work. I can't sign off on it. And for my team who had worked very hard nights and weekends to launch this product on time, this was a very de-motivating message. And at this point, the consequences of delays were much worse. We had already promised to our customers that they will get this capability on this day. So, I had to do a lot of risk damage mitigation. They did a lot of damage control to get things back on track but looking back, I had played a big role in making this mess because even though I knew. There was misalignment. I had continued, I had made the decision to go forward without addressing that misalignment. And so, looking back, these are some of the mistakes I have made when there has been misalignment. One is taking it personally. So, even when I was talking about Chris at the moment, I said, like he was doing it to me. He was getting in my way with this person, the second stakeholder because she had a reputation of being challenging. It was kind of easy to buy into it and make her the villain which might or might not be true. But the truth is it doesn't help you solve the problem because they are not going to change. You have to find solutions around it. The second thing is taking the path of least resistance. So, in this case, I wrote and own this person which was my path of least resistance. I have seen other people give into their difficult stakeholders. Not because they agree with them, but they're lie, well, this is like, just move forward needed of them will get you the best outcome for your product or your customers. And the third thing is I've had this crazy idea that all of my stakeholders should be super happy with me. Like I'm going to make all of them happy and that's just not a realistic goal. So, these are the things I would recommend instead. If that is a misalignment you might be frustrated, you might be angry. You might never want to see that person's face or open indeed an email from them again but do the opposite over-communicate. Especially, if you're looking to build strong, resilient relationships, this is the time to lean in. Make sure they clearly understand what is your goal? What is the information that you have that you're using to make decisions? Because a lot of times when people make different decisions, when they have different information. So, if you communicate, if you lay your cards on the table that this is what I have, this is why I'm doing this. Hopefully they will do the same. And when everybody has the same information, there are better chances of reaching the same conclusion. The second possible outcome, or the second thing you can do is let us say, all of you do have the same information but you still have different ideas of what should happen next. In that case, that is a very, very basic lack of alignment which is you guys not aligned on goals. This was the goal. This was the case with the stakeholder they just talked about. I was optimizing for time to market. She was optimizing for efficiency. So, had we aligned
on that goal. The rest of the discussion would have been much easier. It's a completely different conversation. So, then you overcommunicate, you can actually get to the root of the problem and solve for that instead, rather than addressing the symptoms that will continued to haunt you if you don't do that. And finally, redefine success. You're not going to make all of your stakeholders happy. That cannot be your goal. You're really trying to build for your customers. You're trying to do the best for your customers. With your stakeholders, as long as you have given them complete transparency, as long as you have heard them, as long as you'd have tried to address their concerns to the best of your ability, that's good enough but most of the times when you do these things, it doesn't really even if both of you are on or you're on the different sides of the opposite side. It doesn't really hurt your relationship. And because they know that you're coming from a good place. So, that's my third strategy. I would recommend instead of running away from misalignment run towards it, go through it, work through it. And this will go a long way in building your strong relationship. So, I just want to do summarize the three strategies once again, build relationships before you need them, know that it's about their priorities, focus on them. And finally, when there is a misalignment try to work through it rather than around it. To summarize. I wanted to tell you a little bit more about Chris. Today, Chris is one of my biggest cheerleaders. He's a mentor. He is somebody I go to when I need advice. And we were able to not only recover from this early dynamic but not very healthy dynamic we had, we would actually get, we were able to get our relationship to a really good place. And what that taught me is that managing stakeholders, building relationships with them is like any other skill, like it's like juggling, it's like learning to ride a bike. These are things where you have to do them to learn them. Of course, you will fall. Of course, you will drop a ball but more you do them, the better you will get. So, if you have any missteps, if you have any mistakes know that they are part of the process. Just learn from them and move on. Thank you so much for listening to my talk. You can connect with me on LinkedIn. I also have a podcast for women in tech called Unseen Battles. So, if that interests you check it out. Thank you.