Contributed by Nadine B. Hack, CEO beCause Global Consulting
From the moment humans began bartering goods and services for food and tools and anything else considered of mutual value, business has been a major driver of human society.
Today, most successful businesses operate on a relational foundation (acknowledging that interdependence among a diversity of parties is essential for sustainable success) rather than a transactional foundation (in which enterprises serve their own benefit, even at the expense of others).
A broad spectrum of stakeholders has a direct impact on most organizations’ operations, and organizations that foster a deep level of connection with stakeholders – what I call Strategic Relational Engagement (SRE™) – can transform stakeholder fear and/or animosity into understanding, productivity and strategic impact.
While SRE as a business strategy is new, it is not without precedent. Several decades of business research support the values of team-building, consensus building and other relational activities to achieve successful strategic leadership and organizational change management.
From another perspective, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote 45 years ago about achieving the “beloved community.” It is a term that to some may seem “touchy-feely”, but Dr. King’s belief was that increasing cooperation among allies and even winning the friendship of opponents would make it possible to live and work together productively.
Dr. King’s idea was consistent with a classic tradition of philosophical thought. By bridging gaps to those with opposing views, consensus can be reached so each party gains something while the wider society also benefits.
SRE is in your best interest
Business leaders’ assumptions (often prejudices) about the capacities or even the relevance of stakeholders – whether inside or outside the organization – often weaken their ability to make wise decisions. When they rise above bias and engage stakeholders effectively, they strengthen their decision-making and leadership.
This may seem counterintuitive to those who believe a leader’s strength is manifested through the exertion of control and accumulation of territorial power. But it has been demonstrated many times that more inclusive leadership leads to greater organizational success.
Nelson Mandela was an archetypical engagement leader. After 27 brutal years in prison, he emerged as a fervent advocate of engaging with the very people and institutions that oppressed him and others in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.
When he was released in 1990, he spent the next four years in negotiation with the stalwarts of the apartheid regime. As President, he continued to ensure that all faces and voices were represented in South Africa’s government, business and other institutions. Mandela helped people of disparate cultures, even some of whom had a history of violent enmity, to see that only by actively engaging with “the enemy” (something most had previously been unwilling to do) could any of them achieve their goals.
We can learn much about engagement leadership from President Mandela, but it would be defeatist to think that one must be an extraordinary person like Mandela to be a successful engagement leader. Leaders are, at heart, ordinary people who are willing and able to stretch themselves and others to achieve extraordinary outcomes.
Internal stakeholders: enhance your ability as an engagement leader
Business leaders want to build on, expand and sustain organizational success. Insightful ones know engaging internal stakeholders is vital for assuring that there will be buy-in throughout the organization to achieve ambitious (or even basic) goals.
While leaders usually have explicit frameworks for other internal processes, they often do not have a clear engagement action plan.
All too often, a CEO or an executive team come up with the “perfect” strategy, only to see it wither away because of lack of buy-in from the people who have to execute it.
At the foundation of every organization’s relationship with internal stakeholders is trust. Build trust with key stakeholders by listening to them and incorporating their input. These engaged stakeholders will then extend your relationship within the organization through their own networks.
Many people fear change, mostly because they don’t have enough information about how that change may affect them. Share information widely, and be sensitive to concerns about the impact of change on individuals.
Engagement is a two-way street. If you want to engage stakeholders, reward them for their engagement. Develop mechanisms that value and reward stakeholder collaboration. And be sure your engagement efforts extend worldwide, creating a global organizational culture rather than one in which diktats are issued from headquarters.
External stakeholders: enhance your ability as an engagement leader
While most business leaders know they must keep external stakeholders engaged and may even have a strategy to do so, they often don’t have action plans to deal with emerging obstacles to these relationships.
To start, gain credibility with and earn the trust of your own stakeholder group through personal example. Show, don’t tell.
Engage other stakeholder groups and demonstrate your openness to differences.
Develop operational mechanisms to keep all stakeholders engaged through difficult times, and establish clear processes for communication among stakeholder groups.
If problems do arise, be prepared to change your own course, applying new strategies and tactics as needed in order to keep stakeholders aligned with goals.
Adversarial stakeholders: enhance your ability as an engagement leader
Even in adversarial situations, effective engagement leaders can cultivate catalytic drivers and create catalytic teams empowered to build chains of trust with an ever-broader spectrum of internal and external stakeholders.
Less effective leaders might simply use public relations crisis management tactics to “put a lid” on damage done by groups attacking their company. They might also try to discredit the attackers, or engage in “window dressing” activity to offset accusations.
But good engagement leaders, through their SRE insights and abilities, make a concerted effort to engage with the very people attacking them. In learning more about the objections of their adversaries, they hone the skills to negotiate an agreement that aligns goals.
Strategically, recognize you may win the larger war by giving up smaller battles to start and sustain dialogue. Engage first with those most likely to see the wisdom of why working with you is to their benefit.
Then, be open to compromise. Determine which of your objectives are inviolable and which are open to negotiation.
Explore common ground with those you may not initially trust.
And finally, build on small victories. Use success in pilot programs to enlarge the scope of what you can achieve in partnership. Expand to a broader base using early adapters as champions of your mission.
The alchemy of engagement leadership: turning foes into friends
As an engagement leader, you will perceive challenges as opportunities to engage others to achieve mutual gains.
You will accept the validity of differing perspectives, create relationships with a broad range of people, and lead negotiations towards mutually beneficial outcomes.
Engagement leadership is not just for CEOs. An engagement leader can work from any position to create a level of comfort for peers, subordinates and even superiors. They can put themselves in other people’s shoes.
Working horizontally or vertically, engagement leaders earn trust by giving colleagues, partners and customers a sense of belonging, empowerment and validation. In turn, each newly engaged stakeholder helps form expanded concentric circles of trust to create a larger sense of shared organizational purpose and benefit.
“Hell is other people,” declared Jean-Paul Sartre.
A good engagement leader finds heaven in them.
Nadine B. Hack, named one of 100 Top Thought Leaders on Trustworthy Business Behavior, is CEO, Global Consulting and was Executive-in-Residence at IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland. She has advised The Coca-Cola Company, Omnicom Group, Unilever and other Fortune 500 companies on rethinking stakeholder engagement. Follow Nadine on Twitter @nadinehack and at http://www.beCause.net.