Making Stakeholder Engagement Practical

I read a great post recently about “Managing Change from the Middle” by Manie Bosman. The key principle outlined is that it’s oft-decried “Middle Management” who can make the biggest and most significant impact on leading change in an organization because they can translate the strategy and goals of executive leadership down into the day-to-day realities of workers who are slogging in the trenches.

This idea really resonated with me. In my experience, the stakeholders who can best impact your success are in the middle of the hierarchical reporting chain. Making the fluffy-sounding term “stakeholder engagement” meaningful and practical means having a holistic strategy to do what works, not what sounds good or what “should” work. Here are a few of my tried and true methods:

  1. Engage the right sponsors. It’s a common assumption and practice for clients to engage the right executive leadership as sponsors – then expect a cascade of key information down within the organization. However, this is only one (and potentially relatively small) way to impact learning and/or behavioral change with the audience you’re trying to reach – so you ALSO have to:
  2. Make sure you don’t rely on #1 too much. Relying on your “cascading sponsorship” model only gets you so far. To me, it is based on an outdated assumption of hierarchical leadership that’s just not true in an age of matrixed organizations. Leaders have other agendas. Employees in their hierarchy may not listen to them, or believe them, based on past change history.  The real key to success is to find the leaders who influence from the middle, and have a bigger impact on your outcome.
  3. Follow the matrix. Organizational relationships are complicated. If you ask a typical “middle manager”, many would say they report to and/or are assessed by 3 or 4 different leaders. Influence is as important as hierarchy…and many key stakeholders can be found when you map out the matrix of relationships. Which group needs to hear your message because they support the audience being impacted? Which group that is adjunct to an organization works hand-in-hand with the same customers? Figure that out and you can bet that your message will be more impactful.
  4. Create a heat map and put your time/energy into taking action from it. Find a simple formula to rate your stakeholders by degree of influence and engagement, and code them on your map. Create and execute on your action plan by finding the stakeholders that are “green” and having them work with the ones that are “red”. Re-run your heatmap analysis on a periodic basis to see how this changes over time to make sure you address what’s real and what’s happening right now vs. being stuck with a view from the past.
  5. Find the squeaky wheels and cheerleaders. We all know them – the ones who complain and/or negatively influence perceptions of your project. We also know the cheerleaders who can support and lead others so effectively. They live in the middle of the org chart, and if you can find them, they will become your go-to champions (assuming you have a good story for your squeaky wheels to buy into). Pull them into your change network. Let them speak up about the benefits of your solution or plant questions during a Lunch & Learn. Their influence was there long before your project and will continue over time.

Sheri Browning is a Partner at PeopleResults. You can reach her at or on Twitter at sbPResults.