One of my coaching clients (we’ll call her Cindy) was in trouble. Cindy’s department was responsible for delivering content marketing for the business units, and those important stakeholders were not happy. Cindy’s manager thought the root of the problem was a bad attitude and lack of creativity; I suspected a lack of alignment.
Cindy and I worked together for about a year. It took some myth busting and deep thinking for her to finally realize that building relationships and adding value for her internal customers were the most important parts of her job. Once Cindy grasped that priority, she started performing at a much higher level. More importantly, her peers and stakeholders began to view her as a collaborative ally.
The catalyst for this change? Cindy had successfully learned the meta skill of driving alignment.
If you are a leader, your primary job isn’t to develop a product or a process; it’s to drive and support alignment with your internal stakeholders. I frequently talk to my clients about the three dimensions of leadership (leading yourself, leading others, and leading your organization), and driving alignment gets top billing in the leading-your-organization category.
Why is driving alignment so important?
Driving alignment is a critical skill for project leaders and managers—anyone who leads a team to deliver a needed service or work product to another group or department. The ultimate success (or failure) of these leaders is determined by the results of their combined efforts, so it’s essential for them to align their business goals with those of their internal stakeholders.
Professionals who are adept at driving alignment usually have a unique combination of foundational skills: the capacity to build trust and respect, manage healthy conflict, give and take, negotiate with finesse, facilitate and collaborate, nurture relationships, share a vision, and jointly solve problems. Leaders who can apply all of those skills simultaneously reap major benefits but, admittedly, it is a very tall order. Complicate that challenge with limited budgets and tight deadlines, and you can see why some efforts to drive alignment involve turf wars, strategic battles, and even gamesmanship.
How can you build stakeholder alignment?
If you need to improve your skills at driving alignment, here are 10 best practices to help you get better results:
Get in their heads. You can’t align with stakeholders if you don’t know what they are thinking. Don’t assume you know what they need; ask! Be curious and patient. Their first response might not tell the whole story. Dig deeper. What do they really want? What do they care about?
Shift your perspective. As you make decisions, try to see things from your stakeholders’ perspectives. You can’t serve them and add value unless you can incorporate their viewpoints into your thought processes. Just keep asking WIIFT (“what’s in it for them?”).
Agree on joint initiatives. Once you understand your stakeholders’ needs and perspectives, establish common goals you can work toward together. The first step in fostering a win/win alliance is teaming up to co-create a shared action plan.
Get to the point. As you talk to stakeholders, use headlines as a way to introduce your topics. Be concise, and stay organized. If you try to bury them with details, your stakeholders will likely boot you out the door. Or wish they could.
Communicate frequently. You might feel like you’re repeating yourself, but not all stakeholders can attend all of your team meetings. On a regular basis, let them know about your progress and success stories. Ask to hear about theirs.
Switch up your interactions. Don’t get stuck in an email-only relationship rut. Pick up the phone and call your stakeholders. Meet one-on-one or in groups. Get together in different places. Their office, your office, or a neutral site. Schedule coffee or lunch appointments to further build relationships and discover other things you have in common. Plus, you’ll probably get more honest opinions at the corner booth rather than the conference table.
Do your homework. Before you show up to speak to a larger group of stakeholders, meet with a few in advance to test your ideas and initiatives. This early feedback may help you further customize your presentation and avoid any landmine topics.
Be transparent. Explain the “whys” of your actions to stakeholders when appropriate. By providing some context for your choices, you can help them to see your perspective and demonstrate your commitment to shared objectives.
Remain flexible. Strategies and priorities change. Murphy’s Law may kick in. When things don’t go as planned, adaptable people hang in there. Responding quickly to support stakeholders during times of adversity is a sure way to win their long-term loyalty.
Deliver consistently. When you repeatedly deliver exactly what your stakeholders need, they can tell that you “get it.” They sense that you care. Developing that trust and emotional connection is the key to successfully driving alignment with your stakeholders.
How do you work to drive alignment in your organization? I’d love to hear your creative ideas.
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