How to (Actually) Get Heard by Your Stakeholders
Principle & CEO
I once worked with a chief operations officer—we’ll call him Nicolas—who was asked by his CEO to present an update to the board. Nicolas prepared beautiful charts and airtight talking points to walk the directors of this private equity owned company through its day-to-day operations.
But, it didn’t go to plan. After the meeting, the CEO reported back to that the directors were dissatisfied with his presentation. They did not feel confident in the operations management of the company and left the meeting with more questions than answers.
Nicolas was dismayed, but more than that, he was perplexed. What could he have done differently? He had meticulously walked them through every aspect of the day-to-day function of the business. And, he demonstrated the efficiency and effectiveness of the enterprise. He thought they’d be thrilled.
Where did he go wrong?
Leading with Their Cares
Here’s a principle of effective communication that draws deeply on human nature: If you want someone to hear what you have to say, get to what matters to you by way of what matters to them. Or, as I often coach my clients, to really get through to someone, lead with their fundamental care.
When you lead with the other person’s fundamental care, you activate their listening on a deeper level. You prime them with the context necessary to open up and take in the information you’re trying to convey in a meaningful way. Without taking that step, they may hear what you’re saying, but likely, they’re not listening. And if they aren’t listening, you aren’t communicating.
Where Nicolas Went Wrong
As COO, Nicolas’s domain was the operational function of the business, the internal affairs. So that’s what he presented on–how things were going in his narrowly defined domain, the metrics pertaining to internal operations. After all, that’s what the CEO had called him in to present on in the first place. What else was he supposed to talk about?
The issue was–he was so focused on these internal metrics that he completely forgot to lead with the directors’ cares. As a private equity board, and their fundamental care was about seeing a return on that investment. Meaning, efficient operations is interesting to the private equity board inasmuch as it speaks to the board’s investment strategy.
The questions ringing in their ears are:
- How will this company be better positioned in the marketplace?
- What competitive advantage are we leveraging to gain market share?
- What is the biggest threat to our success? What will delay our exit?
As COO, he wasn’t thinking about all of that. He was just trying to do a “good job” on the operations—and to show the board as much. He figured the board’s own questions were better left to the CEO, who was focused on long-term goals and broad company outlook. That might have been true on paper, in terms of what was in their job descriptions. But, the result was that he was not effective in communicating with a key stakeholder.
If Nicolas knew to lead with the directors’ fundamental cares, he might have gone about his preparation differently. He may have grounded himself in the board’s investment strategy. He may have sought to understand more about the directors who were present: Who are they? What other companies are in their portfolio? How does his company fit into all of it? What are they trying to achieve as an investment company? What do they want to know from the COO? And, ultimately, Nicolas may have shaped his presentation around these findings. Then, his updates about the nitty-gritty operations of the business could have landed in a totally different way.
We’ve entered an age in which leaders are expected to navigate various stakeholder interests as a foundational competency. As such, the job of a leader is to speak to the cares of all stakeholders. This includes directors and investors, but it goes way beyond that: employees, suppliers, local communities and governments, to name a few. Engaging these stakeholders can only happen in conversation. And as we’ve seen, these conversations will only be effective when that stakeholder feels as though what matters to them is front and center. The minor shift of leading with these fundamental cares, can have an immediate and outsized impact on the quality of these critical interactions.