Select Page

I remember when I just started working as a product owner and heard the term stakeholders. It sounded significant to me.

My initial thought was that they knew everything, and it’s critical for me to listen carefully to them. This was of course my pre-assumptions about stakeholders.

After working a while with them, I then thought, I don’t like them that much, and they occur to me as not organized. They might come up with unrealistic expectations and demand things that do not really add any value to the product and especially to the customers/users.

I sound really judgmental, but this was the older version of me. I judge less now 🙂

However, after working for a while, I realized that I was having a love/hate relationship with them. Like any other relationship, it’s not them but me who should take the leadership and responsibility.

To understand my relationship with stakeholders. I started discovering what they are not:

Stakeholders are not the end user of the product (most of the time)

Some stakeholders could present themselves as the end user but in reality, they won’t be using the product. They might even tell you that they know what the end user needs. This could be possible if they have a UX team who did research and came up with user needs, but I doubt it.

Stakeholders are not my enemies

I’m exaggerating here, of course, but occasionally, you might feel the pressure from them and not having a clear idea how on how to deal with them. In certain situations, you could struggle to come up to a decision or a solution if the stakes are high. Unfortunately, it’s the case most of the time.

After working for a while, I notice that stakeholders are people like you and me with a mission, vision and daily business. They are trying to achieve a goal which they believe in. How I see stakeholders now:

Stakeholders are my partners

As business partners, they have knowledge, skills, powers, agenda’s and wishes. They are all different, but they are my partners, they like to work with me to get things done, so we can deliver the best product/solution.

Like every partner, they have good and bad sides. It’s up to you on how to behave and deal with them. After all, we are all human and have emotions and needs. Like any other relationship, it’s important to have trust in each other, have integrity and act from a place of love.

Stakeholders are experts

They are experts of one area of the business. They have teams, targets, budgets, and plans. Most of them have also bonuses that they don’t want to miss, so they might be pushy to get things done.

They have knowledge and have done different projects before, they might be busy but know many people within the organization and have special powers. Don’t ignore that.

Stakeholders are enablers

They have powers to make things possible. Once you partner up with them, they can enable you to reach and do more. See their powers and try to use it if possible to get closer to your goals.

So now you know what stakeholders are and are not, the question arises to how your relationship should be with them. I, personally, don’t like the term stakeholder management, after all we are talking about people, so I would use stakeholder relationships instead.

My relationship with stakeholders

As a product owner, I wear so many hats, I am a guide, a mentor, a coach, a visionary, a strategist, a leader, so I need to act in that way in every interaction with stakeholders. Every interaction with them will give me enormous possibilities to understand them and connect on a deeper level, so I can partner up. My relationship consists of honesty, understanding, integrity and doing the right things when needed.

1. Take the time to understand stakeholders

Every stakeholder is responsible for an area of the product you work on. Most of them have teams and responsibilities to take care of. Like all of us, they have their agenda, priorities, and biases.

So, it’s crucial to connect with them and understand their needs. When you take the time to connect and understand them, it will make it easier for you to know what you should do when they come to you.

2. Understand their why before implementing their what or how

Some stakeholders can come to you with a solution that they think is best to implement. Usually, these solutions won’t be used by them, but rather by the end user. In these cases, try to understand why they want this solution so you can figure out the problem that they attempt to solve.

As a product owner you know, none of us is super man and bringing that problem to the team allows the team to come up with the best way to solve it.

3. Watch out for your ego and the ego of stakeholders

You might want to push back, or that stakeholders will put pressure on you.

It’s not about who is right or wrong or which way to go, it’s about doing the right thing for the product within the restrictions, possibilities, and considerations.

Be aware of your ego in these cases and try to be open to create new possibilities together.

4. Say no if you think their requests are not adding value to the product

A stakeholder is your partner, so see them as equals and not as someone who is above or below you (you should never see anyone in this way). As partners, you discuss, brainstorm and get to solutions together.

If you believe that their requests are not well put together or is not adding any value to the product, it’s your responsibility to say no.

5. Enable collaboration between the team and stakeholders

Don’t restrict stakeholders from contacting the team. Let them connect with the team members and share idea’s. Encourage them to connect with the team members and create a safe environment for sharing ideas.

6. Lead meeting with stakeholders

When you have meeting with different stakeholders, it’s important to lead those meetings and have a structured setup of the meeting. The goal of every meeting should be clear, and every meeting should either get you to a decision or action plan.

Watch out for the stakeholders that are good to create noise without adding any value, focus on your goal and lead them toward what is possible.

7. Lead with courage

As a product owner, you are a leader who brings different perspectives together to maximize value. Lead with courage in every interaction with stakeholders, ask the difficult questions, speak about emotions, don’t hide anything and be honest and transparent about your thoughts, struggles, and idea’s.

Final thoughts

Like every relationship, take responsibility for yourself and lead with courage. Don’t blame others for mistakes, set boundaries and coach anyone if needed to create new possibilities.

As a product owner, you should take responsibility for any part and enable the team to move forward. If some stakeholders are struggling or brining the product in danger, be there and stand for those colleges, so you can move forward.

You are not only a product owner, you are a leader, and leaders make things happen.

I’m really curious to your take on relationships with stakeholders? Please share your thoughts in the comments. If you liked this pieces, please let me know and let’s connect on medium and LinkedIn.

I’ll post weekly articles about product management, Leadership & transformation and Business.