I remember when I just started working as a Product Owner. I felt the weight of the term “stakeholder” whenever it was mentioned.

My initial thoughts were that stakeholders knew everything, and it was critical for me to listen carefully to them. These were of course, presumptions.

After working with internal stakeholders for a while, I then felt I didn’t like them that much. They seemed unorganized to me. They came up with unrealistic expectations. Likewise, they demanded things that didn’t really add any value to the product and didn’t consider the customers or users. I sound really judgmental, but this was the old me. I judge less now 🙂

After three years of product management work, I realized that I had a love/hate relationship with stakeholders. Like in any other relationship, it wasn’t them but it was me who had to 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 might present themselves as the end user, but in reality, they won’t be using the product. They might even tell you they know what the end user needs. This could be possible if they have a UX team who have done the research and have come 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 have a clear idea how on how to deal with it. In certain situations, you might struggle to come up with a decision or a solution if the stakes are high. Unfortunately, this is the case most of the time.

Eventually, I realized stakeholders are people just like you and me. They have a mission, vision and daily commitments. They are trying to achieve a goal they believe in. How I see stakeholders now:

Stakeholders are my partners

As my business partners, they have differing knowledge, skills, powers, agendas, and wishes. They work with me to get things done so we can deliver the best product or solution.

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

Stakeholders are experts

They are experts in 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 out on, so they might be pushy about getting things done.

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

Stakeholders are enablers

They can make things possible. Once you partner up with them, they can enable you to do more. Use what they offer to get closer to your goals.

So now you know what stakeholders are and are not, the question of what your relationship with them should be arises.

I, personally, don’t like the term stakeholder management. We are talking about people, after all, so I would use stakeholder relationship building 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, and a leader.

I need to act in all those ways in different interactions with different stakeholders. Every interaction with them will give me enormous possibilities to understand them and connect on a deeper level.

The aim is always to partner up. My side of the 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 are working 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 do so, 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 come to you with the solution 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 they are attempting to solve.

As a Product Owner you know there’s no magic solution. Instead, come up with the best way to solve the problem as a team.

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

You might need to push back. If you don’t, 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 creating new possibilities together.

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

Stakeholders are your partners. See them as equals and not as above or below you. (You should never see anyone in this way.) As partners, you discuss, brainstorm and reach solutions together.

If you believe that their requests are not well put together or are 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 your team. Let them connect with your team members and share ideas. Encourage them to connect and create a safe environment for sharing ideas.

6. Lead meeting with stakeholders

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

Watch out for the stakeholders that create noise without adding 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. Be honest and transparent about your thoughts, struggles, and ideas.

Final thoughts

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

As a Product Owner, you are accountable for maximizing the product value. You enable the team to move forward toward the shared vision.

If a stakeholder is struggling, be there for them. If a stakeholder is jeopardizing the product, have an open conversation with them.

You are not only a Product Owner, you are a leader, and leaders make things happen.
I’m really curious to hear your take on relationship building with stakeholders.

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I’ll be posting weekly articles about Product Management, Leadership & Transformation and Business.