Life in 2D via Zoom meetings has made it easier to maintain relationships, but harder to build new ones. Business travel, face-to-face meetings and networking have all but disappeared as a way of getting things done, and a stable internet connection has now become the most basic of tools for the Business Leader.
Some companies have taken the entrepreneurial route. They are using their existing networks to build new ones, for example by asking for introductions over a ‘virtual’ coffee. Their business needs long-term, trusting relationships to succeed, so they are re-setting their approach. They are also thinking about their traditional approach to stakeholder management, and whether it is fit for purpose.
At Kina Advisory we think business leaders looking for more effective business delivery outcomes, risk management and competitive advantage should adopt a Corporate Diplomacy mindset and culture — building relationships ahead of need. This means negotiating and creating long-term interest-based alliances with key external players to advance your company’s interests and achieve sustainable outcomes. Here are some principles to follow: -
1. Put business delivery and risk management at the centre
There is plenty of evidence that companies actively managing their external relationships gain commercially. Whether recovering more quickly from business downturns, achieving higher returns on equity or simply avoiding unplanned costs, the business benefits are clear. So why do so many projects stall?
No company or project exists in isolation of its location. What your stakeholders think about your activities, your impact and ways of working all have a bearing on your success. They decide. The only way to handle this effectively is to see beyond the immediate issue, engage with your stakeholders’ interests and understand their various motivations and constraints.
This means moving stakeholder management to the heart of business delivery from the outset, ensuring senior level accountability and management focus, just as for technical and commercial delivery. Corporate Diplomacy is about creating an enabling environment for your business or project. Think about the long-term positioning and relationship outcomes you need for success. Then develop an understanding of what is or could be beneath any tensions or disagreements. Focus your engagement efforts on achieving these outcomes and managing these tensions.
2. Put trust at the heart of your relationships
The foundation of good relationships is trust. Whether a personal or working relationship, we all want to feel that others will deliver on their promises, in good faith and with our best interests at heart (because they understand us). Naturally this extends to the way people see our business, but trust between companies, governments, communities and employees can be fragile.
An African telecoms company entering a new market will need to prove its technical competence in connecting its customers, that it will deliver the coverage it has promised and that its network is reliable. That’s one kind of trust, but a loss of signal will damage that trust very quickly indeed. Corporate Diplomacy focuses on establishing a deeper kind of trust, based on shared values, shared needs and aligned interests. We all like to work with people who value what we value and believe what we believe. If this type of trust exists between our telecoms company and its stakeholders, they are far more likely to work together to find a solution, avoiding possible fines or changes to regulation that will affect business delivery.
So, if the priority of your stakeholder management strategy is the active pursuit of trusting relationships, you’re on the right track. You must then make sure you fulfil the commitments you make — which means thinking very carefully before you make them.
3. Focus on ‘win-win’ outcomes
Easier said than done perhaps. But addressing stakeholder issues with a ‘win-win’ mindset can be a really effective way to build and sustain long-term relationships. ‘Win-win’ often conjures up a zero-sum game, however the focus is on each party actively engaging with and seeking to meet the needs of the other and at the same time articulating and promoting their own needs. They work together to develop options to achieve both goals. Perhaps I should call it ‘build-build’ or ‘help-help’. A competing strategy, in which we seek to promote our own interests over that of others, may secure our interests (a win!), but it will almost certainly damage the relationship for the ‘losing’ party.
Reaching this level of alignment takes work, and business leaders will need to look for opportunities to collaborate with stakeholders, perhaps creating different meeting formats, alternative agendas or new platforms for sharing and explaining respective points of view. You will need to listen actively to respond to your stakeholders’ needs, at the same time being clear on your own needs and expectations.
The Corporate Diplomacy approach aligns your business with its stakeholders, building relationships ahead of need and bringing their interests right to the heart of project development and business delivery. As a leader it is your job to make this change, from making clear links between successful stakeholder relationships and delivery of your vision — particularly for your employees — through to your business planning process and development of Key Performance Indicators. Corporate Diplomacy is about positioning your business for success in any context, and in my final post of this series, to be published on 15th April, I will introduce a framework to help your organisation bring it to life.