Manager Training: Stakeholder Communication

Why

As an engineering manager, you are responsible for business outcomes. And most of the time, you alone don’t have full control over the outcomes. You need to work with multiple other teams or departments, say the product management team, the operation team, the design team, the business analytics team. In order to achieve almost any meaningful outcome, you need to manage these stakeholders effectively.

Over-communicate

The most important step is to make sure you are on the same page with your stakeholders. Any misalignment can pull the team in different directions. One suggestion is to have regular 1:1s and/or a leads meeting at least weekly for the key partners.

When you organize such meetings, you should: Try to keep it small: only invite the min group necessary to take action for the success of the team. Many studies show that a large group could make the meeting ineffective. Align with your partners the priorities, and the strategies behind hitting them. Raise any flags of what you’re worried about that may hinder success. Such as feedback for each other or other team members, new areas emerging, etc. Problem-solve together, walk away with AIs.

When you are in the meeting, trying to be transparent: sharing everything. Teams are intertwined, it is very important as you plan for your team that stakeholders are in the loop to plan accordingly and give feedback.

Bridge the gap on tech

As an engineering manager, many times you need to explain your tech work to the nonengineering stakeholders. Tech work here meaning the work that is not tracked on the product OKRs, say improve the service reliability, improve the code quality, etc. Your cross-functional partners should be able to articulate the “why” behind these work as well as you do because they need to justify it to their own organization as well. One way is to try to answer this question: if I am an end-user, why do I care about that. And you should try to write these reasons down and pass it over to your stakeholders.

It is also important that when you plan for the work, you should try to plan the project so that you can deliver incremental impact or benefits, even if some times this means you need to take a detour.

Handle Disagreement

An important part of communication is to handle disagreement. The first point is to have empathy. You should be your delivery’s advocate, but in the meantime, as a thought experiment, try to switch sides with the other person and try to convince yourself from the other’s point of view. It is said that “S/he is no good layer who can not take two sides”, this also applies to the leader.

If you can’t convince the other side, try to propose an alternative path forward or middle ground to try to solve at least part the problem of your stakeholder. It is not enough to just say no.

When you don’t have enough information to make a decision, you can use a “disagree and commit” strategy, as gaining too much information to make a decision is too slow in most situations. But you should pick the battle and use this strategy wisely, it is better to be wrong than to be indecisive.

When you and your partner can’t reach an agreement or both of you agree to escalate, you should consider escalating the case. You should use this strategy carefully because if you escalate all the time, you are asking your boss to do your job. And when you escalate, it is important that you keep it clean: you should set a time with the mutual agreed decision-maker and commit to whichever outcome the decision-maker choose. You should try to avoid escalate without notifying your partners as this erodes trust. The decision-maker doesn’t have to be your boss, for tech discussions, you can reach out to more senior engineers.

Communicate Upwards

The most important part is probably to agree on the cadence of your report. You can set a calendar reminder to fill the report out consistently: consistency goes a very long way. You should also be transparent on the issue you are facing: your updates are not only for accountability, but also to identify problems and help to get the project back on track.

You should also minimize the overheads for your own reports just so that you can save as much time as possible for them to do the work.

Holding effective meetings

If the communication to your stakeholders goes more than 3 ~ 4 emails or JIRA comments, you should hold a meeting. And here are a few tips to keep the meeting productive.

Prior to the meeting, think about what it takes for the meeting to be successful and productive. During the meeting, don’t be afraid to inject if the discussion is off the track. And after the meeting, send an email reminder to all attendees to document the key decisions and listing AIs. And you should assume it is on your to get the AIs done.

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