Deliberations on Stakeholder Communication

Whenever I hear Product Managers complaining about a stakeholder that is tough to communicate with, I recall a passage from Radical Candor:

When I was at business school, one of my professors told a story about a meeting between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the economist John Maynard Keynes. FDR was enormously busy, but he spent well over an hour with this academic. If FDR had understood Keynesian economics, some think the Great Depression might have ended sooner and enormous suffering could have been prevented. But at the end of the meeting, the president was not persuaded.

My professor asked the question, “Whose fault was it? FDR’s for not understanding, or Keynes’s for not explaining it well?” This was one of those moments in my education that changed my life. I’d always shifted the burden of responsibility for understanding to the listener, not to the explainer. But now I saw that if Keynes’s genius was locked inside his head, it may as well not have existed. It was his responsibility to make the ideas that seemed so obvious to him equally obvious to FDR. He failed. Far too often we assume that if somebody doesn’t understand what we’re telling them, it’s because they are “stupid” or “closed minded.” That is very rarely the case.”
I always recall this passage because of Product Managers who act like they’re the victims when something goes wrong because of the poor stakeholder communication, while at the same time, they are not considering that communication is a two-way street.
Stakeholder is not a Job Tittle
Look, I get it. Some people are just tough to communicate with. Add to that a mix of various specializations of stakeholders, each coming with their own view on the subject matter, and the communication gets even more formidable. Don’t get me started on communication issues once you spice it up with tight timelines or market complexities.
Nowadays, it’s expected that every member of an organization can (reasonably well) communicate with any other member of the organization. In reality, people usually communicate in a way that reflects their career path and their background. Communicating with a legal counsel expert from Germany differs from communicating with Software Architect from Costa Rica. Finding common ground with them takes a certain effort and experience. They are not trained on how to communicate with Product Managers. That is because being stakeholder is a circumstance they are in. Stakeholder is not their job title.
On the flip side, communicating with stakeholders is an essential responsibility of a Product Manager. Why? Because when it comes to the success of the product, Product Manager bears no less responsibility than the CEO. I can vouch that communication failures with stakeholders, more often than not, lead to undesirable outcomes for your product. It can end up with mistakes that severely damage the revenue. Missed deadlines. Class action lawsuits. The list goes on.
Love Thy Users
Every person is different, and communicates differently. But most likely, every stakeholder you’re communicating with is a human being. And human beings care not just about what things you say, but also about how you say those things. Have you ever encountered those Product Managers who always deeply engage stakeholders, even when pitching a mediocre business case? It’s a skill set that comes naturally to some people, while others have to learn it. While it can take a lot of practice to get to that level, there’s a framework that I found helpful even to Junior Product Managers if applied correctly - it’s called HAIL.
As a Product Manager, love for your users should be at the center of what you do. If you clearly communicate that love to your stakeholders, finding common ground is way easier.
HAIL framework stands for four foundations that should stand on when speaking to others: Honesty, Integrity, Authenticity, and Love. Applying the first three to all aspects of your communications is a no-brainer. People can feel the lack of these qualities and, in the long run, not being honest, integral, or authentic will ruin any chances for a successful management career. But what’s really powerful is incorporating love into your communication. As a Product Manager, love for your users should be at the center of what you do. If you clearly communicate that love to your stakeholders, finding common ground is way easier, regardless of the subject.
But what if…
But what if all the attempt at communication with a specific problematic stakeholder constantly fail, no matter how much effort you’ve placed into in? What if you continuously fail to find common ground?
I’d always suggest embracing what other people in the organization are doing. Find other people in the organization who work with that stakeholder. Ideally, someone who’s your peer. Are there any learnings that they can share? Any specific communication strategy that worked in the past? It’s likely that someone already found an approach that works with that stakeholder. If no one in the organization can efficiently communicate with that stakeholder, the best thing you can do is help the stakeholder exit the organization.
To sum it up, there is a way to communicate with any stakeholder efficiently in most cases. And it's always a Product Managers' job to find that way.