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A product manager is responsible for leading a cross-functional development team in building and iterating on a product. A big part of that responsibility is collaborating with people in your organization who aren’t on the team but are interested in the product. Managing these stakeholders can be challenging, but the work is essential for delivering a successful product. Engaged stakeholders can provide helpful feedback and advocate for your product. However, disengaged stakeholders can seem like they are throwing needless obstacles and pointless requests in your path. But how can you create an efficient and engaging stakeholder culture?

The most important thing is having empathy for your stakeholders. They have many competing priorities and are taking time and attention away from those things to contribute to the success of your product. With that in mind, here are three tips for bringing empathy to your stakeholder relationships and building successful products:

Employees working in a common lounge at Civis's Chicago office

1: Choose stakeholders judiciously

Figuring out who should be a stakeholder can be tricky. Oftentimes there are functions (e.g., sales, marketing, or compliance) that need to be represented, and these functions may or may not have specific people mapped to them. Then, there are the random people across the company who have an interest in your product and request to get more involved. As a thoughtful product manager, you might also know individuals who have valuable insights and can be meaningful contributors.

To maximize productivity, stakeholders should know what their role is, what is expected of them and why. Over-communication is key.

Here at Civis, our stakeholders typically include the CTO, marketing and PR, sales, business operations, client success, the product manager, designer, and lead engineer. The engineer demoing the sprint outcome also attends, and depending on the topic, other team members may join as well. For us, this is the right combination and quantity of people in the right place at the right time.

2: Make your stakeholders lives easier by over-communicating

Remember, stakeholders are busy people. Your product is important, but so are many other things. To receive actionable, useful feedback, stay organized and clarify your asks: what feedback you want, at what point you’d like it, and the channel by which you’d like to receive that feedback.

Hosting stakeholder 1:1s versus group meetings is a moderately controversial concept in the product space. I am a firm believer in having group meetings (though ad hoc 1:1s can be useful in some instances) because in a group setting, the team benefits from hearing feedback directly. Opening the meeting up to any interested party, though, can distract — at some magic number (around nine or so), people stop paying attention. They become less engaged and less willing to speak up because they assume someone else will bring up issues.

In terms of cadence, at Civis, we’ve found that scheduling meetings every two weeks — ensuring they start and end on time — is easy for our stakeholders to manage, as measured by attendance and participation. The agenda provides themes to cover, but, as the PM, I still do a lot of prep work for these meetings — filling in specifics for each topic, and giving each stakeholder a heads up when I want them to prepare updates for the group. The agenda is in a Google Doc attached to the calendar invite, and we take notes in the agenda for those who can’t attend. Because our agenda is attached to the meeting invite, they can find it and catch up easily. They can also prep quickly for the meeting and can access an easy, common reference for things they want to report back to their teams.

3: Establish and enforce norms around stakeholder participation

Remember, the reason you have stakeholders is for buy-in and feedback. Request that each stakeholder prepare updates before the meeting, creating an environment where the stakes for speaking up are low — meaning more participation, and in turn, a positive feedback loop. Ensuring stakeholders feel valued is crucial to productive meetings (and keeping attendance high!), so remember to stay open to any suggestions and appreciative of contributions, regardless of whether they are explicitly incorporated into the product.

For example, in a typical Civis Research team meeting, an executive with a keen eye for UX may suggest small changes that have a big user impact, a marketer may make an opportune connection to a different initiative in the organization, and a salesperson may weigh in on how a new feature could be received by clients. The healthy dialogue improves the product and makes for a better employee experience.

Stakeholders can be a lovely asset for you, your team, and your product. Selecting the right stakeholders, staying considerate of their time and energy, and providing clarity around expectations are ways that product teams can show appreciation for individuals in the company helping with product development. With the right planning and empathy, a product manager can make development and launching of a product a positive experience for everyone.