The art of stakeholder engagement is one of the essential skills for a Project Manager, therefore all project professionals should dedicate time to identifying, studying and practically developing their soft skills to ensure that project stakeholders help, rather than hinder project success. Soft skills are the unseen qualities against the hard skills (i.e qualifications). Appreciating these skills are detrimental to success in any career.
As the APM says:
“…because the management of projects is a discipline spanning so many areas of human interaction; with different types of people in different fields, project management, uniquely as a profession, requires us to develop a range of personal skills, or soft skills, to complement our ‘hard skills’. It’s been said before but projects are all about the people; so it is a combination of this range of skills from the hard to soft and everything that encompasses in between that makes for an effective project manager, by which we mean simply a consistently successful PM.”
There are numerous soft skills, but what are the ultimate ones for engaging stakeholders?
An expectation of Project Managers is to converse with stakeholders both written and verbally in various situations such as workshops and reporting. Communication can be a challenging soft skill as some people excel at verbal communication but come off terrible in written communication.
Failure to utilise this soft skill creates the risk of being unable to get the support and buy-in of key stakeholders who can make a project sink or swim.
A master of good communication adjusts their message to suit their audience. Florence Nightingale was an excellent example of someone who mastered this attribute. Whether it was writing medical tracts aimed at the poor with simple English or making appeals to government, its clear that Nightingale understood the art of tailoring her communications to suit her stakeholder.
Negotiation & conflict resolution
The Project Manager faces conflict as part of their daily role, whether it is over resources, the direction of the project or general team dynamics; so the ability to understand, negotiate and resolve conflict is an important skill to have.
The problem of conflict arises in stakeholders due to lack of understanding or unwillingness to take on stakeholder needs. Conflict is not necessary a bad thing as Pinto and Kharbanda point out in their 1995 study, as the process of conflict has the benefit of creating mutual understanding and through the process of discussion can uncover further issues that would not have been visible without further negotiation.
The ability of negotiation and conflict resolution isn’t about just getting what you want, but being able to listen, understand, challenge and manage expectations of stakeholders so that solutions can be sought.
Project leadership, most simply, is the act of leading a team towards the successful completion of a project.
This is okay, but leadership isn’t restricted to those with ‘manager’ in their job descriptions. Some of the best leaders in fact have no management role, but are a key voice in making important decisions to influence, change and lead other stakeholders.
Therefore it doesn’t matter if you are a Project Sponsor all the way to Project Support, it helps to be able to demonstrate some sort of leadership skills. By being a leader you show the ability to take initiative and think critically of each situation; important attributes if you want to progress in your career.
Demonstrating leadership skills is effective for communication with stakeholders, it is not just about implementing what you think is effective, but being able to take a 360 view of your environment, taking the needs, motivation and thoughts of others into account.
Being a good team worker is always needed to achieve common goals, being able to fit the required roles, knowing when to contribute and when to listen.
Good team workers utilising each others strengths and minimise their weaknesses, assisting in the development of each other by sharing knowledge and experience. They also make attempts to understand the needs and feelings of their stakeholders.
There are excellent Project Managers who are good at working on their own, yet when it comes to working as a team, their cooperation and communication with the rest of the team is poor, leading to a project team who duplicates work, is clueless and lost without direction — wondering what is expected from them.
“Remember upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.”
Alexander the Great
Decisiveness is essential for the Project Manager to ensure that projects are kept on schedule and stakeholder needs are met. Failure to be decisive, by changing ones mind regularly, sitting on the fence or being unable to make a decision will frustrate stakeholders both internal and external.
Being decisive requires being able to review options, anticipate risks and make them in a timely manner — you are taking responsibility for your decision.
Whether your approach is to be completely decisive or prefer to take a more evidence based approach before making a decision, it is important you understand the direction you want the project to go in; whether it is to continue, delay or close — then it needs to be finally, otherwise you will get a lot annoyed people frustrated at the lack of clear leadership.
Work under pressure
A Project Manager has a number of pressures in their role such as being able to handle demanding deadlines and prioritise their workload. To ensure that stakeholder requirements are met, the need to work under pressure is expected, going above and beyond.
This soft skill is about handling this pressure by managing any stress, taking time to look after your wellbeing, managing expectations of stakeholders, being able to manage conflict, planning, and delegating. As Business2Community says — remain calm, focus on the task at hand and help others through the difficulty.
The advantage of working under pressure is that it tests and stretches potential, so you can become better than yesterday — which can’t be a bad thing if you want to move to the next level.
“Pressure makes diamonds”
General George Patton
You are waiting for an important piece of work from a supplier by close of play Friday, ready for a board meeting on Tuesday. It’s getting later in the day so you send a gentle reminder.
“Apologies we are not going to be able to get it done today, there has been an emergency”, they respond.
Your natural response might be to have a fit.
This is the wrong approach, a Project Manager needs to display flexibility, therefore the best response in this scenario is to understand the issue and renegotiate the deadline. For this scenario you’ve now agreed 12pm on Monday — for your report you will focus on the information you have and add their part afterwards.
The benefit to being flexible is that you will build relationships with stakeholders, by exercising give and take, they will remember your flexibility and should extend the same courtesy to you if you should ever need it. By having this skill you are proactive to meeting changing needs anticipating risks in a challenging environment and building stronger relationships.
In engaging with stakeholders Project Managers may have to explain various complex issues to a wide range of audience, as well as being able to communicate this appropriately if the Project Manager does not have the confidence to explain their thoughts and visions in an effective manner then stakeholders may not buy-in to the project.
Hernán Cortés burnt his ships when he landed in Veracruz in 1519, was a sign of confidence to his men that they would achieve his goal, despite the risks they faced. The Project Manager has to be confident to gain the buy-in of his stakeholders, being able to rise above risks and address dire and hopeless situations. If you are unable to speak with confidence, then why should anyone else have self-belief in your abilities.
Soft skills are an attribute often overlooked in preference for practical knowledge. They should not be, in a competitive work environment many people have the same hard skills on their CV — the soft skills are the attributes that make you stand out, showing your ability to handle situations and demonstrate true value.
There are numerous books on soft skills, but efforts should be made to go beyond theory, creating opportunities to practice these with your projects stakeholders. For stakeholder engagement it is invaluable as it shows the ability to engage, understand and lead those you directly work with.
Finally a potent combination is utilising soft skills with being a subject matter expert for a hard skill, which the average person does not know have in your project career path. This will create a major impact showing others what you can do.
Are there any soft skills that you feel are valuable for stakeholder engagement that I didn’t mention? Please comment below.