Towards Better Stakeholder Engagement
Audrey Ho, financial stakeholder communications specialist, shares her formula for ensuring better, more effective dialogue
Stakeholder engagement can be tricky on so many levels. Collaboration with various stakeholders, each of whom comes with their own set of experiences, values and expectations can make the entire process challenging. Your ability to anticipate both the potential of such dialogue and possible pitfalls will be key to effectively managing the group well.
In this exclusive interview with Audrey Ho, we are privileged to get further insight into what makes for better dialogue and engagement. A financial stakeholder communications specialist, she has more than 12 years experience in driving effective external and internal programmes in enhancing stakeholder engagement, media visibility, issues management and content development.
Audrey understands what the role involves having worked with and reported directly to the C-suite at two of the largest telecommunications companies listed on Bursa Malaysia. This is boosted by her accumulated and extensive financial services industry experience which include successful stints as Head of Research with foreign-owned broking companies both in Malaysia and Singapore.
Do you use a particular formula for ensuring stakeholder dialogues are fruitful?
Audrey: I deal primarily with financial stakeholders across the entire investment spectrum. So this ranges from the buy and sell analysts all the way through to fund managers and the financial media. Generally, these discussions have forward leaning implications so I find that extra care is particularly important when presenting the investment story and this needs to be done consistently. Needless to say, preparation prior to meetings or any engagements are critical to the process. For the initial meeting, I find that doing some quick background research on the investment philosophy of the various stakeholders to be quite helpful. And for ongoing dialogue, taking note of earlier concerns and addressing them upfront goes a long way. Consistency is key in all of this.
What these dialogues present is an opportunity to tap into the expertise of the stakeholders – their long years of experience and industry knowledge. With this, we are better prepared to consider and review new ideas, risks as well as opportunities as they arise.
What are some of the typical ways misunderstandings can occur?
Audrey: There are many ways misunderstandings can occur. Clarity of communication and of objectives do play their part. But I find that it is often not so much a case of misunderstanding as it is about stakeholders who are only interested in you confirming their views on particular issues or who are driven by particular outcomes. Often, this is based on their perception of the situation and issue. I find that if I can balance the competing expectations and lay the issues clearly, that helps.
What do you believe are key skills necessary to navigate the engagement well?
Audrey: I would highlight three in particular. First, having the ability to deal with unexpected questions. This requires being comfortable within an uncertain environment and remaining calm so that issues can be addressed without too much emotion or reaction. Secondly, the ability to refocus the discussion at hand when it goes off the mark. In stakeholder meetings, this possibility is very real. Sometimes, the discussion veers into topics which are completely off the table. You have to manage the expectations of the parties involved, their emotions and behaviour as well as their reaction to you as you attempt to steer the discussion back. This can be volatile and the manner in which it’s done has to be appropriate to the situation and people involved. Third, the ability to build trust and understanding between all the parties. The presence of trust leads to a more open and inclusive environment, with mutual understanding often as a bedrock. What’s important is to remember the differences each stakeholder brings in terms of degree of influence, approach and values.
Please explain what taking an issue-based approach means.
Audrey: In the context of my work, it means that if there is a particular issue which needs to be disclosed to stakeholders, I do it in the best way possible focusing on providing as much clarity as I can and ensuring that the interests of the organisation itself are protected at all times.
What is this thing called ‘engagement fatigue’ and how can you detect early signs of it?
Audrey: This is really about doing the same old thing, in the same old way through the many engagements pursued over a short period of time. Remember that stakeholders may have limited resources, whether that is time, people or money. These elements can contribute to such fatigue. You know it is setting in when stakeholders ask, “So, what’s next then?
What do you suggest as effective prevention of ‘engagement fatigue’?
Audrey: There are a couple of things you can do. First, have a clear roadmap of the number of engagements that need to be undertaken over the next 12 months. Be clear about developing the key messages for each one of these engagements.
Second, carry out a critical review after each engagement. What are you looking for? Areas which are weak and which need improvement. Be flexible enough that you are open to tweaking what needs adjustment. Third, take into account whatever stakeholder feedback you receive. The primary idea here is flexibility in terms of time and approach so that whatever constraints are faced can be addressed through the engagement strategy.
What are some of the primary elements of a good stakeholder engagement programme?
Audrey: The overall objectives and critical issues of all stakeholders should be well understood and then addressed in an informed manner. Communication is key on many levels in that it needs to be effective in delivering the intended results. How do you achieve this? First, you have to get the right spokesperson to deliver the message. Explanations should be clear yet concise, free from technical jargon. Simple language is always best. Second, tell a story. The use of the narrative is compelling in building support for your key message and lastly, balance the competing expectations. It needs to be a win-win for all, where possible. Everyone should feel heard and understood.
How do you make such a programme sustainable?
Audrey: In the long run, communication is yet again a critical component. Where possible, embrace and establish a variety of communication channels. Use your website, social media platforms, email but also, traditional channels like face to face meetings where needed.
Active listening is an asset. This is a way of both listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. Because often, when we talk to others, we’re not really listening. We’re thinking of points we want to make, we’re figuring out how to respond or react to what’s been said, we get distracted. By actively listening, we are embracing a structured form of both listening and responding to the other party and addressing the issues raised in an informed manner.
I would also add mapping out your stakeholders. This means identifying who among them has more impact or influence on the initiative as well as who may be more affected. By grouping and subgrouping these various people, your decision making in terms of engagement is more informed and this is an evolutionary process. Expect that things will change throughout the lifecycle as new situations or parties come to the forefront.
What do you believe is critical to professional success?
Audrey: There are a number of things I have discovered to be important. Finding your passion is one. Without it, it’s mere existence, there is no higher purpose which means you often lack the drive and initiative to take things to new heights. But finding your passion takes time, curiosity and a willingness to be uncomfortable as you explore different things. You’ve got to build your knowledge base – your expertise if you will – in your chosen field. This is a long drawn-out process that initially may not appear to give you traction. Persevere and keep working, keep building. This relates to curiosity and a deep desire to learn. The two combined is powerful. You’ve also got to be unafraid to ask those ‘stupid’ questions. That is fear and ego at play. Get the answers you need. Spend the time to educate yourself. Build trust and confidence with others you work with. As you can see, all of these things take time and effort. Initially, you may see little reward and traction but they are all coming together to build a picture of the person you are. And when you get these things right, your reputation will precede you.
What has been your biggest professional challenge so far? Why do you think so?
Audrey: Complacency. I’ve been working in the Industrial Relations space for a very long time.
How did you resolve this challenge?
Audrey: To address this challenge, I work to approach every engagement with a fresh perspective. What does this really mean? I try to see how I can make each one better than the one before.
Audrey Ho is a financial stakeholder communications specialist who is supportive of progressive companies that have a strong corporate governance culture particularly in terms of integrity in corporate reporting and establishing meaningful relationships with stakeholders. She looks forward to the day that Malaysian companies fully support board gender diversity without being legislated to do so. Currently a senior Independent Board Director of GD Express Carrier Berhad, Audrey spends her time learning about the art of mindful presence and is working on becoming more active.