The ‘key stakeholders’ problem at work

Key stakeholders. You’ve probably heard that term at work once or twice. It’s somewhat interchangeable with the term “decision-makers.” Basically it means some combination of senior leadership, C-Suite, middle managers, third parties, vendors, etc. that get to “weigh in” on whatever the thing/project/idea being discussed is. These are the key stakeholders of the project. If you work on this project, the basic idea is that you’re beholden to these people. Makes sense. I’m basically just summarizing and explaining hierarchy right now.

There’s a problem with the ‘key stakeholders’ model, though. Let’s identify it and then see if we can solve it, shall we?

Key stakeholders: The background

Only about 20 years ago, the average number of people in the C-Suite was five. Today, it’s 10. That’s why your company has a “Chief Strategy Officer.” (In reality, doesn’t everyone need to own strategy?) So in two decades, we’ve doubled the number of senior decision-makers. In other words, we’ve doubled the number of potential key stakeholders on anything.

This isn’t necessarily surprising. Bureaucracy is actually exploding, even though we all like to define this as “The Age of Entrepreneurs.” From a strictly common sense standpoint, I can explain this bureaucratic uptick to you. Ready?

People don’t really want to make decisions.

It’s terrifying for most people. Because like — what if you’re wrong? That cuts to the very core of competence and relevancy, and that’s what most people are seeking at work. The less decisions your ass is on the line for, the easier your life becomes. And all the while, you can make more money (yay!) and tell people how relevant you are (double yay).

That’s the deal with bureaucracy and doubling the C-Suite. We are basically letting people get minted without proving anything or taking any real action in their professional lives. Most “Chief Solution Officer” guys are just moderately-competent middle managers that the existing executives like. It’s really that simple.

But now we come to a problem.

Key stakeholders: The problem

There are two issues here:

  • The more executives and key stakeholders there are, the less money you can make.
  • As we get more key stakeholders, there’s a greater incentive to say what different people want to hear.

Let’s take these problems one at a time.

Problem 1: When your company promotes someone to “Chief Fun Officer,” that person by definition has to make more money. They are C-Suite now! Key stakeholders! Decision-makers! I don’t understand high finance that well, but best I can tell more money for them equals less money for you. That’s where the culture of 0.7 percent raises comes from, even though we just promoted someone to “Chief Firestarter.”

Problem 2: Most people try to solve Problem 1 by attaching themselves to the power core. In mid-size to big companies, that’s how you rise up and make more scratch. But if the power core — i.e. the key stakeholders — is now some massive smattering of people, that means you need to appease and please 10-15 people on each project. We know from legitimate research that most senior leaders don’t think the same way about work, so here’s another problem. You’ve got some key stakeholders in Operations. You’re saying one thing to them. Then you got to meet with key stakeholders in Sales. You say something different to them.

You see how this becomes exhausting for the employee? And you see how it’s toxic for the company being able to follow through on anything?


In short: you increase the key stakeholders, and typically you increase the silos. And when you increase the silos, you tend to increase the problems.

How do we solve the key stakeholders problem?

There are a couple of different ways.

Priority alignment: Most companies are terrible at this. In short, here’s what this means:

  • Here is Project A.
  • It is more important than Project B.
  • You should be focusing on Project A now.
  • Within the context of Project A, Tim is your go-to person.
  • When someone approaches you and claims Project E is your No. 1 thing, direct them to either Tim or your boss.
  • Continue to work on Project A.

That’s not very complicated, but at most companies that becomes a series of monkeys doing LSD. People run around screaming, pounding their chests, and talking about urgent client need and priority. In reality, it’s all an exercise in “I am more relevant than you and now let me prove it.” When we increase the key stakeholders, we make this worse. Remember that.

Promote differently: Right now, “The Old Boys’ Network” is still a real thing at most companies. People get minted because they’re close to the existing power core. They tend to get a role that probably doesn’t need to exist at that pay grade — but goddamn it, it will exist because the existing bosses want it to. It’s hard to stop people from rewarding their friends (human nature), but we can think about promotions and advancement a bit differently and more scientifically. Here’s one idea. Here is another.

Make reporting lines more clear: We tend to worry too much about who “owns” something, and this leads to a series of other problems. Just tell me that X-person is a key stakeholder on this, and Y-person on that. The “two bosses problem” is tied to all this, and very real.

What else you got on key stakeholders?

Ever run into this problem of trying to please 14 masters at once? Key stakeholders! If you have any approaches or ideas around the key stakeholders problem, drop ’em below.

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