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February, 03, 2021  |    |    |  

All Together Now...Stakeholder Engagement is Key

The fourth post in our next economy series—a call to brave up and emerge stronger post-COVID. Junxion President & CEO Mike Rowlands describes why stakeholder engagement is now a vital part of every leaders’ work.

Mike Rowlands
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In Billingsgate, London, about halfway between London Bridge and the Tower, stand the remains of what was once a parish church. Patched up after the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt between 1817 and 1821, St Dunstan-in-the-East finally fell to a bomb during the Blitz of 1941.

A steeple designed by Sir Christopher Wren survived the impact, but of the rest of the church only two walls remained. What must it have been like to stand in the rubble of World War II? What must it have been like to contemplate rebuilding? Or to decide what could not be rebuilt?

Thirty years later, in 1971, the ruins were reopened as a public garden. Nearly 50 years after that, I found myself picnicking there, along with about 20 family members, ranging in age from six-months-ish to six-decades-ish. We were gathered together on a beautiful day filled with glowing smiles and bright conversations, and laughter—so much laughter!

While I know the comparison certainly has its flaws, the postwar efforts to rebuild are the best comparison I can manage as I try to anticipate the rebuilding work that lies ahead post-COVID. We understand that some 40% of small businesses will be unable to reopen. In the hospitality and tourism sectors, that number may be more like 60%. Imagine walking your favourite shopping district and finding half of the stores closed forever. Empty and quiet, even if they are still standing and look whole. This is gonna be a long, hard lift.

Rebuilding Community

Even today, walking the streets of London, or Liverpool, or Coventry, or many other cities and towns in the UK, it’s easy to see the remnants of the second world war. What will the remnants of COVID be in the years and decades ahead? It’s perhaps dawned on most of us by now that we won’t be going back to the pre-COVID normal. For many, this is a devastatingly difficult truth. For others, it’s a moment of opportunity. For everyone, it’s no doubt a moment to be purposeful: What will it be like to contemplate rebuilding? What will it be like to decide what will not be rebuilt?

As we slowly emerge from COVID in the coming months, our communities won’t rebuild themselves. Nor will they be rebuilt by the governments, businesses, the charities, the schools, the churches, the hospitals, the community centres, the shops and restaurants, the butchers, the bakers, or the candlestick makers. Our communities will be rebuilt by all of these stakeholders, each doing their part to rekindle and reawaken the many places we call ‘home.’

Your Community Has the Answers

So how, as a leader, are you to decide on your organization’s role in this great rebuilding? What must you and your company do? And how are you to decide what not to do? The answers are as diverse as the members of any community, but the one thing that’s certainly not an option is to stand aside and do nothing. 

Rest assured, no reasonable person expects any business to do more than it can manage. The work to #buildbackbetter is work for us all, though we’ll rightly expect more from those who have the capacity. That said, companies will fare better if they’re open and consultative about what they elect to do.

Stakeholder engagement is not a new practice; it’s fundamental to best practices in public relations, community engagement, and corporate social responsibility (CSR). It’s also an essential corollary to transparency, which we wrote about in last week’s post.

Stakeholder engagement is fundamental to PR, community engagement, and CSR.

But in the past few years, stakeholder capitalism has emerged as a response to the shareholder-centric mode of capitalism that has dominated business dogma for the past 50 years. (We wrote about that shift in a post last year.)

During that same period, a lot of work has been done to define and design best practices in public and community engagement. There’s a lot to be learned from the work of leading thinkers like Sherry Arnstein, Marshall Ganz, and many others. Here are some of the fundamental principles….

Walk Before You Run

Your first step doesn’t need to be a leap into community leadership! In fact, you may overcommit yourself or your organization and overset expectations in community if you go too far too fast. So start by watching the community and learning about the issues your stakeholders face. Show up at community events and listen. Ask questions to deepen your understanding of the issues. In short, ‘seek first to understand.’

Always Be Curious

Community engagement is by its very nature going to lead you into complicated and complex issue areas. The moment you think you understand the challenges and the context is more than likely the moment you trip yourself up! So stay curious; continue to be ‘in inquiry’ about what’s going on. Community engagement is best understood as extended conversation. It is fundamentally an ongoing dialogue with community members, leaders, and organizations. If you remain curious, you’ll continue to learn. You’ll also be more likely to keep your new allies in community engaged with you, establishing and building your credibility as a concerned corporate citizen.

When It’s Right, Take a Stand

At some point, it will be clear that you need to stand for something. It may be that you and your colleagues, building on your new understanding of community issues, feel strongly about an issue or a project. Or it may be that a groundswell of community concern is building up around an issue, and you’re being invited (at best) or pushed (more challenging) to add your voice to the cries for change. This might entail making an endorsement of a plan, an organization, or even an individual leader, or it might mean investing resources—’time, talent, or treasure’—in the work. Maintain transparency here. Stakeholders will want to know not only what you’re choosing to do, but why you’re choosing to do it. Some may disagree, but if you’re transparent with everyone, you’ll be more likely to retain their respect.

Watch Yourself—and Your Impact

Only when you’re clear that your contributions have a positive impact should you consider taking any sort of leadership role in community. It’s so easy to judge ourselves and our actions by our intentions, but there are always both anticipated and unanticipated impacts. Stay curious! What can you learn? Stay transparent! What can you share? And stay humble. What can you do better, next time?

Community stakeholders expect more and more from businesses with each passing year. The standards are high, and yes, the goal posts keep moving. As we all lean in to the work of rebuilding post-COVID, the expectations may not always be clear. All the more reason to keep walking, learn to run, and look for the right places to take a stand and make your contribution, to ensure we all #emergestronger.

Author Mike Rowlands, President & CEO at Junxion

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