Managing Cross-Functional Stakeholder Interests for Enhanced Collaboration

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In any team environment, success cannot occur without coordinated efforts from multiple players to achieve the desired goal. Take a sports team, for example. One superstar athlete does not determine the outcome of games alone; rather, their actions can be influenced by play calls from the coach, defensive moves from the opposing team, the environment curated by spectators, and more.

The same is true in the business world. Teams consist of multiple people, each with their own individual agenda. In cross-functional efforts, the team becomes even more complex, as the key players not only have their own individual goals but also the priorities of their respective departments to consider.

With many perspectives on priorities and various stakeholder interests at play in any cross-functional effort, it is critical that leaders of such efforts are equipped to effectively manage competing stakeholder priorities in order to deliver value on corporate initiatives. Positioned as a strategic partner to the entire revenue organization, sales enablement can seamlessly lead collaborative efforts with cross-functional stakeholders.

“A lot of things filter through the enablement team first,” said Vanessa Metcalf, director of revenue enablement at Top Hat. “So, in some cases that may be that you’re in the position of understanding revenue’s challenges potentially before senior leadership even has started chatting about them.”

To manage cross-functional teams effectively, practitioners must navigate trade-offs between stakeholder interests, create a psychologically safe team environment, cultivate a shared fate for the collective effort, and track success against metrics that impact all stakeholders involved.

Avoiding Trade-Offs

A common perception exists that if the needs of one stakeholder group are prioritized, then there must be a trade-off where other stakeholder interests are not fulfilled as a result. However, effective collaboration occurs when multiple groups can come together to achieve a common goal that benefits all involved.

In fact, the idea that multiple stakeholder interests can be satisfied without the need for trade-offs between groups is core to philosopher and business expert R. Edward Freeman’s Stakeholder Theory. While the purpose of this theory is to describe how a firm as a whole can create value for its internal and external stakeholders, its key principles can be applied to the management of cross-functional efforts within an organization. Consider a few of the guiding principles for stakeholder management he lays out in his book, “Managing for Stakeholders: Survival, Reputation, and Success”, and how enablement can utilize each to enhance collaboration with cross-functional stakeholders:

  • Solutions to problems must simultaneously satisfy the interests of various stakeholder groups: Sales enablement cannot expect functional leaders to deprioritize their own goals in order to dedicate time and resources to impact another department’s goals, especially if it is unclear what is in it for them. In creating solutions that require cross-functional collaboration, enablement must clearly position the benefit of the effort for each stakeholder group.
  • Long-term, avoid trade-offs between different stakeholder interests: Small trade-offs in the day-to-day tactical work needed to achieve a goal are inevitable in a cross-functional effort. However, sales enablement must ensure that those trade-offs are as equally balanced as possible so that over time, each stakeholder feels that their interests have been met and no one group is unfairly burdened.
  • The purpose behind all actions should be to fulfill stakeholder goals: Sales enablement should have a thorough understanding of the core stakeholder goals that they have agreed to fulfill, and use those to guide all decisions. It is important in cross-functional teams that no one individual can derail an effort by pursuing their own interests, including enablement.

“It’s really important that enablement doesn’t feel like this siloed thing off to the side on an island,” said Metcalf. “You have to work collaboratively with your [partners], so relationships matter.”

  • Communication with all stakeholders is critical to fully understand their needs: Sales enablement must proactively communicate with stakeholders to build trusting relationships. This will help sales enablement better navigate conflicts in stakeholder interests as well as motivate cross-functional partners to invest time and effort into collaboration.
  • Stakeholders are real people with complex interests, and therefore generalizations should be avoided: It can be easy to assume what stakeholder goals are based on stereotypes of certain departments or roles. However, such assumptions can cause misalignment and distrust to brew and hinder cross-functional solutions. Sales enablement must take the time to get to know the specific individuals with a stake in the success of a cross-functional effort.
  • Processes should be continuously refined in order to better serve the needs of stakeholders: If a process is in place that unfairly prioritizes one stakeholder over another, it is up to sales enablement to recognize those gaps and find alternate solutions that work for all parties.

By thinking strategically about the various interests that stakeholders of a cross-functional effort might have, and taking proactive steps to satisfy those interests simultaneously, sales enablement can deepen the engagement of cross-team partners in collaboration.

Nurturing Psychological Safety

Due to the presence of multiple stakeholder groups in cross-functional efforts, such teams can often suffer from distrust or skepticism in the intentions of others. This can cause individual stakeholders to refrain from full participation in an effort to safeguard their own interests and ideas. This type of behavior can be detrimental to team effectiveness, as it prevents enablement from designing solutions that truly benefit everyone involved.

To overcome this, sales enablement needs to intentionally foster a culture of psychological safety when collaborating cross-functionally. In his book, “The Four Stages of Psychological Safety”, Timothy R. Clark lays out the essential steps practitioners can take to build psychological safety within team environments:

  1. Including: Leading by example, sales enablement must make an effort to make all partners feel included in the team initiative. This primarily happens informally, such as by inviting different people to speak and share their thoughts during group meetings, or offering casual opportunities to get to know other members of the group in coffee chat or happy hour. By feeling included in a social collective, people can begin to form a shared identity.
  2. Learning: By their nature, humans feel a need to learn and grow. Sales enablement must encourage opportunities for cross-functional partners to learn from each other and engage in learning together. For example, consider sending prompts for the team to contemplate before the next meeting, and ask them to discuss their ideas together. This can help create an environment where people feel free to learn without fear of appearing less knowledgeable.
  3. Contributing: When delegating tasks in a team effort, ensure everyone involved has a specific role or work to perform. This helps all team members feel as though they are a valuable asset to the collective effort, and that others trust them to competently perform their duties.
  4. Challenging: Teams function best when members feel free to challenge the status quo without fear of retribution. Such dynamics foster innovation and breed diverse thoughts and opinions. In all team gatherings, sales enablement must set the expectation that transparent discussion is the norm in order to empower confidence among the team to share their thoughts openly.

For people to engage in authentic teamwork that nurtures innovation and drives true collaboration, there first needs to be a foundation of psychological safety.

Building Toward Shared Fate

While understanding stakeholder interests and creating a psychologically safe environment are necessary foundations, ultimately one thing will motivate everyone to act in synergy in a group dynamic: shared fate.

The idea of shared fate is introduced by Eric Coryell in his book, “Revolutionize Teamwork,” as the key ingredient to team success. In fact, Coryell defines a team as a group of people working together to achieve a shared fate. To operate with a shared fate means that all members of the team have a common purpose that they are striving to achieve, and they all feel the same sense of urgency to contribute to the best of their abilities in order to do so.

“Watch ‘Miracle on Ice’, watch ‘Remember the Titans’, watch ‘Saving Private Ryan’ – they’re all stories of these teams that did extraordinary stuff because the leader knew how to build a shared fate, whatever that was,” said Coryell. “Without that shared fate, you’re really not going to have a team at all.”

In order to build this shared fate, Coryell suggests the following tactics:

  • Make the team difficult to get on. Set parameters or prerequisites for who gets to be the cross-functional representative for the effort in order to increase a sense of commitment from those that take part in the initiative. For example, ask executive leaders to nominate a few select people to take part in the effort.
  • Spend intentional time together as a group. Host a retreat or workshop with the goal of breaking down barriers between groups and increasing comfortability and vulnerability within the team.
  • Rally behind a common enemy. Sometimes it can be easier to ignite the passion of the group by emphasizing a common pain point impacting members of the team before highlighting specific goals for the group to achieve.
  • Incentivize collective goals through compensation. If everyone on the team has common objectives they must meet in order to achieve a bonus or commission, it can help fuel collaboration.

“Without a shared fate, the team is only going to be as good as you are,” said Coryell. “If you want the team to perform at a higher level, then you’re going to have to learn to let go of some control and put them in a position of becoming an accountable team.”

Measuring Success

In the pursuit of a shared fate that satisfies multiple stakeholder interests, sales enablement must establish credible metrics that can be used to both track progress and demonstrate success. With a psychologically safe culture on the team, all stakeholders involved can collaborate to establish the most meaningful metrics that matter to all members of the group.

To ensure metrics can maximize team accountability to stakeholder interests, Coryell suggests following four key criteria:

  1. The team must have a high degree of influence over it
  2. It must be measurable and updated on a regular, timely basis
  3. The team’s purpose should be directly correlated to it
  4. There should be no more than five core metrics agreed upon by the group

“If you’re going to ask a team to be accountable for something and you have very little influence over it, as soon as the metric starts going south, they’re going to say ‘it’s not our fault,’” said Coryell.

To test the validity of the metrics put forward by the team, consider each through this lens: If we show impact on this metric, are we achieving our shared fate? If each member of the team is able to answer yes to that question, then the metric will help to drive collaborative behavior with clear correlation to the purpose of the cross-functional effort.

True collaboration occurs when all members of a group understand how the collective effort directly impacts their individual interests. In order to build this alignment, sales enablement must have a thorough understanding of stakeholder interests so that they can ensure each are effectively met throughout an initiative’s duration. Then, enablement can assure stakeholders of their positive intentions and thus build a psychologically safe environment for collaboration. With a foundation of psychological safety, team members can establish a shared fate that benefits them all, and establish clear metrics that drive toward that purpose.

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