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Stakeholder engagement: Balancing what you hear with what you do

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

We live in a time when providing an opinion has never been easier. With a few clicks of the keyboard or swipes on our smartphones, we can now comment on anything and share it with anyone across the globe. It is the perfect scenario: public engagement from the comfort of one's couch.

Given the hyper-ability of businesses to elicit feedback electronically, it would seem logical to discard our old and cumbersome methods of face-to-face engagement. Yet, live stakeholder engagement continues to be essential to business survival and can be found in every sector. From open houses and town halls to surveys and focus groups, consumers are told their opinions matter, particularly in the arena of city-building. Municipalities and land developers are continually revising their engagement processes to allow for increased feedback into project design, both electronically and in person.

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Many Canadian cities actively integrate stakeholder engagement into their planning processes. Growing Conversations in Toronto and Engage in Calgary are initiatives that provide residents with an explanation of the engagement process and employ multiple tools to capture their feedback on a variety of urban projects. The City of Vancouver utilized its online consultation platform, Talk Vancouver, to garner more than 37,000 responses to an online survey in 2015.

In turn, land developers have also stepped up their engagement game. On two recent projects in Calgary, Truman Homes not only created a building named the Engagement Hub to increase dialogue at its West District development site, it also launched engage264.ca, an online information dissemination tool for its redevelopment of the Royal Canadian Legion No. 264. In West Vancouver, Grosvenor launched Idea Fairs with businesses, residents and the arts community when planning the revitalization of the waterfront with its Ambleside project.

With such diversity and innovations in the business of stakeholder engagement, there are three commonalities among those who are most successful:

Map out the strategy

It is not enough to incorporate stakeholder engagement as a minor step in the overall project plan. A successful planning process treats engagement like a chess match, where moves and counter moves lead to specific results.

Take into account and truly understand the different perspectives towards your project.

Utilize existing relationships with both proponents and opponents to identify the hits and misses to develop contingency plans.

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Understand the bottom line, the places where there is room for negotiation and where to draw the line on being flexible.

Finally, success is often based on all parties feeling that the appropriate decision-makers are in the room, both listening and weighing in on the discussion. For that reason, who delivers the message is as important as the message itself.

Choose a method to avoid madness

Successful businesses have a clear vision for how they handle stakeholder engagement.

The best engagement sessions are ones where stakeholders feel heard. These require skillful facilitation techniques that capture all perspectives without belabouring a single point or avoiding contentious issues.

Ensure stakeholders are equally clear on your intent. Clarity of the engagement method is a critical piece in setting expectations at the outset.

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Without mutual understanding of the proceedings and end results, stakeholder engagement can turn into a web of misunderstandings that perpetuates mistrust.

Shout it from the rooftops

Even a great engagement process will result in some disgruntled citizens with negative comments. Allow the dissenting opinions to be heard in the context of the broader feedback.

Report back on the complete range of perspectives. This demonstrates transparency and adds credibility to the process. It is equally important to explain that what was heard has been taken into consideration, and how it has resulted in stakeholder-driven change.

Demonstrate how engagement has led to reflection and collaborative movement forward. Both Grosvenor and Truman changed their plans for the Ambleside and No. 264 projects based on feedback and clearly articulated those changes back to stakeholders to demonstrate their responsiveness.

The modern era of stakeholder engagement is based on a combination of strategy and transparency. It is critical to identify who should be engaged, and how they may react to a proposal. From there, it is imperative that all levels of leadership within a firm understand the engagement plan and assist in connecting with stakeholders according to the methods identified in the plan.

Finally, the engagement process is not complete without a report back to the broad community to identify what was heard and how it impacted the project. For these reasons, the significance of stakeholder engagement must be entrenched in the corporate culture, as it is part of company's process toward gaining a social license to operate.

Jyoti Gondek (@jyotigondek) is the Director of the Westman Centre for Real Estate Studies at the Haskayne School of Business (@haskayneschool) and specializes in relating real estate and land development to effective city-building.

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