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Human Skills 021 - Stakeholder Management
with Mo Villagran
Mo Villagran has a unique background. Starting in statistical genetics, she moved into actuarial science, and from there into data analytics. Through that time, she had to deal with a wide variety of different stakeholders, from law enforcement officers to healthcare providers, and over time she developed a 7-step system for stakeholder management that she has turned into a book.
Of course we talked about that system in our conversation. And it was striking to me how many of the methods that work for data analytics stakeholders are similar to methods I've used in software development. But the conversation didn't stop there - we moved through stakeholder management into cultural norms, communication, and how to teach yourself to succeed in U.S. corporate culture, even if you come from somewhere with very different norms.
Note: We had some audio challenges at the start. I cleaned up as best I could, but if you find them bothering you, skip forward to about the 8 minute mark.
How do you communicate with people with very different backgrounds than yours?
The first step is listening.
As simple as it is, but it's extremely crucial that when, for example, law enforcement, when they come to you, what usually happens is that they want a yes and no answer because that's what they do. Yes, there's a fraud, we're gonna do a warrant, arrest that person, no, we do nothing.
But the thing is, you know how data analytics is, like it's not a clear answer. and I don't want accidentally send people to jail so what I do is I listen to what they're saying and they said they have this need to do X, Y, and Z.
And then I just take a step back: look this is what it is and I hear what you say and I paraphrase like you say A, B, and Z this is what I'm hearing is that right?
They were like "oh it's right" so then we can get to the point that you can find the problems And usually the problems is not what they say.
Like they say, maybe it's just a problem of unclear data, or maybe it's a problem of they need different kinds of data pulled. And if you don't listen and paraphrase, you're never gonna get there. So that is the beginning.
What techniques do you use for paraphrasing back to stakeholders?
There are actually three levels. The first level is the easiest one. It's called repeat.
So if I don't know anything about you, let's say I'm talking to an astronaut and I suck at physics. Okay. He says something I understand. Or she says something I don't understand. I'm just going to say it back to him.
"Are you saying that the aerospace pressure is going to do this to the spaceship?" I'm basically repeating it. And then people understand like social curiousity is there like, they're "okay, so this person doesn't really understand what I'm saying at all. "And so they say in a different way.
It's a way to push the conversation forward without saying, "I have a dumb question" or something that disrupts the communication flow. That's not what I want, I want the conversation to flow not be transactional and so that's first step.
If you don't know anything about like finance or you know let's say SAP - just completely out of it - you're like "okay so this is what you said". That's the first step.
Once you get over that... and hopefully when you're that naive there's managers or your stakeholders that can help you out a little bit... once you get to the second step it's called saying your own words.
For example the accountants they're like, "oh you know we need to close this month there are certain things that ref 606" and you're like "what's ref 606?" and they just keep going on and on. So you can say "Did I hear right? that you say you want to close the book " -so this is my own words I'm not saying close the month - "you want to close the book, you want certain summaries you're not getting it is that right?"
This is level second, I am internalizing it with my own words. This takes a lot of time to practice. If you have contact with these people it's getting easier.
The third level is the level that I strive to do... it's also going to take the longest but it's the most effective one. If the financial people come to you you're not going to say "okay so how the company is doing" you're not going to say "oh how's it going? how much money do I make?" That doesn't make any sense. You have to talk about EBITDA.
That is the word they're using to assess the health of the company for the lender, for anyone that they talk to the board. Because I worked with them for a while, I can be like "oh you want EBITDA? okay so I can get it for you". And that's because I have accumulated experience to the point that I'm not even saying my own word or repeating I'm talking in their own lingo and that's how I see the progression of paraphrasing. But it takes practice.
On communication with stakeholders during a project:
After you get a solution, you go through all the difficult part of prioritizing, making everyone like commit to that solution, budget, time, efficiency, whatever. Then you start the project. This is when things kind of just go sideways, because you start, everyone was like, great, we want to start. But then no communication until the delivery.
That's usually what happened, right? It's kind of just radio science. I think it's most of the time just busy, you know, people are busy. It's not a rhythm, something that they do project by project. And so I want to implement this communicate regularly.
And how do you do that? There are some details I provide in the seventh step. Communicate regularly doesn't mean you have to talk to everyone every day, once a day, at stand up. No. You have to look at it more holistically. Every group has a personality. I
I work with some groups, they love doing Monday.com. We have tasks. We tag each other. We update regularly. We don't talk to each other that much. It's task driven. Fine. That's fine. As long as everyone's happy, right?
And there's some group, they don't have any set process. They just like when you show them, oh here's the progress once a week. Or a short email like, this is what happened. Or even by asking questions like, oh, this data point, is that how you need it? And they were like, "oh yeah."
Even that little conversation is counted as regular communication because they see that there is progress being made. That's why you have problems or questions.
So I think that it has to be to the group's personality. If they want an update every day, not recommending it, but do it. And if they don't bother, they just want to know that things are making progress, do it once a week or maybe twice a week you have a demo. "This is how what it looks like right now. Anything you want to add, do you like the color, the arrangement?"
And this gets to a point that you also want to make sure all the key stakeholders are there. Who are the key stakeholders? Because if you talk to the key stakeholders helper, the helper knows what you're doing, but the stakeholder doesn't know.
And this is about looking better. Everything that I do, I have to be very intentional. There's so many people that have different things that distract them. You want to make sure that the people really know that you're doing it, and then you're showing them the results. And the key users will see it. And that is the process.
What is the goal of continuous communication?
Let's say you start off on step A. Usually what happens is the stakeholders realize they want more because they see what you show them... "I didn't know that power BI can do this", "I want to add this graph", and so from the data people's perspective they're like "oh scope creep. I don't want scope creep".
I see this as increase in trust because they know you can do it. So you say okay, but that doesn't mean that you need to do all the stuff in the same time frame. It just means that, okay, you want to add three, four more things. Can we extend the project a little bit? And I'll still show you the weekly progress. Are we okay?
Most likely they will say yes, because there are more things that needs to be done. And so you just have to keep up with it. That's why the regular communication is so important because they are going to change their mind, add new things, or you're gonna realize something is wrong with their backend database that might need some time to be fixed. And you wanna save that time for that. And they need to know about it. This delay is not caused by you.
What are some cultural nuances in the workplace you've noticed moving from Taiwan to the U.S?
When I came to the States I realized how Americans say it is that they tell you what it is and then provide the reasons. It's like thesis statement, then blah blah.
In Chinese culture, I don't know about other Asian culture, it's the opposite. You first explain the need. "Oh, because the company needs this and it will be faster and so that's why we need a dashboard." In America, it's like "we need a dashboard. because blah blah." It's the opposite.
So when you talk to an American colleague, you want to make sure you get to the point. I always tell people "Just tell people in 30 seconds what you want to say". Like "I want to help you build a dashboard." That's the end the story. That's basically what I do right. I want to build a database or I'm here to help you with your data problems. The end. Then like "oh I have years of experience in data engineering" and I have this. Doesn't matter. You're here to solve their problems. Just say it and then you can say I can solve your problem because blah blah.
And so that's something that I've seen, with different contractors form different countries. You just have to get to the point. That is not how Chinese speak but that's how Americans do. Most of the time, you have to to get to a point like super fast.
Also if you want something just say it. You don't have to be like "um I don't know like I really want this but well.. if I do well people notice."
No. You yourself is a product. I'm talking to you, I'm selling you something. I mean not physical things, but I'm selling you my expertise, I'm selling you my personality,.I want your attention, I want to buy your attention, so just say it, right?
I mean how we come up with this podcast is very obvious example. You said you want someone that knows the human side of things. I tell you that I just wrote a book about it. So I'm telling you I want to be on your podcast. I'm not waiting for you to be like "oh Mo wrote a book maybe she's good to be on my podcast."
I just fill in the blank for you. I want it. And if you don't want me to be on your podcast that's fine. At least I said it.
How did you teach yourself to be blunt and say what you want?
I do feel uncomfortable when I say things I want that might be too blunt. But I'm convincing myself that there are two things that will happen. I like to say that "crybaby gets some milk," it doesn't matter what the baby is sick or the baby really needs milk, if it cries, it will get the milk.
There are many people in this world, they might not be as competent as you are, but they get what you want. Why? Because they asked for it. They might take time to match up to your level, but eventually they get it. They win in that sense.
So I tell myself, if I want something and I'm not saying it, and people that are not as good as I am, they get it... I'm happy for them. Because they have the courage to ask for it. And if I don't do that, I'm doing myself a disservice.
So yes, the process is very painful because you gotta say exactly what you want. Your culturally not inclined to do this. Your personality prevents you from doing that. But think about it, what is the downside of this? You don't get anything. Is that good? So that's one way I convince myself.
And second, is I've noticed that American culture rewards upfront attitude. That's also a thing that we can take advantage of. The American culture rewards people who are bold and upfront about what they want. It might not work in China or Taiwan. I can tell you that it does not work in Taiwan, but it works here. And why not take advantage of that?
Links to Mo
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