The Forgotten Art of Stakeholder Mapping

Relationships are, of course, of the utmost importance for effective leadership. There are no leaders without followers, and achieving goals depends as much on working with others as having great ideas. Without relationships there will rarely be meaningful results.

That said, many of us are so focused on the technical, financial, or operational aspects of our business, we forget how important relationships are to our success. For some lucky few of us, building deep relationships with the right people comes naturally; but most of us will be better served by taking a more structured and deliberate approach.

A Stakeholder Map is a powerful and pragmatic tool to help you better manage your key relationships. If you’ve heard of the term, you may think of a Stakeholder Map simply as a project management tool, but for senior leaders they can be much more important.

A standard definition of “stakeholder” is “any party that has an interest or concern in a project or enterprise.” More bluntly, your stakeholders are all of the people with and through whom you and your organization will accomplish your most important objectives over the next twelve to eighteen months. What would this collection of people look like? Your first task is to try making a list of your stakeholders.

Once you have your list, the best way to develop a clear understanding of your stakeholders is to create a graphic. Take a blank sheet of 11x17” paper and draw a picture of the universe of people with and through whom you must work in order to achieve success. That graphic is your Stakeholder Map.

There’s no “standard template” for a Stakeholder Map: thinking through how you would visualize or depict your stakeholders is an important part of the exercise, and one that will lead to real insights. Your Stakeholder Map might look like a flow chart, a spider graph, a 2x2 matrix, a series of concentric circles, or something else altogether.

There are only two rules you must follow in drawing your Map:

  1. Your Map cannot be a standard organization chart. “Org charts lie.” Research shows that patterns of collaboration and relationships are actually quite different from what is depicted by typical org charts.
  2. You must list individual people, not just categories. The point of this exercise is to recognize the specific stakeholders who are critical for your success, and then decide what to do with them. As you draw your Map, you will likely identify individuals (or even categories of people) whom you forgot to include when you made your initial list. You’ll realize how many people are integral to accomplishing your results (the numbers can be daunting), and you may begin to appreciate that you should be thinking more about these relationships.

Now that you have your Map, start assessing each of the relationships you identified. For example, give each name a letter grade (A, B, C) to indicate the quality of the relationship. Or mark those relationships that are strong and productive with a +; those that are neutral with a 0; and those that need work (whether it’s a poor/troubled relationship, or just an insufficient one) with a —.

At this point, you may start to gain insights such as:

  • “There are important relationships at my peer level that need work—I’m not spending enough time with Alain or Kathy.”
  • “Three or four influential senior leaders or board members probably don’t have a good enough idea of how I see the future of our business.”
  • “My network of relationships is smaller and more internally focused that I would have expected—I need to do something about that.”
  • “I have really good relationships with Deborah and Joel—am I actually spending too much time with them?”

As you consider your Stakeholder Map, identify 4-5 pivotal relationships that you want to focus on: individuals with whom you feel you need to deepen or improve your relationship. Here are some questions you can consider to create a Relationship Action Plan or “Touch Agenda”:

  • What connects us? Do we have a mutual “purpose” or shared objectives?
  • What do I NEED from them to be successful in my role?
  • What do THEY NEED from me to be successful in their roles? (And how do I know that?)
  • What issues or topics should we spend more time EXPLORING together?
  • Would I benefit from this person’s INPUT in making any key decisions?
  • What GETS IN THE WAY of us collaborating effectively?
  • What can I do to build a STRONGER relationship for the future?

Once you’ve built one, your Stakeholder Map should become a living document: with changes in the business, your role, or the organization structure, your landscape of stakeholders will change, and your Map should reflect those changes.

Creating your Map doesn’t have to happen in one day. Take a first pass, then build on it. Review it with your boss, your peers, your team—and get their input and perspectives. In fact, consider conducting a mapping exercise with your team: “What do our team’s collective stakeholders look like—and how are we managing those relationships?”

Revisit your Map regularly. Every time you do so, you will discover new insights for managing the relationships that are most important to your success and outcomes. And with your Map as a tool for your work as a leader, you will ensure you’re making the best use of your most finite resource: time.

A Stakeholder Map is a powerful way to identify which relationships will have the biggest positive impact and a means to hold yourself more accountable to investing in those relationships. We’d love to hear your experiences with mapping and managing stakeholders: send us a note at

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”
-Henry Ford