There are many ideas about what stakeholder engagement is, how it works and whether it even makes any difference at all. The problem is, stakeholder engagement has become as much a buzz word as sustainability. But don’t underestimate its business value.
At AEP, we started a formal stakeholder process about four years ago. Many in management thought we were nuts to organize face-to-face dialogue with environmental groups; I mean, we are one of the largest coal-burning electric utilities with a legacy of opposing the Clean Air Act. It was an uncomfortable conversation but it was the start of a transformation of how we operate as a business.
Stakeholder engagement builds trust, credibility and political capital, and it requires a commitment to honesty, candor and transparency. The purpose is not to agree on everything; in fact, that would be pointless. Rather, it’s a way to open dialogue to seek common ground, listen to one another to gain a better understanding of where you stand and why, and use that insight to your mutual advantage. You’d be surprised what happens.
When I organized the first stakeholder meeting in early 2007 at AEP, it was like a boxing match. Stakeholders challenged; we defended; and when we took breaks, we each went to our own corners. We quickly realized, however, the opportunity and richness of engaging with others and the new perspectives it offered us.
Today, our formal meetings are standing room only and executives use it as a development opportunity for themselves and others. Stakeholder engagement has transformed one-way communication into two-way communication, dialogue into working relationships and working relationships into partnerships. It is part of how we conduct our business today. We do it one-on-one, in groups, face-to-face and electronically. We do it with purpose and intent because we view engagement as a core competency.
The conversations are still tough and we often agree to disagree, but our stakeholders have made us stronger and more resilient. We like to think we’ve done the same for them.