C-suite stakeholders

lessons learned to build beneficial relationships


Head of Change & IT Strategy Business Unit, Nexen Business Consultants


Relationships with C-Suite stakeholders are extremely beneficial and can deeply and intensely influence the results of projects and activities. When dealing with C-Suite stakeholders, project managers and consultants should be equipped with adequate tools and be aware of how to manage them. This paper tries to shape the figure of the C-Suite stakeholder and includes some real situations the author was involved in and some interviews with these C-Suite executives.

In the last decades CEOs and CXOs have been bombarded by endless surveys on their opinions on different themes of business as well as on their relationships both internal to the organization and external. Results of these surveys have been a matter of analysis and conclusions for project management specialists, both subject matter experts (SMEs) and practitioners. PMI itself decided to distinguish its presence in the worldwide business community with some publications that target executives and the C-Suite (mainly PMI Pulse of the Profession™). On the other hand PMI Standards dedicate high attention to the “art” of Stakeholder Management: (a) The Standard for Program Management – Third Edition, The Standard for Portfolio Management – Third Edition, and A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition strongly invite to identify, analyze, and manage stakeholders in projects and programs; (b) The Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3®) – Third Edition invites organizations to do the same in Organizations.

The paper: (a) explores the pressing scenario C-Suite executives operate in and describes several ways they can be involved in projects and project management consulting activities, (b) analyzes the characteristics C-Suite executives require in their relationships, (c) presents a framework of lessons learned that project managers and consultants can adopt to enhance the probability of both succeeding in the short term and building long-lasting, trustworthy, stable networks and communications; (d) presents some effective tools and techniques: mainly Relationship Awareness Theory® & Strength Deployment Inventory® (SDI®), Stakeholder/Network Register, and Stakeholders Analysis Quadrants.

Company and Author Presentation

Nexen Business Consultants has been listed in PMI's Consultant Registry since 2011.

Nexen Business Consultants is the consulting company of Engineering (www.eng.it). Engineering owns 95% of Nexen.

Engineering is a 7,000-employee Italian company with €800 million in revenue. It is organized into directorates that serve different industries. Within Engineering, Nexen acts as an agglomerate of competence centers, each of which cultivates a specific competence providing both presale and delivery activities. The competences Nexen grows and takes care of include: (a) strategy and financial advisory; (b) enterprise governance and risk management frameworks and accounting systems; (c) business process management and reengineering; (d) project management and change management; (e) IT governance and strategy. Nexen is internally organized by competence, and each competence business unit is led by a director who coordinates his or her team's efforts with other business units to best serve customers.

Over the last seven years, focusing on change and project management competence, Nexen has built a 25-person team specializing in the project management discipline that offers its customers different kinds of services: (a) project management office (PMO) teams supporting projects—traditional and agile; (b) PMO teams supporting divisions or directorates—traditional; (c) virtual PMO and project manager communities; (d) enterprise project portfolios initialization and management; (e) certified project managers; (f) consulting services in project and program management and in organizational project management; (g) training services and preparation for Project Management Professional (PMP®) and PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP®) certifications.

Part I: Focus on C-Suite Stakeholders’ Involvement in Projects and Consulting Activities

I1: C-Suite Stakeholders’ Involvement in Organizational Project Management

This first section is dedicated to research done on PMI publications and standards. This short analysis aims to present readers with how C-Suite stakeholders are considered and cited, typically as “special” or “key” stakeholders.

The Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3®) – Third Edition:

“The Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3®) – Third Edition provides guidelines for improving organizational project management [emphasis added] within the organization. It defines the OPM3 model, which is comprised of the OPM3 construct and OPM3 framework activities and processes” (PMI, 2013, p. 1). In addition, the PMI global standard states that, “Organizational Project Management (OPM) [emphasis added] is a strategy execution framework that utilizes portfolio, program, and project management as well as organizational-enabling practices to consistently and predictably deliver organizational strategy to produce better performance, better results, and sustainable competitive advantage” (PMI, 2011, p. 3).

The standard gives evidence to the relevant role C-Suite stakeholders and C-level executives have in deciding which programs and projects should be implemented and how they must be managed.

In traditional organizations, responsibility for determining and achieving the organizations’ goals is assigned to the operations functions. Executives, with titles such as chief operations officer (COO), chief technology officer (CTO), chief information officer (CIO), chief financial officer (CFO), strategic planning consultant, etc., establish objectives and goals and develop strategies to achieve them. Executives expect to select from proposed and pending projects to create the mix of projects most likely to support achievement of the organization's goals within the preferred strategies, organizational risk tolerance, and organizational resource (people and funding) constraints. Project management requires deliberate planning and action to create the conditions for success. This entails implementing strategy, leadership, goals, process, skills, systems, issue resolution, and structure to direct and exploit the dynamic nature of project work. However, when strategy moves from the boardroom to back offices and the marketplace, the ability to deliver utilizing project management is often overlooked (PMI, 2011, p. 10).

The Standard for Program Management – Third Edition

The Standard for Program Management—Third Edition provides “guidelines for managing programs [emphasis added] within organizations. It defines program management, performance domains, and related concepts; describes the program management life cycle; and outlines related activities and processes” (PMI, 2013c, p. 1).

It is interesting to analyze the role executives, i.e., our C-Suite stakeholders, have in program management: They are mainly cited in the sections dedicated to stakeholder engagement, program governance, communications management, and risk management.

  • Executives are key stakeholders in program management. They usually act as program sponsor(s), defined as “the individual executive (or group of executives) who champions the program initiative [emphasis added] and is responsible for providing program resources and is ultimately responsible for delivering the benefits” (PMI, 2013c, p. 47).
  • Executive-level stakeholders are members of program governance boards:

    The majority of organizations seek to ensure appropriate Program Governance by establishing program governance boards that are responsible for defining and implementing appropriate governance systems and methods. Effective governance boards are usually staffed by individuals who are either individually or collectively recognized as having organizational insight and decision-making authority [emphasis added] that is critical to the establishment of program goals, strategy, and operational plans, and who are able to ensure [emphasis added] that sufficient resources are available to achieve the targeted program benefits. Program governance boards are usually composed of executive-level stakeholders [emphasis added] who have been selected for their strategic insight, technical knowledge, functional responsibilities, operational accountabilities, responsibilities for managing the organization's portfolio, and/or abilities to represent important stakeholder groups. (PMI, 2013c, p 52–53)

  • Executives must be considered an important target of any communication action: The Standard for Program Management—Third Edition suggests, “Program managers should be able to communicate details to program team members as easily as they describe concepts to executives” (PMI, 2013c, p. 75).
  • Executives control availability of resources that is crucial to conduct good program risk management: “The program management team negotiate [the effective use of resources] with executives who control the funds and other resources, such as human resources, infrastructure, information, and applications” (PMI, 2013c, p. 99).

The Standard for Portfolio Management – Third Edition

“The increasing acceptance of portfolio management indicates that the application of appropriate knowledge, processes, skills, tools, and techniques to select the right work may have a significant impact on program, project, and organizational success. The Standard for Portfolio Management – Third Edition identifies portfolio management processes [emphasis added] generally recognized as good practices” (PMI, 2013b, p. 1).

The Standard for Portfolio Management—Third Edition gives evidence to the important role executives have in the selection of the right work to do inside organizations. Firstly, (a) executives are among the most relevant stakeholders: “[Portfolio] Stakeholders may include but are not limited to CEO and other executives, functional management, operations management, legal, finance, human resources, PMO, and program/project teams” (PMI, 2013b, p. 26); secondly, (b) executives are mainly involved in dealing with the performance planning team: “The performance planning team works with governing bodies to provide templates and examples for establishing performance measures and targets. The governance team works with the executives to establish and approve these measures and targets. These measures and targets are often called key performance indicators (KPIs) [emphasis added] and are used to report whether a particular portfolio is progressing as expected and the results are in line with what the organization expected” (PMI, 2013b, p. 91).

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition

This is the most popular PMI standard, and it presents itself as follows: “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition provides guidelines for managing individual projects [emphasis added] and defines project management related concepts [emphasis added]. It also describes the project management life cycle and its related processes, as well as the project life cycle” (PMI, 2013a, p. 1).

Assessing the PMBOK® Guide – Fifth Edition, we discover that executives are rarely cited in the implementation of individual projects. Only two sentences in the text refer to them:

  • The section dedicated to the business case in the integration management knowledge area in connection with decision-making issues: “The business case or similar document describes the necessary information from a business standpoint to determine whether or not the project is worth the required investment. It is commonly used for decision making by managers or executives [emphasis added] above the project level” (PMI, 2013a, p. 69).
  • The section is dedicated to the process Collect Requirements, where conducting interviews with executives is suggested: “Interviewing experienced project participants, sponsors and other executives, and subject matter experts can aid in identifying and defining the features and functions of the desired product deliverables” (PMI, 2013a, p. 114).

The PMI standards give C-level executives, i.e., our C-Suite Stakeholders, relevant role in portfolio, program, and organizational project management activities and related decisions and present them as key stakeholders for the success of project management related initiatives. Less evident is their relevance for execution and management of projects and involvement in project management processes.

I2: PMI Talks to C-Suite Stakeholders and C-Level Executives

The Pulse of the Profession® section of the PMI website offers some publications and research that target executives and senior managers. “PMI's 2014 Pulse of the Profession®, our annual global research, examines the impact of the implementation of project, program and portfolio management. Our latest report demonstrates that in order to remain competitive, organizations must place a strategic focus on people, processes and outcomes” (PMI, 2014, para. 2).

Among all the publications in this section, the Executive Guide to Project Management underlines that “executives praise the use of project management not only to improve projects, but to improve the overall welfare of an organization. [PMI's] latest guide includes compelling research and articles full of insights and stories from executives in project management helping gaining the benefits of their thoughts, experience and recommendations” (PMI, 2014).

PMI perceives C-level executives as prime actors in the development and diffusion of project management culture in the dynamic scenario of businesses and public services around the globe. PMI CEO and President Mark Langley insists on “differentiating through partnerships” as the means for “co-branding and creating resources with other like-minded organizations, including academic institutions, to advance the practice of project management”—and partnerships usually pass as decisions taken by C-level executives.

I3: C-Suite Stakeholders or C-Level Executives and Consulting Activities

When I joined PMI about eight years ago, the organization was very different from the organization I know today. Back then, PMI was mainly talking to project managers and, in general, to practitioners, trying to push them to learn and spread good project management standards and best practices. I am going back to that virtuous cycle that starts from the institute and brings best practices to practitioners and then from practitioners to the Institute, bringing the collected feedback back from the field. At that time, being a consultant was merely an attribute of being a project manager.

Nowadays, PMI looks at consultants in a different manner with the consciousness that (a) being/acting as a project manager is deeply different from being/acting as a consultant in project management, and (b) an answer can be found to the question of how the two roles can best cooperate. Now there is a program called the Registered Consultant Program (RCP) that is dedicated to supporting small consulting businesses and consultants worldwide.

Exhibit 1 represents this idea: The project manager interprets and transforms experience into best practices, while the consultant shares knowledge of best practices and thereby builds new experiences. When project managers and consultants find themselves working on the same project, the consciousness of playing different roles should help to avoid competition and increase collaboration.

The new virtuous cycle

Exhibit 1: The new virtuous cycle

With the emergence of consulting activities, the importance and value of interaction with C-level executives has become clearer. The previously technical communication about program and project performances has transformed into more strategic communication on core matters for the organizations.

Part II: Real Cases and Lessons Learned

II1: How Can We Involve and Engage C-Suite Stakeholders?

As previously stated, communication with C-Suite stakeholders is valuable and can make the difference in various situations. The next question is: How can we involve and engage C-Suite stakeholders in order to create beneficial and lasting relationships on both sides?
I initially planned to bring readers my experience with C-Suite people, offering them my conclusions on how a consultant or a project manager can influence them. Then I thought that my personal filters could limit the message and decided to ask them directly: what of a consultant, or a consulting company, or a general interlocutor influences them, given in several situations.

I had to answer two questions:

  • Whom should I ask?
  • What questions should I ask?

Whom Should I Ask?

The idea—which is basically the idea that supports this paper—was to contact C-Suite stakeholders I work with. I opted for a list of CIOs and executives who can make decisions, influence large structures, and move money. I carefully avoided interviewing people I simply know, and I preferred to seek people I personally cooperate with.

What Questions Should I Ask?

The two simple questions I decided to ask are:

  • What influences and drives you in selecting consulting services the first time?
  • What drives you in choosing a consulting firm or a consultant again?

The two questions are open questions; they do not resemble a real interview—keep in mind that these people are frequently surveyed. I thought these questions could awaken the imagination and free thinking, encouraging the interviewees to recall experiences they could have in the past to stimulate discussion.

I initially asked these questions by phone or email, and I followed up with the interviewees and asked them to deepen answers.

In the answers I got from them I thought to catch some traditional words we always face when we deal with consulting services, like “trustworthy,” “competence,” and “loyalty.”
It was not so.
These attitudes are simply expected and are not perceived as distinguishing requirements.

The following paragraph brings readers the main five lessons learned that I collected from this work.

II2: Lessons Learned

As stated in the previous paragraphs, the communication with C-Suite stakeholders is valuable and can make the difference in various situations. The next question becomes: How can we best involve and engage C-Suite stakeholders in order to create beneficial and lasting relationships on both sides?

1. Let Them Quickly Catch On

This first lesson is about being clear and getting straight to the point, without the need of long explanations and time-wasting meetings. Recapping and simplifying is an act of “manipulation of the information” that both consultants and project managers usually either avoid or are not able to do effectively. However, it is a responsibility that must be taken. In any case, it is a strong request from C-Suite stakeholders.

  • “I needed 15 professionals like you to follow my 15 most important projects, with the ability to bring me the whole picture of the situation in a few minutes.”
  • “I like when consultants are able to let me understand complex info and simplify for me what I am approaching for the first time.”

2. Gain the Confidence of Their Reports

This second lesson is about paying attention to the fact that C-Suite stakeholders do not operate alone. They are usually integrated in a complex context and cannot take the risk of going ahead alone without the right involvement of their reports. Consultants and project managers must bring suggestions and ideas to C-Suite stakeholders after consulting with their collaborators. If they do not, they must expect to be asked for them.

  • “I need my reports to trust the consulting company I want to work with.”
  • “Go and ask them if they trust what you say.”
  • “Gain the confidence of the people I ask you to work with.”

3. Let Them Be in Touch With Who Does the Dirty Work

Sometimes either consulting firms or project team leaders love interaction with C-Suite stakeholders. They feel gratified sitting in front of them and reporting to them about different situations and problems. But in some cases they are not the ones who discovered a solution, thought up a workaround, or worked hard to find an alternative. C-Suite stakeholders love to talk with people who did the “dirty work” and love breaking the hierarchy.

  • “I want to talk with the person who is working for me, I want to know from him or her what exactly is going on…”
  • “Do not ask me to talk with the firm's top managers: I wish my consultants to connect me with the field.”

4. Be Searchable, Be Visible

We often think to ourselves: “If they [C-Suite stakeholders] trust me, they will come back to me and look for me again.” But it does not always work this way, and C-Suite stakeholders are always trying to get the best collaboration they can from suppliers. They love to ask and search and compare. We must act in such a way that: “When C-Suite Stakeholders look for competence, they must find it in us!”

  • “Every time I can, I work with consultants I already know and trust, but I like to look for new companies to recruit: I usually phone references I find on their websites.”
  • “When I attend a congress or a meeting, I take notes and names of people who caught my attention: to use them for my future needs.”

5. Be Specific, Be Generalist

High specialization is strongly required in consulting and project management activities. But it's not enough for building lasting relationships. We, as both consultants and project managers, must be able to read the “overall impact” and the “big picture” of the situation.

  • “While years ago consulting services were more generalist, these days they are always going to be more specific and offer in-depth expertise…”
  • “…I look for consultants being specific, but I also need them to be generalist enough to evaluate the impact of all the actions they propose/suggest: on Organization, IT, Compliance, HR, Operations.”

Part III: Tools and Techniques to Support Relationships with C-Suite Stakeholders

Relationships with C-level executives should be carefully managed, when they are our counterparts in projects and programs, when interfacing with them to sell our consulting services, and when networking with them. Tools and techniques to consider come from the traditional stakeholder management expertise areas.

Stakeholder Network Register

The stakeholder register is a list of all program/project stakeholders and contains all relevant details of the stakeholders in accordance with project needs. The information generally contains contact information, role details, expectations from program/project, type of influence, etc. A stakeholder register—or anything similar to it—is the basic tool to track the status of the relationships with C-Suite stakeholders and C-level executives.

The relationships with C-Suite stakeholders are journeys. They begin with an event or a meeting, either formal or informal, and then we have the opportunity to bring/capture thoughts and ideas and define a clear exchange to consolidate the relationship. This paper considers the point of view of someone who wants/needs to start and manage a relationship with a C-Suite stakeholder because the C-Suite stakeholder is the sponsor of the program/project, because he or she is a potential customer of consulting activities in project management, or for similar reasons. We call these relationships beneficial relationships when they are beneficial on both sides.

The stakeholder register becomes the tool to track this journey. To be useful for that, it must become a list of all interactions and exchanges we have with our counterparts and a place where next steps are planned. It becomes what we call a stakeholder network register.

It may keep information like:

  • What we asked them
  • What we brought them
  • What we exchanged in term of opinions, facts, and ideas
  • What we perceive they expect from our relationship
  • Other people we mentioned, talked about, or decided to get in touch with
  • Next steps

Stakeholder Analysis

“Stakeholder analysis in conflict resolution, project management, and business administration, is the process of identifying the individuals or groups that are likely to affect or be affected by a proposed action, and sorting them according to their impact on the action and the impact the action will have on them. This information is used to assess how the interests of those stakeholders should be addressed in a project plan, policy, program, or other action” (Wikipedia, para. 1).

When the focus is on one specific C-Suite stakeholder, a stakeholder analysis quadrant can usefully be applied to other managers and executives living/working in his or her context. It can help to understand the network of relationships among them. A good approach could be mapping power and influence.

Strength Deployment Inventory® (SDI®) and Relationship Awareness® Theory

To try to predict the development of the relationship and the probability of success in building a beneficial one, we must know something more about how people behave. For this reason, we draw on Elias H. Porter's Relationship Awareness® Theory: “In Relationship Awareness Theory, Dr. Porter integrates quite diverse streams of psychological thought. In particular, in his theory Porter acknowledges the purposive behaviorism of Edward Tolman, the empiricism of Kurt Lewin, the client-centered therapy of Carl Rogers and the Neo-Freudian personality theories of Erich Fromm and Karen Horney” (Personal Strengths Publishing, Inc., 2010).

Relationship Awareness Theory® is based on the premise that one's behavior traits are consistent with what one finds gratifying in interpersonal relations and with concepts or beliefs one holds about how to interact with others to achieve those gratifications.

The theory itself is founded on four simple premises:

  • Behavior is driven by motivation to achieve self-worth: Behavior traits arise from purposive strivings for gratification mediated by concepts or hypotheses as to how to obtain those gratifications (Tolman, 1967).
  • Motivation changes in conflict: We are predictably uniform in our behavior when we are free, and we are predictably variable as we meet with obstructing conditions in our stimulus worlds.
  • Strengths, when overdone or misapplied, can be perceived as weaknesses: A personal weakness is the overdoing of a personal strength, no more, no less.
  • Clarity and face validity enhance self-discovery: The more clearly the concepts in a personality theory approximate how one experiences one's self, the more effectively they serve as devices for self-discovery.

Relationship Awareness Theory identifies seven general themes or clusters of motives known as Motivational Value Systems™ (MVS). Each MVS can be traced through the work of Freud and Fromm. Relationship Awareness Theory describes them in terms of positive strivings for self-worth by adults in relationships.

The seven clusters of the Relationship Awareness Theory

Exhibit 2: The seven clusters of the Relationship Awareness Theory

The basic idea is that acquiring the ability to understand the “color” of persons we meet can help in building beneficial relationships with them.


Relationships with C-Suite stakeholders and C-level executives can strongly affect businesses, activities, and contractual decisions, as well as the perception the whole organization has of our work/intervention: We must be aware of them. This paper presented some lessons learned on how to deal with C-Suite stakeholders and some tools and techniques revisited from a traditional version of them.

This exercise was beneficial: Focusing on these important and powerful persons, interpreting their answers, and pondering their potential actions and reactions helped to discover the lessons presented here.

This game can continue and could be repeated on a regular basis.

Personal Strengths Publishing, Inc. (2010). Relationship awareness theory: An overview. Retrieved on 17 August 2012 from http://www.personalstrengths.us/index.php/en/ra-theory/theory-overview.

Project Management Institute. (PMI). (2011). Organizational project management maturity model (OPM3®) – Third Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (PMI). (2013a). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute (PMI). (2013b). The standard for portfolio management – Third Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (PMI). (2013c). The standard for program management – Third Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (PMI). (2014). Executive guide to project management. Retrieved from http://www.pmi.org/About-Us/Executive-Guide-to-Project-Management.aspx

Tolman, E.C. (1967). Purposive behavior in animals and men. New York: Irvington Books.

Wikipedia. (2014). Stakeholder analysis. Retrieved on 2 March 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stakeholder_analysis

© 2014, Maria Cristina Barbero, MBA, PMI-ACP, PMP
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dubai, UAE



Related Content

  • PMI Sponsored Research

    Digitalization as a Game Changer in Project Stakeholder Management member content open

    By Kier, Christof | Huemann, Martina This research work aims to discuss contemporary project stakeholder engagement and examines how digitalization shapes and affects the field.

  • Project Management Journal

    Befriending Aliens member content locked

    By Matinheikki, Juri | Naderpajouh, Nader | Aranda-Mena, Guillermo | Jayasuriya, Sajani | Teo, Pauline Public–private partnerships (PPPs) achieve legitimacy in the form of social acceptance from diverse audiences and stakeholders.

  • Project Management Journal

    Stakeholder Analysis in the Feasibility Process of Projects member content locked

    By Sarhadi, Mehrdad | Hasanzadeh, Sogand | Hoseini, Seyed Hosein The feasibility process of public construction projects is under the influence of stakeholders, analysis of whom is critical.

  • PM Network

    O futuro da aprendizagem member content open

    By Fister Gale, Sarah Mais de 1 bilhão de crianças em pelo menos 185 países foram afetadas pelo fechamento de escolas relacionado à pandemia global no ano passado.

  • PM Network

    Ajuste de contas da fintech member content open

    By Fister Gale, Sarah As taxas de adoção da Fintech entre os consumidores quase dobraram a cada dois anos desde 2015 - e o ritmo apenas acelerou durante a pandemia.