Driver B

Stakeholder Participation

Structure daily operations as continuous learning

To achieve equity at scale, learning leaders facilitate robust, democratic stakeholder participation in decision-making, implementation, and improvement. This participation helps learning leaders diagnose and respond to emergent needs, intuit environmental changes, and identify and take advantage of systems change opportunities.

Creating the structures and conditions for ongoing and deeply integrated stakeholder participation is complex and challenging work; true democracy always is. But by ceding central control and cultivating shared responsibility for decision-making across a broad coalition of stakeholders, learning leaders forge the authentic relationships and feedback loops necessary to support durable transformation tailored to the needs of each community.

Dig in below to learn more about Stakeholder Participation, explore learning leadership in practice, and reflect and take action to improve your own work!

To do Stakeholder Participation well, learning leaders accept that they alone cannot hold all the answers and situate their work within an ever-changing constellation of actors and institutions. Rejecting the dichotomy of “in here” and “out there,” these leaders understand that the borders erected around system elements—organizations, teams, stakeholder groups, even fields—are artificial and porous and that, in practice, what happens “out there” is inextricably tied to what happens “in here.” 

To that end, learning leaders build a community in which stakeholders collaboratively develop stronger understandings of, learn from, and influence the systems they are part of. Unhampered by the limitations of formal organizational boundaries, these leaders build bridges across—and ultimately break down—the structural and interpersonal silos that have camouflaged innovations and stalled progress in the past. 

To build this system and become this leader:

Learning leaders use “collaborative governance”1Ansell, C., & Gash, A. (2008). Collaborative governance in theory and practice. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 18(4), 543–571. to co-produce system design, strategy, and implementation with stakeholders. Planning backward from sustainable, equitable service provision at scale, learning leaders identify and tap the diverse cohort of stakeholders they will need to accomplish ambitious aims. 

Learning leaders think creatively and build a broad coalition, moving beyond the well-worn, and often inherited, relational structures that have produced current conditions. They are intentional about transformative change, “designing and planning for impact and sustainability from the beginning,”2Caillier, S. (2020, winter). 10 tips learned about building improvement networks that work. High Tech High Unboxed. as Stacey Caillier recommends. They are explicit about when and why they engage different stakeholders, and they articulate strategies for how they will, over time, seed and cultivate productive relationships with others.

There is particular importance to this work in schools and districts. For many people, a primary point of contact with public institutions is school and district participation. These processes function as an authentic, sustained, and experiential civic curriculum for students, families, and their communities—constituencies that have been structurally excluded from power in schools, districts, and educational institutions. A leader’s approach to stakeholder engagement implicitly communicates which voices are valuable both in the system and in the larger democratic context. In this way, inclusive approaches to participation can empower communities and build democratic dispositions with effects far beyond the schoolhouse door, including by fostering increased trust in the legitimacy of schools and other public institutions. 

Participatory democracy moves beyond the informal, pro forma touch points long used in education, creating instead formal and integrated structures through which stakeholders can meaningfully influence strategy and decision-making. Cultivating a dynamic, holistic view of their immediate system and environment, learning leaders “get the right participation and get the participation right,”3Glicken, J. (2000). Getting stakeholder participation ‘right’: A discussion of participatory processes and possible pitfalls. Environmental Science & Policy, 3(6), 305–310. teasing out the structures that contribute to inequitable outcomes and shifting system design so stakeholders can engage in productive dialogue that spurs improvement. 

Learning leaders flip the top-down bureaucratic model of strategy development and decision-making. They build structures and routines that bring relevant stakeholders from within and beyond the system into planning, adapting, implementing, and improving strategy. In practice, this approach to system design activates the powerful stakeholder expertise that remains latent in bureaucratic systems. As a result, strategy in learning-driven systems is more responsive to the needs of communities, accelerating progress toward equity at scale. 

Sustaining this change requires boundary-crossing dialogue and collaboration. With a holistic perspective of their system and surrounding environment, learning leaders are well positioned to act as strategic connectors, continually identifying stakeholder relationships that can catalyze improvement. Learning leaders design their systems to cultivate equitable collaborative relationships that help surface innovative approaches to strategy and, over time, help the system anticipate and adapt to change. They draw connections between teams, departments, and actors that have been siloed, and they invite in stakeholders, like students and families, who have been excluded or marginalized. They invest time and care in the “inconvenient,”4Innes, J. E., & Booher, D. E. (2016). Collaborative rationality as a strategy for working with wicked problems. Landscape and Urban Planning, 154, 8–10. challenging relationships, finding areas of commonality to jump-start dialogue. And they think big, looking beyond their immediate system to identify allies—policy makers, innovators, experts, and advocates both inside and outside education—with whom they can build forward-looking partnerships. 

To mobilize the power of participatory structures and make progress toward equity at scale, learning leaders continually strive to transform power in their systems. They foster a culture that supports equitable collaboration across lines of difference, working with stakeholders to expose and shift the underlying beliefs and behaviors that have stymied effective collaboration and contributed to inequity in the past. 

Although building bonds across lines of difference takes time in a truly diverse collective, learning leaders emphasize the urgency of improvement and commit to forward progress.They help stakeholders navigate roadblocks and support them in coming to provisional consensus, reminding all parties that decisions are merely a shared hypothesis that they will have the opportunity to test and refine over time.

In systems with strong stakeholder participation strategies, leaders set the conditions for all members of the organization to democratically participate in the development, implementation, and refinement of strategy. Bank Street Education Center’s Throughline approach exemplifies this principle.

Learning leaders commit to ongoing reflection and iteration on system design and leadership practice in order to support continuous improvement in service of equity.

The following activities support consideration of and action to improve your own leadership practice related to Stakeholder Participation.

Assess whether your stakeholder engagement efforts have set the conditions for, invited, and facilitated systematic and meaningful participation from stakeholders in learning, improvement, and decision-making across your system. 


  • To what extent does your system design engage stakeholders in the development, implementation, and refinement of your agendas, goals, and problem-solving?

  • Think about a stakeholder participation experience you’ve observed that exemplifies what you would like yours to look like. What made that experience successful? How might you incorporate similar practices into your system? 

  • Think ahead to a decade from now. Visualize two contrasting scenarios: (1) Your system achieves equity at scale, and (2) Your system does not achieve equity at scale. What role did stakeholder participation play in each scenario?   

  • When and how have you shifted your understanding of challenges, decisions, and system design based on stakeholder insight? 

To support your work on this driver, build and maintain an evolving system map—a shared list or diagram that outlines the core elements of your immediate system and environment and the relationships between those elements. Your system map may be visual or more linear, like Achieve Atlanta’s change management tracker.

Which stakeholders are you engaging? 

  • When and how have you involved in your work the stakeholders closest to various problems you’re trying to solve? When and how have you excluded those individuals?

  • Alternatively, are there places where your reliance on positional leaders creates bottlenecks in your learning and improvement processes? Where and when do you need positional leaders to come in and out of problem-solving processes?  

  • What relationships between stakeholder groups stymie productive learning and improvement? As a leader, how might you help foster more productive connections? 

  • What high-impact partnerships have you not developed because they seem out of reach? What adversarial relationships do you avoid that, if nurtured, might open up new inroads to improvement? 

  • Which innovative organizations or actors working outside your immediate field could you partner with or learn from to accelerate change?  

  • Which of the following approaches, articulated in Facilitating Power’s Community Engagement to Ownership framework, have you used most often with stakeholders? When and with which stakeholders have you used different approaches? Why? 
    • Inform: Provide stakeholders with relevant information
    • Consult:  Gather input from stakeholders
    • Collaborate: Ensure stakeholder capacity to play a leadership role in the development and implementation of decisions
    • Defer to: Foster democratic participation and equity by bridging the divide between stakeholders and governance through community-driven decision-making

  • In what ways, if any, have you facilitated collaborative spaces to draw out fruitful conflict? How have you used protocols to scaffold equitable collaboration? 

As a leader, how are you building capacity to work across lines of difference? 

  • To what degree have you, as a leader, reflected on how you’re implicated in inequities across your system? When and how have you linked that self-reflection to action to improvement in your leadership practice and system conditions? 

  • In what ways, if any, have you demonstrated your respect for others’ expertise? Have you moved beyond verbal expressions of support toward genuine efforts to cede power? 

Much of stakeholder work is rooted in humble leadership. Don Berwick recommends asking yourself, each day, “What could I learn today? What do I not know that I could know?” Making this a public routine can help others pick up the habit. 

What's next?

Driver A Treat every strategy as learning

Driver C Measure process and results to drive equity and improvement

Driver D Build a democratic knowledge management cycle

Companion GuideDevelop Your Theory of Leadership