019-Stage Direction in the Boardroom

019-Stage Direction in the Boardroom

It can be challenging enough to deliver a project with tough timelines, budgets and limited resources. But what happens when your project is high profile? I mean, REALLY high profile? High profile in that your stakeholders include business executives, regulatory agencies, and heads of governments who do not align on key issues?  And what if, at stake, is a program which could bring tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to communities that very much need it?

That’s the daily reality of delivering high-stakes projects in the Gaming industry.

The skills that successful leaders in this industry have developed, especially around stakeholder management, can be incredibly valuable to every business leader and project manager. And to help us learn a couple of those skills, we are joined by Sheila Morago, Executive director of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association. She is also one of one of our favorite people 🙂

Sheila will walk us through some practical techniques for managing stakeholders in the boardroom, and facilitating agreement between executive stakeholders, especially when agreement seems far away and difficult.


Sheila Morago is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association. OIGA has 30 member tribes and numerous associate members.  Oklahoma now ranks third in the United States in gaming revenue, with 118 casinos ranging from small fuel stops to full resort casinos.

Ms. Morago was named one of 25 people to watch by Global Gaming Business. She was named one of the “Great Women of Gaming” by Casino Enterprise Management, and inducted into the Indian Gaming Hall of Fame, presented by Indian Gaming Magazine.


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Check out this episode!

Show Notes

How to keep your executive sponsors and stakeholders in-line when the chips are down

Introduction [2:14]

Our guest on today’s show, Sheila Morago, is the executive director of Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association or OIGA, which has 30 member tribes and numerous associate members. Oklahoma is now ranked 3rd in the US for online gaming revenue with 118 casinos.

Sheila was named one of the twenty-five people to watch by Global Gaming Business. She was named of the great women of gaming by Casino Enterprise Management and inducted into the Indian Gaming Hall of Fame presented by Indian Gaming Magazine.


Sheila, can you tell us a bit about your role with OIGA? [4:02]

I’m the executive director of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association. It’s a non-profit trade association where we represent all tribes and states of Oklahoma that have gaming or casinos.

Can you tell us about the journey that brought you to working in Tribal Gaming? [4:23]

It started in operations. I was working in hospitality when my tribe opened up its first tribal casino. They came and asked me to work for them since I was in the restaurant business. They wanted me to be the beverage director, but that position was filled. So they hired me as the marketing director.

It was a small facility with 350 machines. It grew into 3 new casinos, opening 30 days between each other. During that time, I was able to work in my tribe, as well as put in different organizations where my skills fit. When a job opened in Washington DC, the guy that I worked with became the executive director for National Gaming Association. He called and asked me to fly to Washington DC because I would be the new director of his Public Relations. To make a long story short, from the director of public relations, I ran the outreach campaign for  Proposition 202. Then they hired me to be the new executive director for AIG. From there, I was with them for 8 years, then Oklahoma offered me a job I couldn’t refuse.

What is your favorite thing about being in the field? [6:27]

People work hard forever. They put their heart and their head in the same spot, and I’m lucky enough to have been able to do that for the last 20 years. I love what I do, I have the skill set that works for this particular kind of job, and it helps my people and all tribes. It all works together, and I’m lucky to be able to do this.

Tribal gaming is basically a 100% taxed industry. While we are making a lot of money, all of it goes back to the tribe for government services. Basically, it’s the tax basin for the tribal governments. It goes to building hospitals, scholarships, building schools, healthcare, and infrastructures.

What is the most valuable business lesson that you had to learn the hard way? [8:38]

To listen. Listening to tribal leaders, their end goals, and the concerns of stakeholders, state/federal lawmakers, and federal government employees. Everybody has to be involved, and you have to listen to what they’re actually telling you. This is so you could deliver what they want- if you don’t listen closely, then you might go in the wrong direction.


Managing big personalities to get an alignment [11:13]

Part of management is getting these folks in the safe zone. All groups must be on the same page.  You have to put them in one room, let them say what they want, and listen to what it is they’re saying. They all have big personalities, they all have an end goal, and they all want to be a rockstar. So you have to let them do that, because they don’t work for you- they work for your bosses.You have zero authority over these people, so you have to get them to a point where they trust you. Give them what they need, and start managing the whole process from there.

This can be achieved by letting them yell it out. It is important to talk to them one on one, and let them know that you’re listening to them, so you could get them to a point where they feel they are being heard. This will help to make them perceive that they are contributing, that they have gotten their part done, and their issue has been addressed. Once this is done, you can now bring them in one room with other people. You’ll see that they feel more confidence in what you say because you listened to them.

Sheila talking about a specific situation when stakeholders didn’t align [17:45]

We had been working on a technical standard for two years. We had everybody in alignment, but one person wanted to look like a rockstar.

We were in a meeting with state officials, and he dropped a bombshell. I had to conclude the meeting, and shoo everybody out of the room including him. We stopped for six months until I figured out how to get that one concern he raised answered.

Bottom Line: There is often one person in the room who could cause damage, and incidents like this may happen. You just have to cool down first, because someone might get hurt. You have to stop, take a deep breath, figure out what you have to do, and move on.


The need to start with policy makers, advisors, and attorneys [20:48]

The actual process is oriented on the techy side, and the actual building of the system isn’t a big deal- it can be done with your eyes closed and in less than a week.

The policy, however, takes a lot longer of a process. Without the policy, the text won’t have a roadmap of what it can and cannot do. Without the policy, guys who are setting the rules and parameters of the project, the tech guys, will just be spinning their wheels.


How did you get clear directions from policymakers? [24:44]

This comes from them sitting down and re-enforcing what the end game is. The policymakers aren’t the tech people, and often don’t know how the tech works.

What you have to do is be pushy to the end game. Tell them you just need the rules on how this is going to work- you don’t need to worry how it gets built, and just need to know what the end game is. A lot of this just requires sitting around and talking. If you don’t keep them regularly on the task they might come back with new technology that’s not even real.

How do you work with a team who doesn’t have the technical knowledge, but is still making rules or trying to provide guidance? [28:27]

One thing you can do is to just get to the bottom line. Ask what a rule or clause is supposed to do. 

As a tech person and expert in your field, you can have eight things that may work, but you have to choose one that will best satisfy the person.

Sheila on social interactions to build a relationship [29:41]

I spend a lot of time with them on group lunches to see how they interact with each other. I invite them for happy hour and private meetings. As you’re watching them, you can find out who’s talking to who, whose friends with who, and how they  react in a simple setting. I use all of that to manage them in the long run, as this is an opportunity for me to learn everybody’s personality and it takes time. While observing, you have to keep your eyes and ears open. You must try to interact with them and enjoy your time as much as possible, but always remember that you’re still working.


Bringing executives together to get alignment [32:30]

Bringing these strong people together is not easy. You got to do your homework because what they want is different from what you want. You have to collect the information and present it to the other side. Then, the other side will most likely do the same thing, and present what they have.  

You and your counterpart must keep the people in the room together. You both need to figure out how to manage and negotiate with all of them, not just the people on your sides. This is what Kim calls the Kabuki theater.

Everybody has to have a role. Everybody needs to get to the end of this. You have to finalize the project and keep it rolling, because it’s important everybody feels that they got the part of the bargain and the piece of the pie.

You as the PM need to be the last person to get the pat on the back.


Sheila on being a strong facilitator and controlling the discussion [41:29]

I’m a big fan of having just one person talk in a room. As you’re discussing the project, you have to make sure that everybody’s concern is addressed. With this, you’ll make them feel heard. If you see heads nodding, it’s a sign that you have got everything under control.

You have to go around the room, and point out differences and similarities between positions to make sure that all concerns are covered. You can also ask questions to drive a discussion, but never ask a question that you don’t know the answer to, because it might come back to you.

Techniques to help negotiation drive to a common position [45:18]

Nothing brings people closer than a common enemy. No project has the same interaction and dynamics, so what I do is find a common enemy. It may be a federal rule, state legislation, or the fact administration is not working with you on a process that you think is fair. And once everybody agrees that it is your common enemy, you will be surprised how they would sit down and figure out what it is they want, and everybody is on the same page.

Once you’re able to get the agreement, how do you make sure they don’t back-track? [46:49]

The most important part of this project is that once they agreed to it, we’d need to have the tech people start working quickly. Once it started, it’d be hard to pull back.

But to make sure nobody backs out, you’ll have to get the system and process moving as quickly as possible. This way, they don’t have a chance and time to back down.

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    Kim Essendrup

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