The easiest way to make a big impact at the top table is to have big responsibilities. Ideally, bigger than most of the other people you have to work alongside. The type of roles which grab this limelight and, to a large extent, the organisation is reliant upon. Functions such as Sales and Operations are typically those that sit in this powerful position, but the constituents are dependent on the type of organisation you work for, and also the context in which it has to succeed.
You are probably reading this because you do not have one of these roles and are struggling to make the necessary impact to be able to fulfil your own responsibilities — and deliver the results expected by your line manager. You have probably also been given feedback at some point that you need to become more influential with the top people.
Despite protestations from the powerful people who sit around the top table that your role is vital to their success, in the cut-and-thrust of organisational life it rarely feels like they actually believe this. Certainly, their actions seem to contradict this viewpoint, as they side-line and ignore your appeals to consider other matters which, from your perspective, must be taken into account to avoid problems down the line.
Unless you can step up and make the appropriate level of impact, your career is going to suffer along with your self-confidence and also, the organisation’s success.
Understanding This Challenge
The strange thing about this challenge is that the real cause lies hidden beneath an obvious culprit. Most people in this situation tend to think that their knowledge and skill is not being respected (and valued) by their colleagues. Being placed in a top-table position often heightens one’s sense of expertise and technical know-how. However, this focus often hides the underlying cause.
Firstly, it could be that the others have yet to be convinced that you can really make a contribution at their “level” in your discipline. While someone clearly felt that you could, the rest of the table might still be wondering why. Oddly, this creates a “chicken and egg” scenario, where they don’t have time to let you prove it because they are busy running a business. But until you prove it, they will carry on doing what they’ve always done.
Behind this lies the most likely reason for your struggle to impact. Assuming they respect your expertise — and maybe at times they listen and take action — they could have a very narrow definition of your credentials. Many experts land at the top table full of confidence because their specialist skills got them there. However, they miss the reality that, actually, they are being offered a top-table place to make a general executive contribution to the business. Their specialist expertise is not what is needed. This is usually a mind-set adjustment which needs to be made.
It is not possible to perform credibly in a general executive mind-set if you have failed to have your specialist credentials accepted first. Once you have done that, you will need to step up to the table and demonstrate your vision, acumen and value to the strategy of the business.
After considering the ideas above, select the programme resources below which appear to have the most value in helping you to move forward on this challenge.
- Check Your Foundation. Start off by checking out that all of the key players are advocates of your specialist contribution to the top-table. To do this, you might like to form an Influencing Goal and then use the process to ensure you’ve got this base covered. For example “90% of C-suite executives demonstrate advocacy of my HR strategies, as evidenced by…” See the introduction to the Stakeholder Influence Process.
- Convert Your Language. The key to this is making sure that you link agendas with each individual as you serve their specific needs. Learn to translate your technical speak into the language of their agenda. Also, make sure and show them how they will gain by accepting your contribution — how does it link directly to their P&L for instance? Take a look at Improving Communication and Influence and Create a Benefits Register to begin delving deeper into this topic.
- Adjust Your Mind-set. Reflect on how your role self-concept and attitude could be contributing to the challenge. Getting a second opinion on this is valuable. If you can ask for specific examples of how someone displays the right attitude, this will help you to learn the appropriate behaviours. Sometimes it is simply awareness which unlocks the right performance. At your level, it is unlikely to be about the ability to do it.
- Change Your Focus. Apart from presence, gravitas and bearing, the mind-set also has much to do with the content of your thoughts. If your mind is filled with detailed Finance problems, or how to fix the desktop services outsourcing problem — important as they are — you will not have room for taking up a strategic position within the top-table group. Unless you have a well thought-out vision of what the organisation as a whole should be concentrating on, it is impossible to make a serious contribution to the top-level decision-making process. Yes, this is likely to be outside of your comfort zone, but the sooner you start thinking of these things, the sooner you will make the desired impact.
- Personal Branding. If you want to make a strong impression, it helps to figure out first exactly what that impression should be. Once you have this clarified in your own mind, things automatically start to align, without going down the road of marketing gimmicks! How to Develop Your Personal Brand will help here. You will need to place special emphasis on being able to deliver on your chosen brand; because, although you can stretch into brands, at higher organisational levels there is little tolerance of pretending to be something you are not.
- Organisational and Personal Power. What is it that makes each of these people at the top table powerful? How does your power compare? What is it about you that renders you uniquely powerful? Put another way, what is it that you have got which they want? There is a great deal on this subject in the library, you might like to start with The Components of Power and Seven Sources of Power. Also, complete your online Personal Power Profile to build greater understanding.
- Political Mapping. Finally, it would be worth your time and effort to consolidate your political understanding of the organisation. Who are the key players and how are they connected? What battles have been fought? Winners and losers? How are the politics influencing strategic direction? Take a look at How To Map the Politics and Making Sense of Political Upheaval.
- The sooner you start joining in the strategic debate and decision-making process, the sooner you will make an impact.
- If you were the CEO, how would you lead the organisation?
- Don’t forget that your technical track-record needs to be maintained; otherwise, you will quickly become politically vulnerable.
- At the top table, the politics are more to do with power and less to do with games.
- If someone is not valuing your contribution, do something about it, particularly if their voice is powerful.
Colin Gautrey is an author, coach, and trainer who specialises in the practical use of power and influence in large organisations. He has 25 years’ experience helping middle/senior professionals to survive, thrive and enjoy their work.
If you are ready to develop your influencing capability, become a member of Breakthrough Influence. If you are serious about becoming highly influential, fast, engage with Colin and he will help you get there in the most effective way possible.
Other articles by Colin:
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Colin Gautrey on Influential Leadership
Colin Gautrey has now joined an elite group of experts on influence featured in the Skillsoft range of corporate training videos. These experts include Dr. Robert Cialdini (Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion), Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer (Managing with Power) and Dr. Allan R. Cohen (Influence without Authority).
The short video below contains highlights of Colin talking about Influential Leadership.