insight magazine

Accounting for the Art of Influence

Earning a voice at the leadership table is different than having a seat at the table. Here’s how to develop your language of influence. By SELENA CHAVIS | Spring 2019

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Getting invited to sit at the leadership table is, or hopefully will be, a key milestone in your career. It says a lot about you as a professional, your credibility, and your potential to bring value to an organization. But, it’s only the first step to staying power, according to Suzanne Coonan, principal and executive coach with Aerial Leadership, who notes that the greater goal is gaining a “voice” at the table.

“Once you are there, it’s about contributing and a dding value in an impactful way,” she says. “Otherwise, you are not going to be there very long.”

The difference between having a seat and having a voice at the table is an important distinction for every accounting and finance professional to learn, regardless of whether that perspective begins in side a firm or at the bottom of a corporate ladder. After all, success at the table ultimately comes down to one critical factor: influence.

Hal Adler, CEO of Leadership Landing, suggests that truly influential leaders often possess three characteristics. First, they demonstrate self-awareness that starts with a clear point of view and a distinct way of interacting with others. “What style do I embrace? How do I use language?” he suggests asking on e self. “It’s important to be consistent. If you think about marketing, it’s consistency that allows the message to break through the noise.”

Second, influencers understand the experience of the people around the table. For instance, is the audience enthusiastic about new ideas, or do they approach innovation with trepidation?

Finally, leaders with influence bring ideas to the table within the context of an organization’s best interest.

Diving deeper, Jay Scherer, president of Scherer Executive Advisors, says becoming influential requires you to have “an informed point of view, a willingness to do the hard work that comes with understanding and solving issues, and a platform of credibility.”

That platform of credibility is a key point worth elaborating on. Credibility at the leadership table stems from building strong relationships with the others seated at the table and continues to grow as trust deepens. “But your credibility can be quickly destroyed by a perception of self-interest,” Scherer cautions. “If those sitting across from you perceive that your point of view is self-serving, versus focused on the business, you’ll never be heard.”

“It’s work,” Adler says. “Professional services organizations often point us to measurable, tactical tasks, but they don’t orient us to inner development, which helps us be more successful all around. All the motivation has to come from inside.”

LEARNING THE LANGUAGE OF INFLUENCE

Coonan points out that a Corporate Executive Board (now part of Gartner) survey found influence is by far one of the most important competencies for global business leaders to possess — it’s also the one leaders struggle with most. Maybe that’s because communication plays a vital role in the influence equation. In fact, without an aura of “executive presence,” a term Adler describes as being grounded, confident, thoughtful, and underpinned by strong situational awareness, you may come off as anything but influential.

A platform of influence is also supported by the confident, concise delivery of an idea backed by conviction, Coonan says. In terms of conviction, she suggests considering how you might respond if you receive pushback on your input from others around the table. “Do you give up or do you push back with data to support it?” she asks. “Having conviction is really important.”

Tone, volume, and body language equally play into conviction and influence, Coonan adds, noting that being able to “turn it up or turn it down” is important for leaders. To illustrate, Coonan notes that many of the auditing professionals she coaches are inherently introverted. “That’s what makes them really good at the financials,” she says, “but the challenge is how they can show up and ‘turn it up a bit.’ It’s about delivering your message with authority, with the right volume, with a strong and clear tone.”

Scherer says practice and feedback are critical to developing these communication skills. “Is there someone you trust who is in a position to observe how you bring up your points, who has the background and experience to offer an informed opinion about how you are doing?” he asks.

Adler adds that 360-degree surveys, which provide you with confidential, anonymous feedback from your managers, peers, and direct reports, are very effective at providing a baseline for performance improvement. “It takes commitment and inner motivation to want to do anything about it,” he says. “You get the feedback, then you reflect; then you interpret; then you set a path for yourself; and then you practice.”

Scherer suggests a business communications program or business communications coach could take your influence up a level: “A program that includes video practice and feedback on your approach will help to ensure your presentation and style are effective.”

SOFT SKILLS IN A HARD BUSINESS WORLD

The combination of a multi-generational workforce coupled with an increasingly socially conscious and complex business world means that today’s professionals need to continuously hone their soft skills to earn and maintain a voice at the table.

Amidst all the noise of a more intense business environment, more people are simply vying to be heard. Consequently, a powerful soft skill for every influential business leader is the ability to listen.

“The leaders who are the most effective at being heard, despite how noisy it has gotten, are actually the ones who listen the best,” Adler says. “A leader has to meet people where they are so that they feel heard. People need to believe that you understand where they are coming from first.”

“People are doing things that have never been done before,” Coonan says in referring to our changing workplaces and business world. “In tandem with an open ear, leaders must increasingly focus on collaboration and their ability to develop and relate to others in an authentic way.”

Along similar lines, Scherer stresses that authentic or genuine respect for others is a core value every aspiring influential leader must possess. It is, he says, the basis for being effective in business and life: “While there are roles at different levels in organizations, the people who fill those roles are equal citizens, deserving of respect and the golden rule,” Scherer says. “You will win if you consistently treat people with respect.”

While many people focus solely on earning a seat at the leadership table, it’s what they do after achieving it that matters. Influence is key to having a voice at the table, and the best influencers know how to find a win-win for all.