Years of business experience have taught me that my ability to relate to others, and hard skills, are equally important to earning me a seat at the decision-making table, regardless of the situation. Job recruiters' growing emphasis on a candidate's soft skills (involving their Emotional Intelligence (EQ) versus their Intellectual Intelligence (IQ)) confirm the importance of the "likeability factor" in moving ahead in just about any career.
I define the "decision making table" as the place where the most-trusted and capable employees, volunteers and consultants are invited to offer their input in helping the organization's leaders make important decisions. The decision-making table can be a real place in a specific location, or an online venue. It also can exist in the minds of leaders who rely on people they know to help guide their next steps.
Here are five tips to get a seat at the decision-making table, regardless of your industry, organization or role within it.
Ask yourself, "What do I bring to the table?"
I have found that confidence (versus arrogance) characterizes true leaders. If you want to sit with leaders, you need to share their traits. One trait is a sense of purpose that goes beyond a wish to be an influencer. When you sincerely enjoy your role and want to build on it, others will sense it quickly. They will be drawn to your energy and enthusiasm (instead of what I call "fabricated zeal") and respect you. Regardless of your role or communications skills, work proficiency lies at the foundation of professional success
Build authentic relationships with key decision makers
There is a difference between "cozying up" to a decision maker and taking a genuine interest in them and their role over time. First, a perceptive leader can sense insincerity from a would-be influencer immediately. The best leaders focus on the success of organizations, and their egos all but vanish. I have seen flatterers (sycophants) win over leaders, but only when the leader is weak, indecisive or has other reasons for indulging the potential influencer.
I tend to let leaders gradually gravitate to me for professional reasons versus personal ones. For example, doing something well as part of your professional role will get the ear of a leader faster than a "charm offensive" fueled by self-promotion. I've seen that those who arrive at the decision-making table too quickly are often the ones who fall out of favour and are excused faster.
To become successful, focus on the success of others
If you want others to see you as leader, make everyone you work with (even those colleagues you don't know well) feel they are important. When you take a genuine interest in the success of people who are not yet leaders, each conversation with them can yield useful information about their department, role and insights about competitors.
Be sure to keep your promises to them, and when you suggest meeting over coffee to learn more about them, follow up. I worked with a client who initially kept a low profile at work. Her confidence and skills grew, and within two years, she took her place at the decision-making table. When she moved on to a leadership role at another company, she occasionally sought my input on decisions she faced in her new, senior role.
Remain respectful of others' opinions, but don't be afraid to share your voice
Once you take your place among other leaders, the smartest thing to do initially is to listen carefully. All eyes around the table may be upon you; in some cases, people have wondered who I am and how I got there. Regardless of the pressure I may feel to jump into the conversation, I get a sense of the personalities I may be meeting for the first time. Who controls the conversation? Who is showing signs of impatience about not feeling heard? Is there tension or harmony between some of the participants?
Once I get an "aerial view" of the playing field and the players, I first weigh in gradually with concise, relevant questions or comments. The most important things to get clear (even before you're at the table) are the roles and responsibilities of your colleagues. Get your facts straight.
It's wise to remember that you're expected to challenge others and present well-thought out ideas while being courteous, even when speaking of others who are not in the room, including competitors.
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The "decision-making" table can extend into your life outside the business
You will encounter leaders in all facets of your life, and it's important to apply the same logical approach to those encounters as you would in a business setting.
For example, being invited to lead charitable or other community initiatives comes by building the same level of credibility, but with people whose experience may lie outside the business world. Earning a seat at the "decision making table" in community or charitable situations requires you to understand that both young or seasoned volunteers without a business background may approach things differently than you.
You are smart to acknowledge and accept their passion and commitment by being less formal and adapting your communication style to theirs to earn their trust.
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