Negotiate Your Way To Leadership

By: Julie Fasone Holder

Do you think life is a meritocracy? Work hard, do a good job and someone will notice? For many of you, someone does notice for the first 5-7 years or so of your career. And then something happens. Suddenly you don’t feel as though the playing field is level any longer, and you wonder if something is just off kilter with your own value set or if it’s something you haven’t figured out yet. That’s what I’ve observed in the 35+ years I’ve been working in corporate America. That’s what happened to me.




Women are great negotiators. We negotiate all day long – with our children, our husbands, our families and our colleagues about all sorts of things. We’re fierce negotiators and champions for our children and our family when it comes to critical needs like school and healthcare. We’re incredible negotiators for our businesses because we are good listeners and usually try to forge a compromise that works for both parties. One of the best rules of a good negotiation is if it’s too one-sided and seems too good to be true it probably is. Women typically excel in driving lasting and good negotiations for others, but we often don’t think about negotiating for ourselves.

Maybe it’s the intrinsic nature in women to be more trusting and optimistic. We’ve created so much goodwill and worked hard to deliver, so we trust in our leaders and believe that the system will treat us fairly. Maybe we’ve been taught that asking for a promotion or a raise seems self-serving and aggressive – and maybe we’ve been penalized for asking before. We may all have our reasons, but by not negotiating, as often, and as skillfully as your male colleagues are, you are likely falling behind in your career.

Are we not as ambitious as our male colleagues are? Women who take our course “Executive Leadership: Strategies to Enhance Success”, (an open enrollment, executive education course for mid career professional women at Michigan State University) are surprised to discover many differences in the way men negotiate versus women. For instance, that the guy down the hall who got the last promotion actually asked for it, or that men will start asking when they are 50% ready while women will wait til they are 80-90, or even 100% ready, and that men view negotiation as a sign of strength. This is an eye-opener for us, because – let’s face it – negotiating on your own behalf takes courage, confidence and skill.

But it’s very worthwhile and pays off in the long run. A 2008 Catalyst survey of MBAs found that women are paid $4600 less for their first post-MBA job, and while 57% of men negotiated their salaries, only 7% of women did. Male MBAs start financially ahead of women in managerial jobs vs. individual contributors and after starting behind, women don’t catch up. A woman who routinely negotiates her salary increases will earn over one million more by the time she retires. If that doesn’t give you courage it should!

Employers won’t pay you more than they have to, so you need to think about all this as you decide what’s important to your career and plan your negotiation efforts much more strategically. It is a critical skill to learn if you truly want to be treated fairly, given opportunities and paid commensurately.

A career negotiation requires a very factual and unemotional approach, good listening and questioning skills, and willingness to compromise when it makes sense. Think about that ahead of time and do your homework. How do HR processes work where you work? If it can’t be done now, when can it be? Do you have enough people saying good things about your work? If not, cultivate them.

A good negotiation also requires clarity and good understanding. Be sure to verbally summarize at the end of your discussion to ensure you understand and agree with the outcome – and make sure you address any specifics that are missing or haven’t been discussed. Take a deep breath and try it! Start small if you need some practice but whatever you do, don’t assume that just because you do a good job, someone will take care of you— because they won’t.



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