What Women Want: Learning How to Negotiate What you Deserve

When I was a young television anchor working in a small market in Northern Michigan, a well known New York talent agency offered me “representation”.  And no, this is not a humble-brag, so keep reading… (I’ll also explain the picture above at the very end.)

I was actually pretty surprised. What were they doing trolling around tiny towns’ tv stations? “Looking for talent we can grow into larger markets” was the answer.

The thing was, I wasn’t interested. Not then, at least. I knew I still had skills to hone and frankly loved living in the area (if you haven’t been to Traverse City, Michigan, you are missing out on some of the most beautiful real estate in the United States).

So, I asked the agent “Why would I want to give a cut of my salary to someone who really can’t help me right now?”.

He had a ready answer: when it came time to renew my contract, he could negotiate a better deal than I would have imagined and that the extra cash would cover his cut and then some.

That made sense - even in the short term.

When contract time came, I told management about my new “representation” and informed them that my agent would be negotiating for me.

Their response? “We don’t work with agents.

That's when I addressed a #SkillsGap that I didn't even know I had. I learned how to ask for what I want. 

I made it clear to management that while I accepted their policy, it was just a speed bump, not a roadblock. I would negotiate face to face, but would be consulting with my agent every step of the way.

It turned out to be a crash course not just in negotiation, but also in confidence.

After making each contract goal clear and then getting a response, I would step out of the conference room and get “coached” over the phone about what move to take next. And just as my agent had promised, we negotiated for more money and more perks than I would have dared to ask for on my own.

I had a real-time lesson in the skills of persuasion, and I learned how important it is to have a clear strategy.

I learned how critical it is to think ahead -  plan out each step and take into account different possible responses - before going face to face in negotiations.

But I learned something else too: how to get past debilitating doubt that holds many women back. In my case, to argue the value in keeping me on and paying me more, I had to really own my role in the station’s rating successes. And to realize what it would cost the station to lose me.

In tv, external factors like “lead-in” programming can be factored in, and newscasts truly are a team effort, so I had trouble taking credit for my role in ratings successes. I undervalued how my writing, critical thinking, mentoring and work ethic added value to the nightly newscasts. 

So, my agent had to pretty much cheerlead me over the phone, to boost my confidence to a level high enough to stand strong in the face of management who appeared to have the upper hand.

He also helped put into perspective how little what I was asking for impacted the bottom line of a big company, but how falling behind at that early stage would compound the longer I stayed in the role.

I now know that because this lesson came early in my career, it put me far ahead of many other women. I see so many bright, hardworking, valuable peers question themselves in exactly this way, it makes my head spin. Colleagues, friends, clients...they’ve all become statistics. As years passed, and the issue of a persistent wage gap between the genders was well researched, I learned that only 7% of women dare to negotiate when they’re made an offer (according to research by Linda Babcock outlined in her book Women Don’t Ask).

There’s a mountain of writing about what still holds women back from asking for what they really want in the workplace, including fear of being perceived as arrogant, greedy and pushy as well as a belief that they're risking their reputations, which could end up backfiring as they try to climb the career ladder.

While they may not be fair, those are real risks.

And yes, my risk was calculated. I did have an agent who could have whisked me away if negotiations had fallen through. But I also was savvy enough to realize there’s no winning without risk. And that risk didn’t just land me a better contract, it offered a way to fill a #SkillsGap it may have taken a long time to realize I had.

But don’t think I’ve got this down pat.  Even the 7% who do negotiate still need up-skilling and confidence-building. So, this is a #SkillsGap I continue to address. Last year I was blown away by a book called Pitch Anything, by Oren Klaff, and am incorporating his advice (based on neuroscience, by the way) into what I do and how I coach others.  

Klaff makes crystal clear that you cannot ask for what you want unless you "prize" yourself - that means owning your own value.

Finally, about that picture up there...it shows just how long overdue this is. Those women were photographed more than 100 years ago, striking for wages and work conditions they deserved. To those 93% of women today who just take what they’re offered -  think about their risk, and their courage if you have to, to muster the motivation for finally learning how to ask for what you want.

Picture: "NY shirtwaist workers strikers having lunch" by Bain Collection - Library of Congress. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons


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