Friday, April 5, 2013

How to Be A Strong Negotiator, Even at the Start of Your Career

Read Time: 5 minutes

On one of those blue-sky days when everything is going your way, Karen, who had just graduated in industrial design, landed an internship with a small firm with great work. The firm’s website featured the kind of work she’d dreamed of doing. The office was a small staff, less than 20 people, and she planned to meet and learn from her new peers. Naturally, the internship was unpaid, and she knew she’d be doing grunt work, but it was an opportunity to work with real designers for real clients on dream projects.

Or so she thought.

Keeping Commitments

A few days in, Karen discovered that the firm’s work had completely changed from what was showcased on their website. She was heartbroken. The current clients were in financial services and insurance, not the cool product design they had been doing for startups. She rationalized, “Oh well, it’s only three months and I’ll learn something.” So she stayed.

She quickly became aware that the product development director was in a passive aggressive war with the owner over the quality of the clients and the work. More seriously, the staff lined up in support of one or the other of the leaders. Karen, being “junior,” uncomfortably found herself jumping from side to side just to survive. It was, she said, the longest three months of her life.

In the final week of her internship, one of the biggest projects was completed. The owner immediately fired the director and the six staff designers who had been at the center of conflict.

Think About It Overnight

Two days later the owner offered Karen a full-time position at $25,000 a year. Their meeting felt weird, especially in light of the office drama and the owner made the offer sound like charity, saying, “That’s a lot of money for an inexperienced student.” Karen felt deflated and insulted, especially since the offer was below her living expenses. What to do: she restrained herself from reacting on the spot and said, “I’d like to think about it overnight.”

Karen did think about it overnight. She turned to her network and asked for help from her dad and a couple of friends, and got over feeling insulted. She didn’t have any other opportunities, but her portfolio site was drawing increasing interest. So, she decided to pass on the “charity offer” and start actively looking. Surely something would turn up.

The next day, Karen gave the owner her decision, packed her things and left quickly. Her only regret was leaving that view of the bay.

Emotions Run Wild

The next months were slow and her funds dwindled. She picked up an engaging freelance assignment, but it wasn’t enough to build a career. Karen knew that she wanted to be part of a group of experienced professionals. She needed the interaction and the opportunity to compare her skills with others.

That fall a retailer, who was designing a line of small products, interviewed Karen. The interview, with the head of the newly formed industrial design group, went very well. Karen was excited. “Cool products and a great group. I’ll be starting about the same time as everyone else, on the ground floor.”

A month went by without a call. Karen had sent a thank you, then a follow-up note, but still nothing. “Perhaps the interview didn’t go as well as I thought. Maybe I should have talked less, showed more work, asked more questions.” She felt sick.

Fortunately, she got another call and an interview, this time with a software company with a large in-house industrial design group. They were creating devices for consumers and business. Feeling stronger now that she had another offer, Karen called the director she’d interviewed with at the retailer. To her surprise he got right back to her. “Karen, sorry this has taken so long. I’d like to have you interview with a few other designers here next week.”

The next two weeks were a blur of interviews with both companies. The software company offered her $50,000 a year to start. She mentioned the offer to the retailer and amazingly they offered her $52,000. Now she had something to think about.

Get a Coach

Karen proudly shared the news with her dad and best friends. The advice was the same from all of them:

  • take time
  • feel appreciative
  • ask as many questions as appropriate
  • think about what you want
  • think about which place feels best
  • think about which offers the best opportunity to grow.

Karen decided on the software company, but she mentioned the retailer’s offer, not so much to get more money, but because she felt proud to be in demand. To her delight they offered her $54,000. She took it.

I interviewed Karen after she’d been on the job four months. She was learning quickly, loved her group, and was very happy and proud. And I was surprised to hear that she didn’t feel that she’d negotiated anything.

What We Can Learn from Karen’s Experience

  1. Keep your commitments. Even though three months may feel like eternity, being known for keeping your bargains is important.
  2. Think about any significant offer at least overnight. Take the time you need.
  3. Resist the urge to react immediately. That’s always a powerful feeling. Resisting makes you more powerful.
  4. Expect your emotions to run wild. You are human, after all.
  5. Always talk about major opportunities with someone you trust. Their insights provide perspective. (I outline steps for this in my article “Get a Coach. Be a Coach.”)

Sometimes negotiating is as simple as mentioning your other opportunities. It’s a less confrontational way of asking for what you need. Karen was able to have this last piece fall into place because of the strong negotiation foundation she paved for herself.

Versions of this article appeared in TalentZoo and Graphic Design.

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