Don’t Just Negotiate Your Salary, Negotiate Your Career

If you wait until salary discussions to negotiate, then you’re wasting your time. There’s more in your career you can negotiate well for.

When I was consulting, two of my colleagues were staffed on a project that never really happened. Willhelm and Rob spent three weeks on a project in which the only work produced was a three slide project plan outlining the project approach, before they were stood down.

The client changed their plans and had no use for the team. Wilhelm and Rob were duly staffed on other projects and moved on.

At year end, as is the way with consulting firms, both were up for promotion. They both had to compile feedback from the projects they had been involved in during the year.

Meeting or Exceeding Expectations?

Both approached the manager of the M&A project and had broadly similar conversations, with one crucial difference. Rob called the manager and said “I was on that project that never really kicked off, in fact we only produced that one deck, so can we just agree that I met your expectations?” The manager agreed.

Wilhelm said “I was on that project that never really kicked off, but we did produce that one deck. So can we just agree that I greatly exceeded your expectations? I’m in a promotion year, so it’s a big deal for me”.

The manager agreed. It really made no difference to him (we worked in a different part of the firm), and Wilhelm secured his promotion.

Rob was appalled. How could Wilhelm have pulled such a dirty trick? They both did exactly the same thing and yet he made such a bold claim! Where was the justice? It took him months to shake it off, but when he did, a crucial realisation dawned on Rob; He had let himself down. Wilhelm wasn’t the bad guy; Rob had been naïve.

Through the Eyes of a Negotiator

When you see life through the eyes of a negotiator, you see opportunity where others see risk. Wilhelm recognised this. He guessed (correctly) that the manager wouldn’t care very much about the grade he gave for a consultant in a different business unit, on an inconsequential project that never really happened.

Wilhelm recognised that if the manager didn’t like “greatly exceeded”, he’d probably be ok with “exceeded” and or “met” expectations. He was candid about his reasons. Wilhelm saw a negotiation opportunity, where Rob only saw an admin call.

It’s a fine line between being assertive and being pushy, but sometimes it’s useful to go beyond our own comfort zones. Wilhelm, in addition to being a clever, hardworking and talented consultant, also knew that knowing when to push a little could be the difference between getting the promotion and not.

It was a useful life lesson for Rob, and one that has served him well since. Our careers are full of innocuous little negotiations like these. Getting the most we can from every one of them is key to being successful.

Don’t Just Negotiate for Salaries

Most of what is written about negotiation in our careers focuses on the biggest, most obvious negotiation – “Getting that pay rise”. But the focus of those articles is tactical advice for the negotiation.

It’s ok advice, but if the salary negotiation is the first and only time your boss has seen you try to negotiate assertively, then they may not be convinced that they need to take you seriously now you’ve put your “negotiating hat” on.

However, if you’ve strategically positioned yourself as an assertive, pragmatic, skilful negotiator, who knows how to use negotiation as a problem solving and influencing tool, they will come to that negotiation prepared to work with you.

Imagine you’re working at full capacity and your boss asks you to take on additional work. Refusing may be uncomfortable and counter-productive. You risk being seen as intransigent, lazy or fearful.

But simply saying “yes”, and figuring you’ll find some way to make it happen, poses risks the new project, your existing work and your reputation. Even worse, if you do flog yourself extra hard and managed to deliver everything, you could be seen as a “safe pair of hands”.

That level of output then sets the expectation they have of you. This then becomes the new normal for the year to come. Does that sound familiar? Does it seem unfair?

Setting Clear Expectations – On Both Sides

You could negotiate the terms of the new project. At the very least, this is your opportunity to set expectations regarding the impact of this extra work.

You can protect your time and capacity to do high quality work by making clear to your boss that if they want everything done they are going to have to find some extra resource to help you (not your evenings!).

Additionally you’re showing that you’re sufficiently in control of your workload to understand and have plans to mitigate for the impact of being given extra work. You’re still offering your boss a solution, and positioning it as a less risky one. Best of all, you’ve increased your perceived value.

You’re no longer the pushover who takes on everything and does an ok job most of the time, but sometimes drops the ball. Now you’re the pro-active manager of expectations, who is realistic about what they can achieve, and is comfortable with delegating work effectively and helps find solutions to problems.

Finally, when that salary negotiation comes around, your boss is comes to the table ready to make some concessions, because they are used to you being an assertive negotiator, not a pushover.

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