My Best Negotiation Story To Date (Jul 2011)

I’ve got a minor confession to make: I’m not very good at negotiating. I don’t like doing it and I tend to avoid it. It’s something I’m working on. I’ve started to get over it through practice and seeing negotiation more as a form of persuasion than anything else.

A great book on this topic is Getting More: How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real Worldby Stuart Diamond. There are a lot books on negotiating and I’ve read some of them, but Diamond’s book feels most rooted in reality, in ordinary life situations. It’s also less about power dynamics and more about, as the title references, “achieving goals” which is something I can really get behind. So check it out.

Anyway, some of the feedback I’ve gotten from you (readers of The Art of Ass-Kicking) is that you like reading my stories. So here’s the best negotiation story to date. If I do better I’ll try to write about it if I can (without revealing important private information). I’d love to hear your experiences with negotiation in the comments!

How I Made $5,000 in a 20 minute Phone Call

The year (2008-09) was an interesting one. I had finished my bachelors degree at Stanford and was continuing through a masters in Biology and preparing to enter the job market. In the fall I had participated in the recruiting process for several management consulting firms but the combination of a terrible economy + poor thinking on the fly skills meant I got some interviews but no offers. I decided to shift gears and go after service / nonprofit positions – and got final rounds with Teach for America + a service fellowship.

The Daily position was exciting because it was a mission driven organization that was formed as a nonprofit but was run like a business – the COO is responsible for the P&L and reports to a 9 person board of directors. I decided to apply for the position after several rounds of interviews, got an offer.

I figured the next step would be to negotiate the offer. I knew I was in a good position because somehow the interviewer had let it slip that there had only been for applicants for the position and that 2 were too old (5+ years after college) to do the job. So while it didn’t do much for my ego to know that I only beat out one person, it meant they didn’t have a lot of options. So they ought to be willing to discuss… =)

I brought up the idea of negotiating the comp package to my interviewer, who was the outgoing COO. She had a very policy/bureaucratic manner and was a bit taken back and almost shocked by my suggestion of negotiating the salary. “The salary is standard, has been the same for many years and doesn’t change!”

(This response might also have been because she had spent the year doing major cost cutting to keep the organization a float). But she also wanted to make sure that there was a COO of the Daily for next year, so she passed my request on to the Chairman of the Friends of the Stanford Daily – a guy with a lot of power and one of the original founders of the Daily nonprofit.

I remember reading a book on negotiating comp packages and it said – if you couldn’t move salary, work on tangential benefits/perks. I had gotten into a summer program at Stanford’s Business School that was basically an expensive mini-MBA camp. I had hoped to win a scholarship to attend but didn’t get it. I still wanted to go but it was $10,000 and would cut into my first few weeks at the Daily.

So I got on a call with this guy, let’s call him Jeff. I told him I was interested in the position but I was looking for a higher offer than what was given ($42,000). While I knew they wanted me, I also didn’t have another offer on the table, which always makes negotiating harder.

Jeff wasn’t willing to budge on salary – the Daily was going through tough economic times and he couldn’t offer anything higher. So I bring up this mini-MBA and ask if I could start later and get the whole program paid for since it would directly add value to my ability to be COO.

He thinks about it (the guy has an MBA from Stanford himself) and offers to pay for half. But also since it cuts into my first three weeks at work, I wouldn’t get paid for that time. So I do the math – this offer means I still have to shell out 5k AND I lose out on about 2k of salary. Not a good deal.

Then in my flash of brillance, I ask – what if instead of paying $5k for the program, you put aside $5k for me to use in approved educational purchases? BINGO. He can’t refuse the number since he had already put it out there, and now I could start work on time and have the flexibility to use the money in a variety of ways.

I used the $5k over the course of the year to buy a number of business books, some sales training programs, and flights for several staff members to attend a conference on college newspapers held at Yale.  It was a win for everyone and though it may not be amazing, it’s my best negotiation story to date.

Lessons Learned

You have more leverage than you think

Negotiating is scary and asking for more comes with risk. But if you have any kind of offer or are in a discussion, the other side isn’t going to walk away because you suggest you want more. They’re there for a reason – they want what you can bring to the table – so don’t forget that.

Give reasons

When you ask for something, it’s helpful to give a reason. One reason might be – someone else is offering more, another might be – give me more and I’ll bring something else to the table, a third might be – helping me is really helping the organization. I used the 3rd reason.

Get them to throw out an offer

This isn’t always the right thing, but if you are uncomfortable asking for more, it’s helpful to get the other party to make an offer. When Jeff indicated he would pay for half of the summer MBA program, I now had a solid offer to work with.

Be flexible

In the book Getting More, Professor Diamond says to trade items of unequal value. In order to do this, you have to bring a lot more items to the table of discussion/negotiation. In my case, Jeff had to hold the line on salary but could offer discretionary funds for easier-to-justify things such as “professional development”.

I hope you enjoyed my tale! I’d love to hear of any negotiation stories you’ve had and what you’ve learned from them.

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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  1. Very useful post! Gonna find this handy come fall when I start my job-hunting/recruiting process! Thanks!

  2. That was a great story that you told and you did some really good negotiating on your part with asking for the $5k in educational expenses. That is going to be an book I am going to have to pick up.

  3. I wish I had seen this article a few days ago when I received a job offer. Thankfully, I have friends who are a few years ahead of me in my industry, so they gave me some good pointers. By far, my biggest takeaways from successfully negotiating my salary were

    a) Justifying the desired increase is absolutely vital (for me, it was the cost of living in NYC),

    b) Don’t cave under pressure when they counter-offer. Instead focus on how you can work with the counter-offer so that both parties are happy (I counter-counter-offered to meet in the middle of the last two numbers),

    c) Be friendly and continue to show excitement about the position prior to and during the negotiation, and

    d) Remember that you’re not always paid what you’re worth. You’re paid what you negotiate. Even muttering an additional, well-placed sentence during the negotiation can be a difference worth thousands in salary.

    Great stuff dude!

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