I am old enough to have two kids, more than 15 years’ experience in my chosen field, and a big ole’ mortgage.
But it's only recently that I've learned to ask for what I want. Here’s the crazy part: People are giving it to me. Holy crap. I highly recommend this. Frankly, I highly recommend starting it about 20 years earlier.
I’m sure I asked for what I wanted all the time when I was a little girl. I look at my two little ones, and the tantrums they throw when they’re denied something, and think, gee, I must have been like that once, too. So when did I start equivocating and going along with what other people want? Whose bad idea was that?
I don't know the answer, but I will tell you that I learned my first big adult lesson in asking-for-what-I-want the hard way. I didn’t ask — for a plum position as a columnist, to telecommute, and for a big raise — and I didn’t get. I thought all of that was too much to ask for, frankly, and therefore not worth the effort. Well, a colleague of mine did ask, and she got. I got another job, we’re still friends, and everyone lived happily ever after. But still.
Catalyst, a nonprofit that does research about women in the workplace, says that, contrary to popular perception, and despite my early experience, women do ask. But the business environment seems to be less hospitable to their requests than to those of men. In a November study tracking more than 4,000 MBAs from around the world, Catalyst found that women do ask for raises, promotions, and more responsibility, just as often as men do. They just don’t get the answer they want to hear as frequently as their male colleagues. "In fact, we found that the $4,600 pay gap that starts from day one grew to more than $31,000 several years down the track — even when women asked," Catalyst reports.
Not the most encouraging news, I know. But it’s still worth making your pitch. And in my experience, when it comes to asking for something scary-big, there are really only three things you have to remember:
- Ask nicely. Making demands endears you to no one. Just ask.
- Be specific. Don't leave too much open to the other person’s interpretation. Instead of “more babysitting,” ask for exactly what you want. The person you’re asking might think you need two more hours a week when, really, you need two more days. You don’t want to get a hard-won “yes” only to find out that, for practical purposes, it’s a “no.”
- Be willing to walk away. Even if you’re not willing to walk away (in family matters, this can be especially tough), do your darnedest to fake it. That’ll give you the confidence you need to stick to your guns.
How do I know this works? A few years ago, I was being recruited for what sounded like a big job at an online media company. But the project was understaffed and under-resourced, and they were using second-choice software to build it. I wasn’t sure I would have final say over the redesign. I was ready to turn it down.
Connie (now my business partner) wouldn’t let me. “Think like a guy!” she said. “Tell them: You need more staff. You need more money. You need better software and the final say, and only then will you do it.”
I gulped. I did as she said. Here’s the weird part: They didn’t blink. They wanted to know why I needed more staff, why their software stank, and what my vision was for the redesign. They were fine — with all of it. No one said I was unreasonable. I had three interviews. In the end, there was one thing—one—they wouldn’t give me: more than six weeks’ maternity leave. My current employer was offering six months. I was five months pregnant. Easy choice.
Later, after my company was sold, I was happily freelancing when I was asked if I was interested in a position at another online media company. I said I liked my freelance clients and wasn’t interested in a full-time gig. They said they’d keep me in mind. I figured that was the end of it. But two weeks later, they emailed and asked what sort of schedule I would consider. I took a deep breath. I channeled Connie. I wanted three days a week, with one day working from home. And full benefits.
Long story short: I got it.
You really, really should try this.
I know the economy stinks. I know jobs are scarce, especially if you don’t currently have one and your network may have turned cold. But I still encourage you to ask for what you want. Not demand. And be willing to horse-trade to get it. You have nothing to lose.
Here are the details:
On being specific: I didn’t ask for a part-time schedule, because that could mean anything to anyone. I asked for three days a week, with one from home. I didn’t ask for health insurance, even though that was the benefit that mattered most. I asked for full benefits. Can you imagine how upset I’d be if the company suddenly instituted profit-sharing and I didn’t get any? Forget it.
On asking nicely: When I turned down the full-time job, I emphasized how much I respected the team, the brand, the employer and their collective reputation. I said that at another point in my life, I would have jumped at the opportunity. All of this had the advantage of being true.
On walking away: I had to turn down the five-day-a-week job two or three times, depending on how you count, before I was offered the three-day-a-week one. If I didn’t have a healthy freelance income, I don’t know if I would have done that. So even though I have written extensively about negotiation and firmly believe I stink at it, I've learned that being willing to walk away, with a smile on my face, is one of the best things I can do to improve.
Just try it. The worst that will happen is that you’ll hear a ‘no.’ And you’ll be right back where you started — looking for someone else to ask. — KW
Coffe cup image courtesy of flickr user wonderlane