The two of us were standing at the bar this one time during a rare event at which we worker bees could socialize with our superiors.
“So,” my manager asked me, “where do you want to go in this business? What job would you like to have?”
I, a beginner, had no idea. I gave some generic reply, because I had never thought of anything like that. Didn’t think about it after that exchange, either.
Until two or three years later when that manager was promoted. I put in for the job, and as far as I knew I was the only person in the place who did.
Then weeks passed, and I heard nothing.
I had a pretty good relationship with another senior manager, and I thought he might be in on the decision. Eventually, I asked him what was going on, and got a painfully noncommittal response.
After a long hiatus, they brought in someone from the outside to fill the position.
A few months later, things hadn’t worked out. The new guy left and – finally -- I got the job. I went through hell learning how to handle the demanding work, but eventually got reasonably good at it.
I wasn’t happy, though, about the way that place was run. After a couple of years of periodic battling with the boss, I was dumped. Or maybe I jumped. Anyway, it was messy – and it was over.
That story is loaded with examples of missed opportunities and botched negotiations. A glittering proof of Chester Karrass’ iconic remark, “In business as in life, you don’t get what you deserve – you get what you negotiate.”
And, unfortunately, it was not an isolated case. While I now negotiate just about every step of the way as an independent consultant, back then my conventional career continued pretty much the same way for nearly a quarter-century more.
Among countless examples is one many years later. Now a veteran newspaper editor, I was interviewed three times in one month by two other longtime editors. We covered a lot of ground and concluded it would be a good fit.
Well, it wasn’t. The kind of newspaper office they ran competed strongly for worst among the seven or eight I bounced among in that career.
There is a predictable syndrome involving one’s 90th day in a new place of employment. Just about at that three-month point, reality comes through at both ends of the relationship.
There is inevitably a rosy glow for a while at the start. Then, just as the new person comes to see the shortfalls in management, policy, performance and relationships, the employer comes face-to-face with this person’s limitations.
Happened to me in the job with the three interviews. The 90-day thud. Not a crash, usually in such situations, but some culminating event or dawning of understanding after the weeks of experience with each other.
Turns out the three of us had played our parts well enough to launch a relationship. Also turns out that there was an overpowering back story that could only become known through experience – unless the right questions had been asked in the beginning.
And you can’t ask the right questions if you never think of them, and you don’t think of them if your fundamental attitude doesn’t include the questioning function, a fundamental skill of good negotiators.
In the event, there is no substitute for experience. You can’t know enough upfront about what the other actors in a situation really know, expect, and what they believe they have committed themselves to.
There’s no way for you to truly grasp what they see and understand about you, and how well they are listening and expressing themselves to you.
You account for it all moment to moment, day to day and over time as your career unrolls in this new environment. If it begins to repeat unhappy earlier experiences, maybe you should re-examine how you are going about this project called “my life.”
We often don’t realize that much of what is going on with us results from acts of negotiation – often very poorly done at our end. What am I offering, what am I accepting and what is happening to the relationship with each “transaction?”
Your understanding changes radically once you accept the idea that your employment life is one long negotiating matrix, with numerous exchanges every day and huge ones at times of career change.
Each opening of a new chapter is a subordinate negotiation in the (mis?)management of one’s career.
Even the intricacies of your day can reveal how it's going to go, even as they contribute or diminish the accumulating value you desire.
Think for a moment about your attitude toward your co-workers, on a personal level. Take the ones who greet you cheerily in the morning, listen attentively when you address them, respond quickly and usefully when you ask for something
How do you feel about them?
The managers who always have time for you, take action when something needs fixing, share with you reasonable expectations about your work. The ones who competently master scary/messy matters and forthrightly make tough decisions?
When any of those people want something from you, what is your initial reaction? No way? Why should I? Of course not. In a pleasant, constructive way, you feel obligated to those people. They have negotiated a productive relationship with you.
Those folks have done for you, and, to put it bluntly you’re grateful. If they want something that is within your power to give, accommodating them is at the top of your priority list. They negotiated well.
You want to conduct yourself that way in the workplace. Make people happy to have you around. Aim to develop in them a strong desire to help you out. In short, negotiate productive relationships. Bonus: Life is a lot more enjoyable.
Negotiation in career management takes that concept to a far broader and more complex level.
If you view your worklife through the eyes of its chief negotiator, it looks a lot different than it does from the viewpoint of a serial supplicant for employment.
You don’t build a career by seeking one job after another. You can’t do it, either, on hope that some stranger will consider you worthy of a paycheck.
As a negotiator, you’re not just looking for your next job, or a way out of your current fiscal hole. You’re seeking, developing and pursuing options for the next tactical move in the management of a strategic initiative.
You are dealing in a marketplace where values are exchanged. Parties come together to seek suitable return on investment. A variety of items including talent, experience, knowledge and energy are offered in return for money, security, support and respect.
And, when you’re thinking properly, career advancement.
When you win a job, you have established an agreement. You will provide services of a specified sort in return for rewards of a defined amount.
That agreement makes you a partner, not a servant. It is important that you thoroughly clarify the expectations at both ends of the agreement. Once you have done that, go for it. Do the job, evaluate the return. Track performance – in both directions.
You’re a partner. Act like one. Negotiate. That’s how you get what you deserve.
See also: Building Alliances