Alex's Story: Play hardball, get the package you deserve.

Last year, when a portion of the company I’d helped lead for the last four years was sold, I had the opportunity to take a step back and consider what I wanted to do next. I’d worked in media for the last 20 years, moving from the newsroom to the business side and up to a C-level role, and I was at an inflection point. I knew I wanted to join a leadership team I could feel good about being part of, but beyond that, I was open to all sorts of possibilities. I had so many options, it was overwhelming. So I embarked on a rigorous and systematic process of talking to leaders at practically every media company in New York, from start-up to legacy, figuring out where I could place my own bet.


Six months later, I landed another C-level role I love, at a media company that feels like the perfect home for me--a creatively led start up with elements of a legacy company. Just as important, I feel great about my salary and benefits. Here’s how I made it happen.


I brought up comp early and often in my discovery conversations. I wasn’t willing to accept less than what I made previously, and I wasn’t afraid to let the people I met with know that I expected a certain salary level, particularly those who asked me for a meeting. I’d say, “We can have a conversation, but this is where I am and I’m not willing to work for less.” Most start-up founders, for example, weren’t at the stage were they could take someone on at my salary, and they appreciated my directness. I’m 42, at the prime earning years of my career, and I’m optimizing for comp. I probably will be for the next 15 years.


When I found the opportunity I wanted, I left emotion out of it. When I landed an offer from my current company, it was very compelling--a nice round number, with a leadership team I wanted to be part of. But I asked for $50k more. That was strategic, because I knew if I asked for $50k, they’d come back with $25k. And they did. To be respectable, I needed to negotiate. You need to take the emotion out of getting to the right offer. Don’t feel you are being rude or cold. If you are going to be any good at your job, you have to know when to switch off the emotion and turn on the tough corporate side.


I hired a contracts attorney and leaned on her to play hardball. I can’t recommend this enough. My lawyer thought of things I didn’t. Yours may make you feel a little bit uncomfortable, but it is their job to push back and ask questions until you get clarity. That process of asking questions--about the terms by which severance would be triggered, about how bonuses are historically paid--and pushing back when needed is always a little awkward, but remember, you’re dealing with facts and paper. It has nothing to do with your relationship with your would-be boss, or even with HR. It’s a dry, fact-based process, like buying a home--and like that, it often calls for an attorney. When companies fill roles at a certain level, they involve their lawyers you’ll need to deal with. You are at an unfair disadvantage if you don’t hire your own. If you’re negotiating for a senior leadership role, the company may even pay for a lawyer to represent you. If they don’t, it’s worth a few thousand to pay for one. It certainly was for me.