“I used these power phrases to negotiate for the first time--and they worked!”

By Mary Dulatre

I used to think negotiating was only for cutthroat corporate execs--not those who work in non-profit or academia, like me. Now, as I start my new role as Registrar at a community college, I appreciate that it’s a tool available to every working person. And once you’ve used it--you won’t want to accept a job without it ever again.

At Tufts University, where I started and built the foundation of my career in academia, I advanced through several positions while taking the salary that was offered to me. In my first role at the University after grad school, I was offered the position of Assistant Director of Student Affairs for $59k and I accepted without question. I loved it immediately. I’m service-oriented--an alum of the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps--and academia gave me the opportunity to serve others without the job uncertainty that can come with non-profits, which are often dependent on grants. I stayed happily in Student Affairs for three years, making about $62k, thanks to merit increases of 1 or 2 percent a year. Like corporate jobs, my work is year-round and full-time, but unlike some corporate roles, there are no bonuses, and the annual merit increase is less than the cost of living.

When the Registrar left, she recommended me to take over her office. I was offered $75k as Registrar and Manager of Student Academic Programs. I didn’t feel compelled to question the salary. At the time it felt like a lot of money and--just as it is at so many other places--salary was a taboo topic. Besides, the work--ensuring students graduate, was deeply fulfilling, requiring soft skills like advising students and managing four direct reports along with hard skills like serving as the official record keeper and approving transcripts.

After five years though, it was time to move on. There was no room for advancement, and I wanted to serve students who were more in need. I started to see myself working at a community college. Trouble was, it’s hard to break into community colleges because staffers tend to stay. (My theory on why: In addition to offering rewarding work, because salaries at community colleges are public, the pay is equitable). Here’s how I not only landed a role but for the salary I wanted:

I made my experience relevant. Community colleges tend to favor those with community-college experience. While I’d been working at a private university, I’m a community college graduate--a fact I emphasized with pride in my cover letters and which opened up doors for interviews. After several months, I was offered the Registrar role at North Shore Community college, in the neighborhood that I’d moved to the year before. I made it clear how rewarding it would be to work at the college that serves my own neighborhood.

I called up a coach. When I got the original offer for this role, I realized I couldn’t sacrifice another chance to negotiate. Friends connected me with Cindy from Wager. I was scared--I thought I’d have to fight for a higher number. Cindy set me straight: We weren’t preparing for combat. Rather, negotiation is a purposeful conversation. Our mock negotiation conversations gave me the confidence that I could handle the real thing.

I made myself a power-phrase cheat sheet. Practicing the conversation is so important, but it’s easy to fumble or freeze up when you’re on the phone with the decision-maker. So I wrote down Cindy’s power phrases and when I planned to use them. For instance, if HR comes back with a number I’m less than thrilled with, I’ll say: “We are very close to where I want to be, but is there any flexibility on that?” I committed them to memory and to paper.

I stated why I deserved more. The role was posted as earning $80-$85k. I was offered $82,500k, smack in the middle. It was what I expected, but not quite what I wanted, which was more like $90k. I thanked the HR representative and asked, “Is there any flexibility in that number?” I explained that I was really looking for the top of the range because of the five years experience as a registrar that I was bringing to the school. I also highlighted that I was taking a risk because enrollment as the college had declined, and my salary should help offset that risk.

I didn’t automatically accept less than I wanted. In that initial conversation, when I asked for the top of the range, HR responded by offering me $85k and told me that was the top. I could have accepted then, but I remembered Cindy’s words: Know your worth. Instead, I said, “That’s close to what I want, but do you have any room for movement? She said she would get back to me, but called me back later and said there was no room for movement. Yet I still didn’t accept. Instead, I said I’d need to think about it.

I refused to give up. When the offer stood at $85k, Cindy encouraged me to stay focused on working toward the number I wanted. I explained to HR, “We are almost there, but I do need some flexibility.” Awkward silence. But it didn’t scare me. Finally, HR said, “What is it? What’s the number you want?” I said it was between $86-90k. They came back with $86k, and I accepted. I wish I’d had the guts to say $90k, but I’m so proud of myself for pushing as hard as I did. It was another thousand, but symbolically, it was huge. It’s proof that my new employer values me, and it showed my employer that I value myself and the experience I bring. Now, when a friend tells me they can’t negotiate, I say, “Oh, yes you can.”