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Think Like a Free Agent – Trust Your Gut + Four More Negotiating Tips

An image of Paul D. Smith
By Paul D. Smith, President at Collegial Consulting
July 31, 2017
An image of three doors with one open.

Negotiating salary and benefits should be about balance and mutual success, a non-zero-sum game, where both parties benefit without costing the other. If effective recruiting puts the right candidate in the right job at the right time – then we should work together to that end. Too often, however, negotiating is adversarial, with one side or both seeking to win at the expense of the other, with little regard for balance. To make my case, I have a story about Jane, a higher education Free Agent (sort of).

If you follow team sports, you know about Free Agents. They command big salaries because their skills are in demand and multiple bidders vie for their services. Teams pursue free agent star players because they think a star Free Agent could turn a loser to a winner. Free Agents bring excitement and hope when they sign a contract, and if the team succeeds, the excitement grows. But this strategy doesn’t always pay off. Again, if you follow team sports, you will know that bringing in high-priced Free Agents sometimes leads to disappointment, and resentment.

On to our story - College A and College B operate in the same city, both offering a similar post-baccalaureate tech program. College A’s program was succeeding, while the one at College B struggled. There were many reasons for the disparity, but those in the know would tell you that the College A Program Manager, Jane, had established a great network in the professional community, and she was leveraging that network to her program’s advantage. She was making a difference.

College B went looking for a way to turn their program around, and they set their sights on Jane. When she was approached by College B, Jane leveraged her knowledge and started negotiating. She knew the value of her reputation, and her network, and she had heard about the program issues at College B. Jane proposed a benefits package significantly better than she received at College A. College B was motivated, so they agreed, even though the cost was precedent setting.

For the first couple of cycles, everything went well, and Jane was considered a success. The program flourished; enrolment grew, as did revenue. People were added to the payroll. All was good, and Jane was a star. College B’s Free Agent strategy was paying off.

There remained, however, problems with the College B program outside of Jane’s mandate, and which pre-dated her arrival. Those problems reasserted themselves, and the program began to struggle once more. Despite her best efforts, enrolment fell, revenue declined, and people who had been recently hired were let go. Jane’s star dimmed, and excitement was replaced by disappointment.

Aware that things were not going well, and that they didn’t reflect well upon her, Jane decided to move along. She soon accepted a position with another college, in another town. She was a little bruised, but a little wiser. The College B program struggled on for a few more cycles, before it was shut down. The College A program continued with its success.

This is a true story, with minor modifications. It taught me the following lessons about balance in employment negotiations:

  1. Do your research: Know your market. What is the benchmark for similar roles? Banded payrolls remove a lot of the guesswork here, but there is still room for negotiating steps and benefits.
  2. Know what you can do, and what that’s worth: Jane was a competent Program Manager, and that is worth a great deal, but she was not a miracle worker. Get what you’re worth, but remember the price of expectations.
  3. Play the long game: Jane staked her reputation for a significant salary bump. Maybe she anticipated that the College B adventure would be short-term, and traded stability for salary. Maybe not. In either case, if you find yourself faced with a Free Agent type move, I recommend playing the long game – what step will best position me for long-term success?
  4. Don’t compete – collaborate: Win-win requires two willing parties. Be optimistic but honest about your abilities and intentions. Try to understand what success looks like for the college, and see yourself contributing to that success. Then help the college see it. If you can both agree on what success looks like, you’re both more likely to get there.
  5. Trust your gut: If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. If you feel you are being lowballed on the offer, ask yourself why. If the employer starts too low it might be a standard practice, or it might reveal an adversarial approach. On the other hand, if an offer seems too good to be true, look for the strings attached, or the hidden risks.

Good luck with your negotiations!

 

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Paul D. Smith, President of Collegial Consulting, offers services in higher education, employment, communications and governance. Paul is an acknowledged leader in career development for youth, and he is a proven communicator with an impressive record as a published writer, public speaker and conference presenter. Before launching Collegial Consulting this year, he served as the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers (CACEE). Before that, he held leadership roles at Queen’s University, Memorial University and College of the North Atlantic.

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