Our Salary Paths series aims to give fellow Elphas a reference point for salary negotiations and encourage more women to talk about compensation. We hope that opening up the conversation will contribute to more pay transparency and equitable pay.
Interested in sharing your Salary Path with us? Please fill out this form here and we will get back to you (can be posted anonymously, too! 😉 ).
I was never motivated by material things, mainly because the way I grew up, we didn’t have any. I was raised in the former USSR and financial hardship was real. There you don’t make money to buy jewelry or bags or a car. There you make money to buy food and day-to-day items that help you survive.
When I immigrated to the US at age 13, I became motivated by experiences. I focused on making money so I could travel and eat out. When I was in my twenties, those were my splurges, and still are now in my forties. Because of this, I never chased the highest paying jobs. I chased the jobs in which I could learn the most, experience the most, and that gave me the most flexibility to travel. It was important to me to avoid boredom and be surrounded by interesting people. I was mostly chasing a full life.
Because I was more into experiences, I wasn’t afraid to ask how much things cost to deduce how much I’d have to earn to have that experience. It’s a lot easier to ask “How much did that trip to Paris for a week cost you? I want to be able to go too someday!” vs. “How much is your car?”. This helped me talk about money without shame and to ask questions politely, without hesitation.
Talking about money comfortably meant I wasn’t afraid to ask for pay increases or negotiate salaries. I picked my jobs based on learning and challenges, not dollars and cents. This, for me, probably took the pressure of salary negotiations off the table. I was mostly focused on how the job could keep me engaged and challenged, and how it would benefit me. And in order to benefit me, I became a firm believer in saying “yes” even if something is scary. No one was born a CEO, almost everyone has toiled for it.
From the time I arrived in the US, I've worked. Among other jobs, I was a babysitter, a telemarketer, a note taker, a printer fixer, a nightclub hostess and a coat check girl. No matter the job, I always worked hard and gave my best.
In my early twenties, I became a full-time office manager for a local real estate office. There, I made $25,000 per year. At the time (over 20 years ago) it was an ok salary. Although I knew it wasn’t enough, I also knew that I was learning skills that would set me up for more.
Here are the steps I took to grow my base salary 16x in under 20 years:
1. Say “yes”: Is there a new project at work that will expose you to senior leadership? Say “Yes”. Opportunity to go from managing four people to 1200? Say “Yes” (based on my own experience). Team project that requires a presenter? Say “Yes”. Of course, there’s a fine line: agree to do these things but make sure your leadership isn’t taking advantage of you. For example, that project should be a temporary exposure, not an ongoing situation forcing you to do someone else’s job for free.
2. Find a champion: When I had the opportunity to go from Director of a small team to a VP commanding a huge national team, I was terrified. “Can I do it? Will I fail? What if they don’t like me? What if… “
I found my champion in my husband. He basically said, “You never say no, because the risks you take are calculated, and if you don’t like it and cannot accomplish it, you know the past roles you can accomplish, and can always count on those. I will help you, and your network will help you.” So, I took the plunge. The first six months were hard, and I was miserable. The learning curve was steep. The hours were unbearable. I rarely saw my kids. But once I got into the groove of it, I really thrived. It worked out!
3. Create a list of awesomeness: Keep a list of how awesome you are. Being self-critical is easy. Everyone is doubting themselves. You are not special just because you are hypercritical of yourself. What's special is this: Every single day or every single week (but not less frequently), commit to writing down and keeping a list of what you have accomplished and the milestones you achieved along the way. We forget how awesome we are. Our leaders forget how awesome we are. Everyone forgets the awesomeness.
Every month pull out your list and read through what you have accomplished and how great you are. It will not only help you feel more confident about yourself, but also enable you to present yourself strongly during your 1:1’s with your leaders and during those super-tedious performance reviews. This will also yield a solid salary or bonus negotiation. Plus, it will serve as a great guide for when you are ready to take a new job elsewhere. You will have your brag list ready to get the salary you deserve.
4. Ask and practice your proactive questions: Don’t wait for your manager to come to you with a promotion or a challenge. It’s your job to take your next opportunity, don’t wait for it to be given. Practice your talk track in the mirror and out loud - yes, it is cringy as my kids and all of Instagram would say, but it works - mirror and out loud! If you aren’t comfortable hearing yourself have the tough conversations with yourself often, you won’t be able to with anyone else. This is how a lot of leaders get ready for board meetings, salary negotiations, and M&A (mergers and acquisitions) discussions - talk it out, out loud!
Schedule that 1:1 with your leader and directly ask: “What are your expectations of this role and growth within the department or company? What can I do to be the strongest person on the team?” I was bold enough to ask a couple of times: “How do I take your job?” Just make sure you know your audience and get that direct feedback. If your leader is weak and won’t share, go to another leader in the company and ask what would make you grow in your career, or how you can accomplish your financial ambitions. Don’t take that guidance and disappear. Take it, and go back to your leader or whoever gave you the advice, and check in to showcase what you did and confirm it is on track. End every meeting by getting a buy-in. “Is this what you expected? Does this beat the standard?”
Get that “yes” because once you get those yes’s, you then go for the salary increase conversation, bonus conversation, etc. and they cannot say “no “because they already said “yes” all along the way.
After getting the buy-in, if they still say “no”, then you start looking for the next role in a different company immediately. Consider yourself an introvert? No problem. I’ve worked with many introverted people who practiced, researched tips and tricks, and managed to have these conversations. It’s not for the timid, but it’s not just for the extroverts either.
5. Let it out: No one is bulletproof. You need to whine to someone on your crappy days without feeling guilty. Someone that won’t try to fix you, someone who will listen and sympathize. I know some well-known leaders, who, on their bad days, break down and literally cry (yes, even men) into a pillow, to a friend or their dogs. Some people work out, others cry or cook or play video games. You need an outlet. If you are holding it all in, while keeping up appearances at work and at home, it will be almost impossible to thrive in a healthy way.
Here’s the bottom line: determine what you want and tune out that voice that makes you wonder if you can do it. Block what others might think of you or your goals and start saying “yes” to yourself. Read your list of awesomeness as a bedtime story. The next time you grab lunch with your people, ask them how much they make, if they are happy with it, and how you all can motivate each other to earn more and reach the goals you’re all striving for!