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! 😉 ).
In my early 20’s I was a relocation consultant making $30k/year. It was my first full-time job out of college and, like many young women new to the workforce, no one had prepared me to negotiate an offer package or any salary increases, for that matter.
So it was a shock when my manager called me into his office on a normal weekday and said he was giving me a 50% raise.
As it turned out, one of my male colleagues had approached our manager and requested a salary increase, then insisted I be provided with the same increase since we shared a job description.
Of course, I was grateful for the raise but I was also embarrassed for two very completely different reasons: 1) my colleague requested it on my behalf and 2) I didn’t feel deserving of this increase because I didn’t think I earned it.
This experience was pivotal for me and I decided then that I wanted to own my negotiations going forward. And eventually, I did. But first, I had to learn how to truly own the value I brought to a company.
Once I reframed my mindset, I was able to increase my TCO by over 800% over the next 20 years.
Believing in your value
Knowing and truly believing in your value is one of the most basic and crucial elements to negotiating an offer package or subsequent promotions (compensation or otherwise).
One of the most effective changes I have made in my career is reframing my mindset to see a raise or promotion as being fairly compensated for the value I bring to a company and not a “favor”. But it takes a lot of work and practice to truly believe that you have value to add to a company and then exude that confidence in interviews, negotiations, and in the meeting room.
The prevalence of imposter syndrome, a bad performance review, and events such as layoffs can test your confidence and leave you questioning what you're bringing to the table.
Here are a few exercises that have worked for me over the years:
- Talk transparently about salary with your trusted network to understand how companies compensate for specific skills and responsibilities. Joining a community like Elpha that shares compensation benchmarks is also a great place to start. Check out their Salary Database with over 8,500 salaries.
- Be honest with yourself. Be careful not to downplay or inflate your skills. You should not try to convince yourself you are good at X when you really aren’t yet. This exercise requires full transparency and honesty. This is when you begin to trust yourself, which is necessary to build your confidence.
- Take time to list and rank your hard and soft skills (i.e. expert, proficient, novice, etc.). A helpful starting point can be to review past emails, performance reviews, or awards for accomplishments. Talk to trusted colleagues, managers, friends about your strengths and ask them for feedback. Be open to difficult feedback as an opportunity for growth.
- List other factors that contribute to your overall value (i.e. education, certifications, years of experience, etc.)
- Know your 2-minute value pitch, update your LinkedIn, and get comfortable telling others what you do well.
- Trust in your transferable skills. (I’ll spend more time on this below).
- Find a mentor (or mentors)! These individuals can be extremely helpful in identifying your strengths and growth areas and providing tools, guidance, and advice.
The value of transferable skills
My career path has been largely unconventional. At an early age, I knew I wanted to work in the humanitarian field and financial security took a backseat to finding mission-oriented work. After 2 years at the relocation company, I was given the opportunity to volunteer ($100 stipend/month) with a humanitarian organization in Indonesia and jumped at the chance.
After my assignment, I spent the next 10 years getting my MA in International Development and working for both federal contractors and non-profit organizations implementing global development programs in some of the most complex and ambiguous environments. I had worked hard, increased my salary 230% through job transitions and promotions, and eventually landed a director-level position at a non-profit in the San Francisco Bay Area.
However, at this point in my life, my personal priorities were shifting. I was starting a family and wanted to buy a home, so I knew my salary would not be enough. I still cared about mission but I needed to find a way to combine mission-oriented work while meeting my family's needs.
I live in the Bay Area and knew the tech industry was a definite option. I did my research, utilized my network, and soon an opportunity came up for a sourcing position at one of the tech giants. My challenge was to show the tech company that my experience working in International Development would translate into the tech world.
The key factors that helped me to break into the tech industry mid-career included:
- Translating my resume. I leveraged a connection to help me understand tech lingo. What I called X in my current world is called Y at this tech company. But it is the same thing! This is why my resume was flagged for a phone screen.
- Leveraging your connections to get insights into the interview process and the types of values they will look for in your responses. Do they value making fast decisions in ambiguous and complex situations? Great! I can talk about my work in Afghanistan. This is where your soft skills will shine. This is why my interviews went well.
- Do your best to get an introduction to the hiring manager or a director in the hiring department. If you are able, set up an informational chat to talk about the goals and culture of the company. This allows you to share your experiences and how they relate and can add value. These individuals can advocate for you in the room where hiring decisions are being made. This is why I received an offer.
My goal was to get my foot in the door and increase my compensation, so when my starting offer came in at 25% higher than what I was making at the non-profit and there was an opportunity for promotion, I accepted.
Over the next 4 years, the leadership skills that I had developed over my career helped me quickly promote and further increase my base salary by an additional 50%. Not to mention, the training, experience, and connections I made in the technical sector only added to the value I’d bring to future employers.
Being your own advocate
In preparing for this article, I came across a staggering statistic from a 2020 Forbes article. Only 7% of women negotiate their starting salaries compared to 57% of men. There are several studies on why this discrepancy exists but it still feels like a surprisingly low percentage.
Truly knowing and believing in your value is the first step to building your confidence, but you also need to step out and learn how to become your own advocate.
Practice and preparation
Building this skill takes practice and it’s important to practice consistently. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for your annual performance reviews to get that practice. There are so many opportunities to advocate for yourself, whether it's leading a new project, getting a voice at the table, or getting visibility and credit for the work you contributed. By taking ownership of your career goals and negotiating regularly for these opportunities, you are building your negotiation muscle and making a case for the offers and promotions that result in higher compensation.
It took me a lot of practice to learn these skills. For example, while looking for part-time employment while in graduate school, my future employer asked me what salary I was expecting. Without any research, I blurted out “$25/hour”. Why? Because I had just finished a year-long volunteer position with a $100/month stipend and $25/hour sounded like a whole lot of money at that point.
Accepting an offer because it sounds like a lot of money is different from knowing the value you bring, doing your research, and negotiating effectively! How often I have thought about that moment where I had the opportunity to start my employment at a higher level. Your starting salary sets the tone for your salary with that employer for however long you are employed at the company. It's much easier to negotiate a fair rate when you receive an offer than it is at any other time of your employment.
Over the years I have taken on new roles, received promotions, and moved through companies and industries. Through these career moves, I have practiced and improved my techniques and have become more comfortable advocating for fair compensation and roles. I have found that having scripted statements can be extremely helpful to get the ball rolling. Of course, you’ll want to follow up these conversation starters with well-reasoned and researched arguments. Some of my favorite and common phrases that have been well received include those below.
When asked what salary you’d like to make:
- I’m looking to make between $x - $x in my next role given my skills and experience in XYZ. However, compensation isn’t the only thing that matters to me and I’d love to learn more about the job, the company, and the work environment at *company*.
When provided with an offer:
- Thank you for the offer. I’m excited about the opportunity. Is *company* open to further negotiation?
- I’m excited for the opportunity, but by joining *company* now I’ll be leaving behind XYZ. Are you open to negotiating the offer? (you’ll want to back this one up with facts, i.e. upcoming bonus or raise that you’d miss if joining now, etc.).
- I am excited about working with *company* and what I can offer in the role. However, the offer is lower than I anticipated. Is there flexibility to negotiate an offer closer to my expectations?
When requesting a raise of promotion:
- Over the past X months, I have led/delivered/strengthened XYZ and saved/raised $$$ for *company*. These responsibilities have shown consistent performance above my current level and is equivalent to the next level. I’d like to discuss opportunities for promotion.
- Note: out of cycle promotions or raises may not be possible, but agree on when you can expect to discuss the transition. There is a lot of value in communicating where you’d like to go next in your career as often as appropriate.
I am the first to acknowledge the immense benefit of having career sponsors. I am grateful for those who have advocated for my raises, promotions, and opened doors for new opportunities. However, it is equally important that you learn the skill of being your own advocate because you are not guaranteed to have a sponsor at all times. Nor is a sponsor solely responsible for your career goals and milestones - you are!
I will forever be grateful to my male colleague who advocated for me when I wasn’t in the room but, through a lot of hard work, I learned how to believe in my own value and can now also step out confidently and advocate for myself.