Assertiveness seems to be the buzzword hanging on everyone’s lips as the solution for career advancement. The notion that unless you aggressively assert your claim to promotions, raises, perks, bonuses and the like within any business or organization, you will not receive your due, or worse, you will see someone else take it from you, has become ingrained as the go-to advice for anyone seeking to build a successful career.
Unfortunately for many who have followed this advice, being assertive is not always the right approach. Indeed, in my experience it is too often the wrong course. A better path for most people is to think realistically about what would be fair, and then thoughtfully ask for it.
Recently I worked as an advisor to a rising company that sought to hire a controller/director of operations. The position came with the promise that if the person hired took the company successfully through one annual audit cycle, a promotion to Chief Financial Officer was on the table. A young woman in her late twenties, a CPA from a good school, five years solid experience in a similar position at a larger firm, applied and lobbied enthusiastically for the job. She believed she would be ready to become a CFO soon, but at her current firm there were other competent people senior to her in the finance department and thus in the next few years promotion was highly unlikely. She made it clear that she was willing to move for the same salary and expected bonus that her current employer offered, as long as she had the assurance of the CFO position if she proved herself in the first year.
Along with a partner at the company’s auditors, I was asked to interview her. I met her and was as impressed as I have ever been by a young candidate. Her accounting skills were first-rate and her job experience exceptional, but most importantly she exhibited a wonderful combination of poise, confidence and modesty. Furthermore she understood and valued the career significance of becoming a CFO by age thirty and of growing with a smaller company that had a promising future. She wanted the responsibility and the prospect excited her. The partner from the audit firm met her early the following week and rated her as positively as I did. When I reflected my opinion to the company’s CEO, he informed me that her references were superb, highlighting her thoroughness and execution skills.
The company negotiated an offer with her: salary and bonus same as her current firm, promise of the CFO position after one successful annual audit, and assurance of a profit participation as CFO. No one would be hired above her and she would report directly to the CEO.
She indicated her happiness with the terms and asked if the CEO could send her a formal offer letter. The company e-mailed it to her the next morning.
She responded that afternoon, saying it all looked good but that she wanted to run it by a family friend. The next day she made a request for a guaranteed bonus that was three times the one agreed. Her stated reason was that she would have additional commuting costs with the new job. The CEO replied by saying he understood, and that the company would pay those commuting costs. However, this cost was a small fraction of the additional amount she requested. They would be unable to pay anything above that. Her response was that she believed she was worth the additional amount and she would not accept anything less.
The CEO reminded her that the company had come up to meet her original request to match her current compensation and benefits, and that in exchange she had been granted the opportunity she sought. They conversed several times more over the following week, but she was unmoved. The CEO later told me it was like speaking to a different person. Gone was the poise and modesty, the calm-but-self-assured professionalism, all the classic traits of good CFOs. An aggressiveness and firmness took its place that came across as insincere and at times rehearsed.
I asked the CEO if he was going to negotiate further. He said no. The problem now was not about money or terms. The problem was he no longer wanted to hire her. “I am uncomfortable with the idea of handing over our operations and accounting to her.”
I later heard that she regretted missing out on the opportunity. This is not an uncommon tale: someone with career-making opportunities placed before them is advised to be more assertive in their demands. They are told that unless they do so they will be taken advantage of. I have little doubt that this is what happened here. A promising young professional had a dream opportunity in front of her. Someone advised her she was being misled by the company CEO and his offer. Someone did mislead her, of course. But not the CEO.