Negotiate a Better Salary With Lessons I Learned from Working on M&A Deals

Earlier in my career, I spent 15 years working on mergers and acquisitions, first as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, and then as the leader of the corporate M&A team at Kaplan. Over those years I examined hundreds of companies in detail and negotiated over 75 deals to completion. Negotiating deals for a living helped me a ton when it came to negotiating on my own behalf. Here are five key ways that my M&A experience helped me to be a better salary negotiator:

  1. Information is power. As part of working on M&A deals, I performed due diligence and got to see a lot of detailed company data. The most interesting piece of information to see in any company? The salary file. These files, password-protected and kept hidden from all but a few senior employees, list everyone’s job, current salary, bonus and history of raises and promotions.* Armed with the knowledge of what other people got paid, I could be way more confident asking for money, knowing that I wouldn’t be the first human in history to get paid that much. Most people don’t know what the right amount is to ask for, and don’t want to come off as greedy, so they tend to under-ask. If you know what other people get paid, trust me you’ll be a lot more confident in your own worth. You’ll also be a lot more comfortable knowing that your request isn’t crazy, egregious, unusual, or any of the other worries swirling in your head!
  2. People want to feel like they “won” the negotiation. So you need to leave room for back and forth rather than jumping straight to your best and final position. This means, if you are making the salary ask, don’t ask for what you actually want, ask for something higher. Leave room for your boss/future boss to feel like she worked you down to a lower number. Alternatively, if an offer is made to you, don’t take the first offer given. Assume that your boss has built in some cushion by offering less than the highest amount she can actually pay, which means you should ask for more.
  3. Most people are uncomfortable saying no. If you directly ask your boss for a raise with clear, well explained reasoning, chances are he won’t be comfortable just giving you a flat out no. People don’t like to say no and most will avoid it. What they will do is blame-shift by claiming that they would say yes, but they just can’t because [insert excuse here]. You can anticipate the blame-shift and be prepared to re-ask for something that puts the burden back on them. For example, if they say “HR just isn’t allowing any raises right now”, you can say “Let me write up my request for you — all I ask is that you send it along to HR and set up a conversation for the three of us.” Another thing you can do is just keep asking. If it was hard for someone to say no the first time, it will be even harder to say no the next time. (News flash to the ladies, in my experience as a manager, men do this all the time and women rarely do. If men get a no they ask again, whereas women tend to accept the first no and leave it there. Persistence may feel annoying, and in fact often IS annoying, but it actually works!)
  4. There is more than one way to get value. You will come away with more if you think creatively about what to ask for. Don’t focus only on base salary, think about other ways you could get value: higher bonus potential, a bonus guarantee, a signing bonus, a better job title, extra vacation days, flexibility to work from home…to name a few. If you ask for more than one thing, you make it easier on your boss by giving him options to work with. Chances are that some of those things will be easier for him to give than others, smoothing the path to giving you more of what you want. You also give him the flexibility to say yes to some things and no to others, allowing him to feel he has won something in the negotiation (see #2 above!).
  5. The best deals are the ones where everyone feels good at the end. This is really important, especially in salary negotiations, where your relationship with your employer is ongoing and (possibly?) the most important one in your life day to day. No one likes to be strong-armed or feel that they’ve given up more than they wanted. Once the negotiation is done, make sure you thank your boss and convey how much you appreciate being treated fairly and how you intend to ensure that your work will live up to the value given in the increase. And, you need to feel good too. If you don’t emerge from a negotiation feeling like you were treated fairly and paid adequately, it’s time to look for another job at a place where you will be valued.

*One more thing re: #1 above — not everyone gets access to that elusive salary file, and for the record I do not recommend that you try to steal it. There are plenty of other things you can do to tackle #1 and arm yourself with helpful information:

a) Ask questions. You can ask anyone and everyone that you feel comfortable with how much money they made at past jobs and what they know about the salaries of others. While it feels sensitive to ask someone what they currently make, if you put it in the past tense and ask them to tell you about prior jobs and pay levels, most people will be comfortable talking. You can also ask your boss how much the person who had your job prior to you was paid. Or if you have peers, ask your boss if you are paid the same as them. They don’t have to tell you, but they might.

b) Read public filings. If your company is publicly traded, you can go to the SEC website or your company’s investor relations page and find the salaries of your CEO and other executives in the DEF-14 proxy filings. It’s really easy — just google your way to the company name/proxy, click into the file, do a CTRL-F search for “compensation”, and there you go. If your company isn’t publicly traded, think about other interesting companies that are, and look at them.

Good luck!

CEO of PresenceLearning and Author of The Good Boss: 9 Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work. Mom of 2 girls. @eberlewalker

CEO of PresenceLearning and Author of The Good Boss: 9 Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work. Mom of 2 girls. @eberlewalker