The secret to a higher salary is to ask for nothing at all

i want more, 3D rendering, rough street sign collection

by Brooke Allen 

More than twenty years ago, I developed a powerful approach to negotiating that goes beyond “win-win.” It involves starting by offering the most and asking for the least. It works extremely well, but I was unable to explain why until I read Wharton professor Adam Grant’s excellent new book Give and Take.

Adam identifies three types of people: Takers try to get as much as possible from others, matchers seek an even trade, and givers contribute without expectation of return.

Previously, I’d thought of things more in terms of debt and honor.

My parents raised me to believe that borrowing and then not returning is the moral equivalent of stealing. Put in the language of giving and taking, borrowing is a form of taking where I get what I want now and put my honor at risk in the future. Repaying my debt later only elevates me to the status of matcher, but not giver.

Eventually, I came to see that getting paid a salary in advance of delivering value is a form of debt. In 1992, I accepted a job that came with a bonus guarantee. Almost immediately, the unit I worked for was disbanded and they paid both the guarantee and a severance. It was the first time in my career that I was paid more than I delivered, and I felt I was left with a debt I could never repay. That is when I changed how I negotiate contracts.

The typical approach is for both sides to demand something unreasonable—but not let on that they consider it unreasonable—and then negotiate a “compromise” in the hopes that you will end up closer to your side than the midpoint. Even when the final agreement is declared a “win-win,” this approach backfires because it begins with acts of unreasonableness, selfishness, and distrust.

The next time I had to negotiate a contract, it began in typical fashion with a prospective employer sending me a lopsided agreement and asking me to counter-propose. I said I was incompetent to do that and suggested they write a new contract as if they were me, putting in everything that would be in my best interests, and then taking out everything they would never agree to. Since that would be the best I could get, I would accept it subject to agreement on compensation.

We started with base pay. I wrote down the least I would work for and asked them to write down the most they would offer a perfect person, irrespective of whether I was that person or not. If when we exchanged papers, their number wasn’t higher than mine then we could stop there and save time. Their number was twice the best base pay I had ever received in past jobs, and my request was for $0. I explained that my goal is to live a debt-free life, and therefore I wanted to give value before receiving compensation. Continue reading “The secret to a higher salary is to ask for nothing at all”

To get a job, write your story instead of a resume

woman-writing-in-diary-1055085by Brooke Allen 

I am 61 years old and I have been doing paid work since I was 16. I’ve been a grocery clerk, camp counselor, film projectionist, sound man, light man, cameraman, freight loader, computer programmer, teacher, operations research analyst, manager, salesman, writer, consultant, and for the last 30 years I’ve been a securities trader and hedge fund manager.

Yet I have only once gotten work by answering an ad. Even then I was turned down at first, but it led to a different job six months later after I established a relationship with the hiring manager who had first said no. And I’ve never been asked for a resume until after I received an offer, and then only because HR always needs something to put in their files. I haven’t needed a resume to get work because my resume doesn’t reveal my work. I am my work, and to know my work you need to know me.

Here are some things I’ve discovered about finding worthwhile work that have helped me, and that might help you.

Lead a thoughtful life

The secret of a well-written cover letter is to learn to write well. The secret of an interesting resume is to have done interesting things. So do interesting things and learn to write about them. Ben Franklin said, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” You might do one or the other but it is better to do both; that’s what Franklin did.

Learn to think. Reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser is a good place to start. He says, “Writing is thinking on paper.” In order to think deep mathematical thoughts you must write formulas, and similarly you cannot think deeply about much else without writing words. Learn to think mathematically because otherwise you cannot say you know how to think any more than you can say you can drive a car but can’t turn left. Likewise, saying you can think without knowing how to write is like saying you can’t turn right. If you live long enough and you only go straight ahead, then eventually you’ll drive off a cliff.

Get your story straight

Resumes are your life in bullet-point form. The story of your life is more interesting than can possibly be expressed with a list of sentence fragments. Skip the resume and write the story.

Good stories also have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In your case, you are in the middle. Continue reading “To get a job, write your story instead of a resume”

Don’t come to Wall Street for the money, even if you plan on giving it away.

Wall street

by Brooke Allen 

I am a 60-year-old child of the 60’s who never gave up on the idea that I can save the world—even after three decades on Wall Street.

That is why I enjoyed the piece in by William MacAskill, To save the world, don’t get a job at a charity; go work on Wall Street.

The problem is that this is more easily said than done. Most people working on Wall Street can make ends meet while a small few can make vastly more money than they need. The trick is to make sure that the process of making money does no harm.

Question: How much money would all the participants in the mortgage securitization industry have to give to charity to undo the harm they have caused?

Answer: More than they have ever made.

The real opportunity to do good on Wall Street is to reform it from within. But to do the right thing you have to be able to recognize the difference between right and wrong, and then you must be able to say “no” when ordered to do the wrong thing.

Here is my advice if you want to come to Wall Street and do good:

  • Have a strong moral compass and a thick skin. Practiced righteousness about what other people should do isn’t the same as being in the right. You’ll need to recognize when you’re ordered to do the wrong thing, and you’ll need to not do it. Time spent not facing these issues does not prepare you for the time when you will have to.
  • Be independently wealthy when you arrive. Doing the right thing might require you quit your job (or lose it) and perhaps never work in the industry again. You might be different from everyone else, but I doubt it. If you are still paying off a student loan (or a mortgage, or your kid’s college bills, or saving for retirement) then you will find a way to rationalize bad behavior rather than refuse to do it.
  • If you have the moral compass but lack the funds, then whatever you do, live very modestly and save the difference rather than give it to charity. That money might come in handy some day when doing the right thing requires you to quit and go the regulators and the press. If you make it into old age with a pile of dough and a clear conscience then you can give it to charity—or better yet, get creative and be charitable with your time and money doing things other charity mongers haven’t thought of yet.
  • Make sure you have an awesome in-demand skill and be the kind of “resource” people jockeying for resources will fight over. People will put up with you being good if you are good at something they need desperately.

I wrote a piece for my Physics major son and his cohorts that was published by Science magazine called, What Not to Do With Your Physics Education. My advice is that they not join me on Wall Street because, as I conclude the article, “It’s not that I feel they would not succeed; many will make lots of money. It’s more like how I would feel about sending a poorly equipped son to a dubious war where many generals are in it not for the cause but for the spoils.”

I notice a certain naïveté among some academics, non-profiteers, and people who lack hard skills. They believe that all they have to do is lower their standards just a tiny bit in order to be in high demand on Wall Street and make tons of money. Then they imagine they can make up for it by supporting good causes.

Good luck with that.

First publishedin on February 28, 2013.

How to hire good people instead of nice people


Usually, employers rapidly scan the resume of each job applicant looking for relevant education, skills, and work experience. They select 10 candidates for telephone calls, invite three in for interviews, and hire the one they like the best.

This is a bad way to hire because at best it gets you nice people.

You don’t need nice people.

You need good people.

Good and nice are not the same thing. The opposite of good is bad. The opposite of nice is unlikeable.

Nice people care if you like them; good people care about you. Nice people stretch the truth; good people don’t. If you tell a nice person to do something evil, they might do it because they do not want to upset you; a good person will refuse to do it.

You might think you are a good person, but you are fallible, so if you want to avoid inadvertently doing something evil you must surround yourself with good people, not nice people.

How do you separate the good from the nice? If you do what I do, it will be a piece of cake. Continue reading “How to hire good people instead of nice people”