How Do You Negotiate Flexibility and Value Your Time After A Pause? | A Q&A With Alexandra Dickinson

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Alexandra Dickinson is expecting her first child in May (!) and after three years driving an important dialog and coaching women (and men) in negotiation on her platform, Ask For It, she has extra incentive to explore what that means for mothers.  Most compelling to me, both in speaking to her and getting to know Ask For It, is that Alexandra is honest without fluff - on everything but especially her path to launching her practice, starting with an unexpected layoff from her prior career in strategy.  I'm a big believer that much of finding and advocating for what works for you in work and motherhood is owning your story and evolving path so given that shared belief, I was thrilled for Alexandra to give her smart, punchy view on some of our specific questions for women in the MU camp - pausing or flexing work for this chapter of our lives.

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What compelled you to coach women in negotiation?  

I should start by saying that I work with men too. In my experience, men face their own specific issues and that can be interesting. But the majority of my coaching clients are women. As women, we face unique challenges when it comes to advocating for ourselves. The deck is stacked against us in many ways, and I find that infuriating. Big cultural shifts come about as a result of many individual actions, and I view my work with individuals as sowing the seeds of change. Once you get a taste of what it feels like to successfully negotiate, you’ll never go back. And you’ll talk to the people in your life about why they should do it, and it grows from there. Individual choices have ripple effects, and I view it as a great privilege to help someone achieve her goals.

Flexibility is important to the M.U. conversation.  What are the stumbling blocks women encounter in asking for flexibility in the workplace? How do you coach women to get past these to design a work situation that works for them?

As someone who worked for years at corporations that valued precise start times (but not end times, of course) and “facetime,” the idea that they need to see your face to believe that you’re working, I know how restricting a lack of flexibility can be. Women face old-fashioned thinking — things like “if you’re not in your chair at your desk, you’re not working” — but there are ways you can request flexibility when faced with this type of perspective.

  1. Start by benchmarking. First, start asking around with your colleagues in other departments. Does anyone else have flex time? How do they manage it? How long have they had it, and does it work well? Talk to the managers of people with flex time, if possible, to get their perspective as well. Are there other companies in your industry who have flex policies? Request details about how many employees take advantage of flex time, and any studies or anecdotes about how it relates to overall productivity.

  2. You’ll also need to anticipate objections: “How will I know you’re working if you’re not here?” and “I don’t want everyone on the team thinking they can just take off whenever they feel like it,” are actual objections that my clients have faced when proposing flex time to reluctant managers. Once you understand their point of view, you’ll be able to tailor your message points accordingly.

  3. Suggest a trial period of anywhere from a week to a month, depending on their comfort level. Be proactive by sharing a plan of how you’ll communicate your whereabouts and report out on your deliverables.

Relatedly, what should women consider in valuing their time and work in the consulting capacity or after returning from a career pause?

I’ll give the same guidance here that I give to women who haven’t had a career pause: you have to believe you’re worth it before anyone else will. There’s no substitute for confidence in your own abilities. If any part of you is secretly doubting that you can do what you’re being asked to do, it’s going to come through in your conversations. I get that this is easier said than done, but don’t assume that because you haven’t been engaging in paid work recently your skills are no longer worth charging for. Arguably you have many more skills now than you did before becoming a parent.

That said, if your career pause has been longer than a year, you might want to see if there are things you should brush up on. Have some informal conversations or informational interviews with folks working in a similar space to see what the latest trends are in your field, and make sure you’re ready to jump back in with current, relevant recommendations for your clients.

I remember taking an incredible negotiation class at business school but now that's, unfortunately, a distant memory. What would you suggest in keeping negotiation skills sharp?  

I like to say 'practice makes permanent': the more opportunities you have to practice negotiation, the more naturally it will come to you. Even if you’re not a professional setting on a daily basis, there are plenty of opportunities for you to sharpen your negotiation skills in real life. I have four easy practice opportunities that I like to share with my clients:

  1. Get the heels or soles replaced on your favorite shoes. Shoe cobblers are often small shops that will negotiate with you on price.

  2. Ask for an upgrade to your rental car, airline seat or hotel room on your next trip.

  3. Joining a gym? Ask to have your initiation fee waived.

  4. Call your cable, internet or cell phone provider to ask for a discount.

You can also keep your negotiation skills sharp by reading new resources and taking online courses.

What's been your experience in negotiation?  Do you lean into it or shy away? Are there specific challenges you have?  We'd love to hear in the comments xo

Cover Image by Emma Tempest for Vogue Japan April 2016.

Featured Image courtesy of Ask For It