Not a Zero-Sum Pie

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Updated August 25, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Land Your Dream Design Job, a book by Dan Shilov. Filled with hard-won, personal insights, it is a comprehensive guide to landing a product design role in a startup, agency, or tech company, and covers the entire design interview process from beginning to end, for experienced and aspriring designers. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

When we think of negotiation, it’s not unusual to think of it as a zero-sum game. One player takes most and another is left with less. But that’s a losing proposition. You should reframe a negotiation as a conversation to come up with a win-win situation for both parties. This will lead not only to a good short-term outcome for you but also to long-term goodwill down the road when your next assessment comes.

important A good negotiation should feel like a productive collaboration between two teammates.

Stay enthusiastic about the role throughout the negotiation process as you’re building rapport with the recruiter. Thank them for the concessions as you’re approaching the offer together. Mention that you appreciate their willingness to listen and be flexible. Graciousness goes a long way—don’t miss an opportunity to make the other party feel fabulous. You’ve already built trust throughout the interview process; use the negotiation as a way to further reinforce your goodwill.

In turn, be willing to listen. Empathy is a designer’s master skill. If you can truly understand their issues, and the true issues behind those, you can come up with a creative way to solve the compensation problem while putting them at ease and moving closer toward your end goal.

important Practice negotiating. This is a difficult and crucial conversation. Sometimes you might trip up and not get the right words out during a crucial moment in negotiation. Do a mock interview with a friend. Dedicate a little time here, where the stakes are low. With practice, the negotiation will feel closer to a natural conversation, allowing you to think and respond quickly with empathy and enthusiasm.

Understanding Your Level

Your total comp is determined by a company’s leveling framework. The more senior you are, the more experience you have, the more money you’ll get. At higher senior levels your compensation will be predominantly based on your performance and will be closer tied to your equity.

In certain organizations, being brought on at a certain level sometimes acts as an anchor. That is if you’re starting out at mid-level you may need to prove yourself for a long amount of time before getting promoted to a senior role. That said there is also a risk of coming in at a level that’s too high or setting yourself for a bar that you cannot meet.

After you join the company, the leveling document will be used as objective criteria to evaluate your performance and determine whether you’re not meeting, meeting, or exceeding the criteria set forth. While the common hustle advice is to “fake it ’til you make it”, sometimes there is no making it. Instead you’d be better off in a place that strikes the right balance of playing to your strengths while giving you an opportunity to grow without so much stress that you’re not able to do your job.

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