This is the story of a boss who was exceptional.
And the characteristics that made her great.
Belinda Rawlins was running a community public radio in a remote part of Northern California (KZYX&Z). She had a shoestring budget, a small staff, and had to manage over 200 volunteer radio programmers. But she made it all work because she was a master negotiator- and she was the first person to suggest that I should bring my surfboard to a salary negotiation.
Many non-profits run on very small operating budgets, but I think that her tight funds were particularly restrictive because radio stations are very expensive to operate; in addition to running a non-profit, you have to constantly purchase equipment, keep transmitters functioning, pay electricity, and you have to purchase content.
That alone did not make her job unique- lots of businesses and organizations run with similar constraints. Her added burden was the remoteness of the radio station. It was nestled in lovely Philo, California (pop 349). The neighboring towns of any size were over an hour away. While the area was beautiful, it was very difficult to attract talent to serve as engineers, marketers, membership coordinators etc. The young and talented were often drawn to the Bay area or up to Seattle- causing a dramatic brain-drain effect.
When she was hired to run the station it was functioning, and she did inherit some really incredible staff. There was an engineer who could MacGyver just about anything together with a piece of gum, and she had a program director that knew more about public radio than Ira Glass himself, and our news director was a seasoned pro in the Mendocino political scene. Her problem was that the board of directors wanted her to make the station grow. They wanted to increase listenership, increase donations, build better infrastructure. She knew her staff had some skills, but she also knew that the station needed new ideas and even more technical talent if they were going to thrive.
So if she was going to raise more money, she needed new talented employees, but she had a very limited budget and her pool of talent was very small. She was given permission by her board of directors to make more hires; but the candidates that came in were not at the caliber she knew she needed. She put out job postings for months at a time with virtually no qualified candidates applying, or those that did apply were not willing to work for the salary she could offer from her budget.
When I showed up at her doorstep, she jumped at the opportunity to hire me. I was young, and I had no radio experience, but I spoke three languages, had a degree in public relations from Marquette University, and had worked in marketing/PR. While I didn’t have a resume she was looking for, she hired me right away. I was just returning from the Peace Corps in Kenya, so the non-profit salary she offered me- made me feel like I was an investment banker.
The deal worked out great for me. I didn’t mind the remote location because I had come up to Northern California with a couple of my friends who were restoring an old 1930’s wooden yacht
called the Linmar that had burned in a fire. In our free time we had taken to learning to surf- a sport I fell in love with almost immediately.
Now Belinda was an exceptional boss for a lot of reasons- she let me have as much responsibility as I wanted, and she gave me freedom to try new ideas. For example, she once let me hold a War-of-the-Worlds type event on the radio that included the County Sherriff, the board president, and lots of sound effects from Woodstock. Another time she let me run pledge drive in a totally new way and fun way. This new method helped us to raise a more money in less time than normal boring pledge drives.
Everyone was happy- the listeners liked the new sound of the station, the engineer liked that he had a bigger budget to buy equipment, the program manager had a bigger audience, and the board of directors saw that there were opportunities to hire even more people. Belinda hired Kathryn, a brilliant young membership coordinator who had been working at a local university. Kathryn organized data, conducted massive mailing campaigns, and together we created even better marketing for use on-air.
Then I started to realize I was pretty broke.
Within a year, the freedom and responsibility given to me by Belinda had built up my resume and work experience to land a much better paying job somewhere else. My friends from college had all been working for about 4-6 years in their careers and I could see that they had the money to go skiing, buy nicer cars, or just have stuff in general. I started to feel a like I deserved a raise.
So as my one-year anniversary came up, I brought up the question of a raise. I think Belinda knew it was coming. It must have been obvious that I had to watch every penny to pay for gas, and I didn’t even have enough to afford a cellphone. She also knew that I had worked vastly more hours then I was paid for, building a county-wide emergency communications plan, teaching amateurs to produce better radio in my free time, even going to the backyard and digging a ditch when our drainage backed up.
She offered a raise of more than $2,000 per year, which on its face was a very big raise but that amounted to less than $40 on each paycheck. I less-than-subtlety indicated that I had been expecting more, and Belinda nodded her head understandingly. She told me that she wanted to pay me more, but the $2,000 increase, I was already getting paid almost as much as people who had been on staff for many more years than me.
She went so far as to pull out the operations budget and show me how money was allocated and it was obvious that she was not hiding money and that she could not afford to pay me more. Crestfallen I felt like I was in a bad situation- I could either accept the raise that I thought was too low, or I could quit. But Belinda, in her brilliance, had another option.
She started telling me about how she couldn’t pay me like a big organization, but as a tiny organization, she could be significantly more flexible about my work arrangement. She offered flex time- suggesting that I take 3-day weekends as long as I got my work done. She gave me better office equipment; I was the first one to get a new computer when they started replacing equipment.
But then she started really sweetening the deal.
She remembered that I had talked about going to graduate school, and started asking me if I had made plans to start visiting the schools. I replied tersely that of course I didn’t have any plans because I didn’t even have enough money to drive my car to work let alone get on a plane to see schools.
She calmly responded by making a suggestion, “if you stay working at the station you can use the flex time to study for the GRE, and apply for schools; I will use the frequent flier miles that the station gets from using our credit cards to fly you to any school that sends you an acceptance letter.” I almost exploded with excitement, she could fast forward my graduate school process by over a year. It had never crossed my mind that she would or could help me with that.
Even though I probably would have accepted the offer at that point she continued to look for other things I cared about. I think she wanted to make sure that I knew she appreciated me, and recognize that a lot of her success was in part because of the work I was taking on. I was on the verge of choking up because I could see her trying to find ways to go above and beyond- she earned my loyalty just by trying so hard.
She recalled that I had complained that I hated the winter because it became dark too early for me to go surfing after work. She again had an idea- “we will pick a certain wave height- and any time you are sitting at work and the waves are good- you can stop whatever work you have an go surfing for the rest of the day.” She wasn’t kidding- she had found a way to tap into my sense of adventure and let me feel cool by having an arrangement that involved surfing.
By the end of the conversation I was still only making $38 more dollars per week- so I still couldn’t afford a cellphone, but I was elated with the deal. She had found a way to meet my interests and I wasn’t even smart enough to have brought my demands to the table. She knew that what I really wanted was to feel like I was valued, that I was getting something good- for all the extra good work I was doing.
If Belinda had tried to negotiate based on my position (I want a $5,000 raise), we would have hit an impasse. She wasn’t going to give more money because she couldn’t and I wasn’t going to accept less because I thought I deserved more.
Instead, Belinda utilized both Interest Based Negotiating* and a few tricks of her own. Although I could write a book about what I learned from Belinda; the list below covers what I learned from her about being a great negotiator.
List of characteristics great negotiators have
Great negotiators are good listeners Belinda was a quiet woman who never needed to be in the spotlight. She was always listening to what people were saying and asking them about their hobbies and goals. Often people who are demanding things can’t verbalize what will make them happy even if you ask. Belinda didn’t have to ask about other things I might want, she already knew.
Great negotiators are honest Belinda knew that she couldn’t compete with bigger organizations on price and she didn’t pretend that she could. She laid everything out on the table and let me empathize with her situation. By showing me her books I knew she wasn’t trying to trick me. There is a great deal of power that is created when two people stop being adversarial and start being problem solvers- but that only happens when both sides feel like everyone is being honest.
Great negotiators are able to flip situations Belinda could have been discouraged by the weak position she was in; she knew others out there could offer more than she could. Instead, she did some magic and turned her weakness into a powerful strength. Big organizations have money, but they also have very rigid HR policies. She saw an opportunity to flip the situation around and make her perceived weakness into strength.
Great negotiators are creative When we sat down to talk about my salary I had no idea that she wanted me to bring my surfboard along. Surfing and work seem totally unrelated but she had the creative insight to find things that she could offer that would make me happy. I must have hit the page refresh 100 times a day hoping the swell would get high enough to let me off work. But I also put in loads of extra work because the feeling of support was always there- she earned that support by being creative.
Great negotiators know- money isn’t everything Imagine how much pride I had when I called home to tell them my work was supporting me to go to graduate school. Her frequent flier miles bought me a ticket to the East Coast with 3 layovers, but I didn’t care. I felt more valued than if she had put a monetary value on my work. I don’t know what the tickets were worth in cash but the extra time she offered me to study and apply- got me a full ride to one of the best diplomacy schools in the country.
She more than gave me a fair deal. I stayed with the organization until I was accepted into graduate school. I did not financially benefit from that job in the short term, but in the long term- she put my career in a catapult and shot it forward. I never learned more from any one boss than I learned from her- expect more communications lessons about Belinda long into the future.
Vance tweets at VanceCrowe
* Interest based negotiating is a concept in the best negotiations book I have ever read Getting To Yes. In it, Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton, show that the best way to negotiate is to find out what people’s interests are.
**As a post-script I wrote Belinda before posting this article to check out what she is up to these days. She is doing great, we just missed a chance to meet up in Washington D.C. as she was down there presenting at a conference on one thing or another.
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