How to Negotiate Happiness With Your Team Leader/Coach
Insights From a Big 4 Accountant Constantly Trying to Balance Work and Happiness
Professional services firms are notorious for housing staff who feel overworked and underpaid. Work-life balance can feel like a myth and the office walls have undoubtedly heard more complaints than any wall rightfully should.
Meet me: a senior manager at one of the biggest professional services firms in the world. I’ve been in the audit business for over 7 years, after solemnly swearing that I wouldn’t be there a second longer than the 3 years it took me to qualify. For another 4 years, I’ve found a way to do things that I’m passionate about; to extract happiness from a place where so many struggle.
I attribute much of this to one thing: an effective relationship with my team leaders/coaches.
It’s no secret that I don’t love auditing. What drives passion and fulfillment in a work environment – for me – is a number of the things that go alongside auditing: learning, coaching, selling, traveling, etc. What keeps me happy is, therefore, is finding a way to do more of the stuff I love while keeping the stuff I don’t love in check. This is where having a great relationship with your team leader/coach becomes pivotal.
Let’s call it “negotiating happiness”.
With the experience of being both a coach and a coachee, I’m going to share 5 critical thoughts to keep in mind when you’re negotiating with your employer, using your team leader/coach as the vehicle for the negotiation.
1. Know What Value You Are Trying to Extract
In the past, I’ve written about the importance of understanding what value you’re trying to extract from your organization. It could be travel opportunities, money (it rarely actually is), wanting to learn new skills, working on projects that interest you, being pushed out of your comfort zone, increased flexibility at work, or a host of other things that are important to you.
As you might imagine, it’s difficult to ask for the things that will leave you happier and fulfilled if you don’t actually know what they are. Not all of the things above will be top of your priority list, and some of them might sound great but actually not be what you need to be happier.
This is where a great coaching/mentoring relationship becomes an asset. I’ve recently been through a period at work where I was really struggling to get my mind in the right place. I knew something was missing but couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Fortunately, through several conversations with my coach and other mentors, I finally settled on what I feel is the root cause: I wasn’t learning enough or being challenged anymore in my day-to-day work.
Start working on figuring out what it is you want from your organization.
Side note: I often walk away from a session with my coaches wondering if I’ve left them overburdened; it can feel like a bit of a therapy session at times. You could be forgiven for feeling guilty about this. I tend to remind myself that a productive hour with a coachee could translate into months or years of additional extraordinary effort.
2. Know Who Your Coach Really is
You might read this article and be thinking, “this guy’s clearly been blessed with good bosses for his whole career.” It’s absolutely not the case.
This is precisely why I used “team leader/coach” in the title. It’d be naive to believe that your direct manager/boss/team leader is always going to be the best coach. Your task is to find the coach (or coaches) in your organization who can have the biggest impact on your immediate working environment.
I would have used the word “mentor” but I find a mentor often doesn’t have the power to influence your actual work. You want to look for a mentor with influence.
Some of the best happiness boosters (an international secondment, a substantial pay bump) were the result of a collaboration between a coach, my direct manager (team leader), and me. As long as the conversations are held in the right spirit, there’s no reason why you can’t have career conversations with more than one individual. In fact, I’m a massive fan of building a small group of people who I look up to and whom I trust to be helpful and honest with me.
3. Know the Value YOU Are Delivering
Here’s where we need to leave our good friends Dunning and Kruger at the door. Negotiation = give and take.
In order for you to gauge how much you can possibly take from the negotiation, it’s necessary for you to know what you’re bringing to the table.
Your track record is important. How long have you been working for the business? Are you an average performer? Is everyone who works with you better off because you’re there? What do you offer outside the ordinary call of duty?
Fortunately, at my firm (and at most corporate organizations) there are quantitative metrics that can be used to demonstrate the value you’ve added. We have impact tiers that clearly distinguish us from our peers, alongside various other KPIs. These allow me to clearly highlight value.
Your future aspirations are also important. Your history with your employer gets you a seat at the negotiating table; what you want to do next is what will tip the scales in your favor. Your team leader loves to hear options that mean the business will continue to extract the value you’ve demonstrated for as long as possible.
There’s another way to look at this: you’re simply looking for help in fine-tuning the parameters of your work experience to allow you to continue to do the great work you’re already doing.
What won’t work? Clearly over-estimating your impact. We love self-belief, but if all the metrics are pointing in another direction and/or you’ve only got one foot in the door, you’re unlikely to see your leaders fall about to help you out.
4. Be Brutally Honest
“If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” — Stevie Wonder
It’s fair to say that my South African nature might give me a tendency towards bluntness. In most cases throughout my career, however, absolute honesty (sometimes interspersed with a sprinkling of diplomacy) has gotten me the results I was looking for.
How will your coach/team leader ever know what you want if you don’t say it? It may feel daunting, but if you’ve correctly understood the value you add to your employer, there isn’t really any downside if you ask nicely. The worst they can do is say “no”.
The way you phrase the ask is probably worth spending some time thinking about. I often go with something along the lines of, “I’ve been taking stock of where I’m at with my career now and I’m hoping you can help me tweak some things/look at opportunities to develop further? These are some of the things that would matter most to me: …”
If you’re feeling deflated, angry, run-down, or uninspired, don’t be afraid to make sure your coach/team leader is aware of these feelings for context. Be wary that there’s a thin line between context and outright complaining.
Regardless of how you say it, it must be said.
5. Understand the Limitations
A few years back, we had a new starter walk into the office and declare that it was “absurd” that we were all using Lenovo laptops, and that within the next year the entire firm needed to be using MacBooks. Ha! Sure, buddy. All 200,000 of us will migrate to Apple to appease your fandom.
The message? Pick your battles!
You can never get something out of a negotiation that your coach/team leader doesn’t have the power to give. This might mean you need to get creative in order to access some of the things that you’ve identified as helping you feel happier and more fulfilled at work.
Case in point: in a large professional services firm, salary bands are often pre-determined and your team leader typically has little wiggle room to give you a straight-up pay increase.
What could you ask for instead? This is where you get creative. In my case, most recently, this was a firm-sponsored VISA to continue to live in Australia indefinitely and an internal secondment where I could develop a new set of skills in a different department. Both of these things are things that my team leader can arrange which still hold significant value to me. (In fact, the VISA would otherwise have cost me ~10% of my CTC).
In your case, you might ask for a more flexible working arrangement, employer-sponsored education, access to clients you might not otherwise have worked with, the chance to work on CSI initiatives and contribute to the community, or maybe even simply some equipment that might make working from home easier. This will all depend on what you feel is going to tip the scales back in your favor and help you feel more fulfilled at work.
It’s easy to find yourself in a rut at work, feeling despondent. If you’re with a brand you love, working with people you resonate with, consider whether you should try to tweak the parameters of your working experience before you go off in search of greener grass.
These are the things that have worked for me in the last seven years and which I continue to use today to keep balancing the scales. I feel I’m extracting value that matches the effort and value I’m providing.
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