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Business leaders share negotiating tips at Mainebiz Women’s Leadership Forum

Five Maine business executives from a variety of sectors shared insights into the art — and science — of negotiation at Tuesday’s Mainebiz Women’s Leadership Forum in Portland.

“Be yourself” was among several tips from panelists during the talk, which was moderated by Mainebiz publisher Donna Brassard. More than 250 people, predominantly but not exclusively women, attended the event at USM’s Hannaford Hall.

Panelists were Jessica Estes of The Boulos Co., a partner and broker with the commercial real estate firm where she became the first female partner; Janna Gau, a shareholder with law firm Eaton Peabody in Bangor; entrepreneur and scientist Susan MacKay, CEO of Orono-based materials and cleantech startup Cerahelix; Marie McCarthy, chief operations and people officer at L.L.Bean; and Carolyn Nishon, executive director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

This year’s forum followed past programs on eradicating workplace harassment (2018) and on addressing the gender wage gap (2017).

The topic of negotiation was chosen amid data showing that men initiate negotiations four times more often than women, and that one out of five women (22 million adults) say they never negotiate at all. 

So is there a difference between men and women when it comes to negotiating?

Nishon noted that in her experience, men negotiate more on salary, and that women especially early in their careers “were very hesitant to make demands.” That was validated by a show of hands from attendees, few of whom had negotiated on salary for their first job but many more doing so for their last job.

Estes, who spent many years recruiting new talent for Boulos, said that she often found herself prompting female job candidates “to take the next step and ask for more,” while advising their male counterparts to take a step back.

“I can’t think of a time I had to ask a female to take a step back,” she added.

Advice on how to be a better negotiator

Besides sharing insights and personal experiences, panelists offered a range of practical advice on becoming a better negotiator

Eaton Peabody’s Gau underscored the importance of doing background research in any mediation dispute in order to fully understand the other side and craft a creative solution. “It can help you come to a resolution you might not even realize is possible,” she said. 

Nishon likened preparing for a negotiation like to studying for a test, while MacKay said that “learning the language” of others (in her case investors and Millennial employees) helps both parties get to common ground faster.

Panelists also agreed on the need to listen and to work on building relationships and trust going into a negotiation.

McCarthy shared that, when an employee feels poorly treated, it often comes down to “hurt feelings” and is rarely about money or compensation. In one situation, she said the issue was amicably resolved over the business leader sitting down to lunch with an employee who had felt wronged.

Rounding out the forum, each panelist offered one final tip on becoming a better negotiator. They were: Understand your best strengths (MacKay); stay humble (McCarthy); try to keep your emotions out of the negotiations (Estes); think how you can approach ground rules as a group (Nishon); and don’t be afraid to hear “no” (Gau).

Feedback from attendees has been positive, with one telling Mainebiz about her intention to apply what she learned immediately.

“I found the forum great and the speakers providing practical, authentic ideas I can put into action right away,” said Barbara Sweezy, a retirement plan regional trust advisor with TD Wealth Management in Portland.