The Shriver Report – What’s the One Skill that Can Help All Women – and the Companies they work for – Get Ahead?

Special Edition

What’s the One Skill that Can Help All Women – and the Companies they work for – Get Ahead?


Whenever I think about the word negotiation, I think about the often difficult and awkward discussions had with bosses, usually hashing out the details of a contract, salary or job. Even if the outcome of the discussion is exciting, the back-and-forth can lead to a knot in my stomach and endless worry.

Turns out, I am not alone. M.J. Tocci, co-founder and director of the Heinz Negotiation Academy for Women at Carnegie Mellon, says most women dread and abhor negotiating as much as I do. But she believes negotiating is crucial key to success and is on a mission to help turn women’s disdain for bargaining around in order to help them get ahead.

The Heinz Negotiation Academy for Women is America’s first female-focused executive education program that promotes leadership skills through a highly practical, intensive study of negotiation. Because, as Tocci says, negotiation is not just about money. She points out that everyone has to negotiate several times a day. We negotiate when dealing with budgets, resource allocation, policies, scheduling, time management, decision making, conflict resolution, as well as when hashing out deals or opportunities for ourselves and our companies. And that’s just at work.

Being able to negotiate well is a critical leadership skill, and the key to getting what you need and want. Plus, Tocci points out women must negotiate gender stereotypes on their way to brokering a deal, making these skills even more crucial.

But how do we begin to embrace this skill? How do we get better at it? And how in the world do you get started?

While the Negotiation Academy for Women is geared towards high-performing, executive-level women, Tocci believes the skills for negotiating can benefit anyone – and getting started is not as hard as you think. I picked Tocci’s brain to find out what she thinks holds most women back, ways women can get around gender stereotypes and her number one tip to help you start negotiating better today.


TSR: You have been working to coach women and help mitigate gender disparities in various ways throughout your career. What made you stop and say we need to have an actual program where women can learn and get training for this skill?

Tocci: I had been involved in gender related work as a lawyer, consultant, educator, and entrepreneur. Looking at decades worth of leadership training for women revealed that deep attention to negotiation was missing from almost all approaches. This was more than an oversight since negotiation skills, especially for women, are at the core of what we need to not only get ahead, but do our jobs well and to lead well.

Negotiation skills are the intervention that will make the most difference for women and their organizations. But even though these skills are indispensable, women are constantly getting the message that they shouldn’t be negotiating for themselves and only for others. Negotiation is harder for women because it’s perceived differently when we do it.  Subconscious stereotypes that we should be “other centered, team players, nice, accommodating” can be contrary to knowing your value and asserting your worth.

Studies tell us that we don’t always get the same recognition about our value either, which can compromise our negotiation savvy. In the end, women have to negotiate strategically, smartly and effectively to achieve whatever version of success they define. Thus the Academy was born.

TSR: That is what struck me most when I first learned about the academy – the use of the word negotiation and how you use it to encompass all different areas of leadership.

Tocci: I often ask women, “When you think about negotiating, what are the words that come to mind?” They are very rarely positive words and more along the lines of “going to the dentist.’ And I get that. I deeply get that but I want us all to rewrite that narrative.

Women who graduate from this academy now say, “I love to negotiate.” Negotiation is creative problem solving. Negotiation is conflict resolution. Negotiation is the way that people are better off than if they hadn’t negotiated. Negotiation is this essential robust leadership skill. I look forward to negotiating.  They have changed the channel!

And it’s not that women are deficient and in fact we have powerful negotiation skills that we just don’t use for ourselves. This means we don’t have to develop these skills from zero but in fact move them over from negotiating for others to also using them to negotiate for ourselves.  Often we need to negotiate differently than men do because tactics that are effective for men can cause backlash for women. Again, the approach needs to be smarter, strategically, skillfully and effectively.

TSR: In some of the videos on the academy’s website, you mention women often have to make the terrible choice between being seen as competent or likable. It can be very difficult for women to assert themselves, but leaders have to be direct and competitive in order to be successful. How do you teach women to negotiate this challenge since they need these qualities to lead but in the work place, these same qualities can lead them to be looked at less favorably?

Tocci: That’s a very good question and it is sad but true that women can become less likeable.  Not always, not forever, but in the moment and sometimes for longer. If you need people to like you all the time it’s hard to be a good leader, hard to be fair, hard to make decisions based on evidence rather than emotion and this approach leaves both feeling unsatisfied. So choose respected over liked. And I’m not saying you want to be unlikable, but I think women sometimes have a greater need to be liked and it holds them back.

“So choose respected over liked. And I’m not saying you want to be unlikable, but I think women sometimes have a greater need to be liked and it holds them back.”

Be good at what you do, be clear about claiming your value, be fair, be consistent, have the good of the organization at heart and the love will follow.

I always say to women, if at the end of the day you need everyone to be happy I want negotiate with you because I will get more than I deserve through manipulation.  That isn’t a sustainable strategy for you.

And if someone gets upset with me at the moment for what they might believe is putting an interest of mine ahead of theirs, I have to trust they will get over it and that it’s not going to scar our relationship for the rest of our lives. And maybe I’ll attend to it. Maybe I’ll have a conversation with that person at some other point, and say, “I appreciate that that was awkward and there is a culture here that sometimes makes these conversations hard. But I want you to know that what I am looking for is fairness and what’s good for the company and what’s good for the organization.” And I think that is a way you begin to whittle away at that. Because otherwise it’s a demon you can’t slay. And it holds you back.

To avoid backlash it is especially useful for women to pose what you want as something that is both good for you and good for the other person. So the sweet spot in any negotiation is what’s good for me is good for you. Frame the negotiation in a way that is not just all about me, but what we both care about and why its good for the organization. Research says this mitigates a bit against the unlikability factor when women are negotiating harder.

“The most important thing you can do in a negotiation is to decide to negotiate. And life will offer you unlimited opportunities to try that.”

One of the things I have coached a lot of women to do, especially if they are negotiating a new job or a new position, is to say: “I hope you see that my ability to negotiate here is a skill I bring to this organization.”

This makes an important skill transparent. It says out loud I am negotiating. I am unapologetically claiming it. But the subtext is right this minute I am negotiating for me but tomorrow I  will be negotiating for you.

This approach helps people get comfortable with women using this skill when they connect the dots, “Oh good, she’s not going to use this as a sword to cut me into tiny pieces forever, but tomorrow she is actually going to be my negotiator.”

TSR: What has been the biggest surprise to you since starting the academy? Has any particular trend or comments brought up by women in the courses shocked or surprised you?

Tocci: I am constantly reminded that it doesn’t matter how powerful a woman is in her organization – and this slices across every industry, profit, not profit, academia – that so many of the women are still engaged in a constant struggle for legitimacy, control and success as they define it. So much has to change for the world of work to be friendly for women, parents, millennials, gen x and y’er and in the negotiation realm, many of these groups are allies because they care about many of the same things.  Most people don’t have stay at home spouses but much of the work world assumes they do.  And we wonder why negotiation is important?  If all our industries keep losing their top female talent we cannot be competitive.  Changing culture is many, many negotiations by many people over time.

The thing that was the most amazing part of the cohort, that I was most delighted with, was how deep the sharing was between the participants. They have a network where they rely on each other personally and professionally.

TSR: What is one take-a-way or piece of advice that you can offer our readers to help them improve their negotiation skills today?

Tocci: The most important thing you can do in a negotiation is to decide to negotiate. And life will offer you unlimited opportunities to try that. Someone once analogized it to speaking a foreign language and that you have to get out of your comfort zone to speak them badly before you speak them well. I think negotiation is language. So you must begin to say I’m going to start asking for things. I’m going to start figuring out what it is I want in a situation and why I want it and what is in the way of me getting there. And I am going to start looking at life that way. It will just get easier and easier and by the time I take on something hard I will know what I am doing.

I say, just start. Start asking for things. And start small. You don’t have to start with asking for world peace. We use the concept of the negotiation gym:  This week, ask for something you are pretty sure you are going to get. And the week after that, raise the stakes. And the next week, ask for something impossible. The reason I want you to ask for something impossible, is  I want you to hear no. If no one is saying no to you, you ‘re not asking for enough.

And we just have to get used to it. The sun still comes up the next day when someone says no to you. And then you learn to think, no is just a position from which to negotiate. It’s a no now, but how can you get this to a yes eventually? And it’s really about looking at so many of the situations in life as opportunities to hone these skills. And you will find that it is so validating. People are constantly coming back to me and saying, guess what I asked for and guess what I got.

There are also two wonderful books written by my co-founder, Linda Babcock, along with Sara Laschever called Women Don’t Ask and Ask for It –really brilliant books that are must reads. Ask for It is the “how to” – the book I give to every girl that is graduating from high school, college, starting her job. My son says every girlfriend he’s ever had has a copy of that book.

“Every time one of us asks for something, it lifts the rest of us up. And we have to be ready to respond to those conversations in ways that really benefit all of us.”

The last thing I would offer your readers is the thought that we can change the culture one conversation at a time. So the next time they hear someone say, “Can you believe what she asked for?” or “I can’t believe she thinks she deserves that,” “Who does she think she is?” that you say, “I know, isn’t that awesome?”

Every time one of us asks for something, it lifts the rest of us up. And we have to be ready to respond to those conversations in ways that really benefit all of us.



M.JTOcci_MJ_HS. Tocci has been called a career agitator, a gender equity expert, a pioneer and a force of nature in and out of the courtroom.

She serves as Co-Founder and Director of the Heinz Negotiation Academy for Women at Carnegie Mellon University, the first executive education program in the United States to promote leadership skills through a highly practical and intensive study of negotiation.

Tocci is the winner of the 2011 Athena Award, an honor that recognizes individuals who have actively supported aspiring female professionals in their attainment of excellence and leadership. Named by California Lawyer Magazine as One of California’s Most Effective Prosecutors, Tocci is now a sought-after expert who helps law firms, corporations, and others increase productivity and profitability through recruiting, retaining and promoting talented women. As Founder and President of Fulcrum Advisors, she applies a multidisciplinary approach to identify both opportunities for women to thrive and obstacles to their success.

As a board member for the Women and Girls Foundation, Tocci and Academy Co-Founder Dr. Linda Babcock designed “Catapult,” a salary negotiation-coaching program. National and international media outlets such as NPR and Bloomberg News regularly quote both Babcock and Tocci on issues including gender and bias in the workplace, equal pay, and negotiation strategy.

In 1994, the National Institute for Trial Advocacy hired her to develop the United States’ first litigation program that specifically addressed gender in advocacy training. She has since created programs geared toward male and female lawyers, including Gender in Advocacy, Gender in Questioning, Gender in Negotiations, and Gender and Persuasion.

As an attorney, consultant, coach and trainer for more than 20 years, Tocci guides women at all levels to improve their skills while helping organizations to measurably improve both their culture and bottom-line results.