Great Women Leaders Negotiate

Great women leaders recognize the importance of refining their negotiation skills. We take a look at the negotiating habits of three successful women leaders to identify strategies that will work for all.

By on / Leadership Skills

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Great women leaders are no different than great male leaders—except that they may have faced more discrimination, lower expectations, and stronger resistance along the way. When women in leadership succeed, they often do so by cultivating successful negotiating skills. Here, we examine strategies that three top women in negotiation employed to become great women leaders.


If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.


 Sheryl Sandberg: Empowering Women to Negotiate

In early 2008, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg began considering Sheryl Sandberg, a vice president at Google, for the position of chief operating officer. The two met frequently for almost two months to discuss Facebook’s mission and future.

Finally, Zuckerberg made an offer. Sandberg thought it was fair and was eager to take the job, she recounts in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Knopf, 2013), but her husband urged her not to take the first offer on the table.

Sandberg balked, for fear of antagonizing Zuckerberg. She was on the verge of accepting when her brother-in-law said in frustration, “Damn it, Sheryl! Why are you going to make less than any man would make to do the same job?”

He was right, Sandberg realized. She pointed out to Zuckerberg that he was hiring her to run his deal teams and therefore should expect her to negotiate aggressively. “This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table,” she said, then laid out what she wanted. The next day, Zuckerberg made her a significantly better offer.

In Lean In, Sandberg sparked a movement aimed at encouraging women to aspire to leadership roles and negotiate more forcefully on their own behalf. Within her focus on women and leadership, she advises women to explain that they’re negotiating for more because women tend to be paid less than men. By positioning themselves as showing concern for others, they may be able to avoid the backlash that women negotiating for themselves often face.

Takeaway #1: Great women leaders look for ways to empower other women negotiators.

 Madeleine Albright: Watching Closely

As U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of state during President Bill Clinton’s second term, Madeleine Albright spearheaded several intricate negotiations, including campaigns to bring Central European nations into NATO and a military response to the 1999 crisis in Kosovo.

At a Program on Negotiation event at Harvard University in 2015, Albright recalled the first time she and Clinton met Vladimir Putin, at a conference in New Zealand in 1999, soon after Russian president Boris Yeltsin chose him as his preferred replacement. Deeply curious about the former KGB agent, Albright remembered observing that Putin seemed “very smart,” “cold-blooded,” and “reptilian.” Putin “was trying very hard to ingratiate himself with everybody, and especially with Bill Clinton,” she told the Harvard audience. “It was interesting to watch.”

Albright’s observations highlight a key piece of advice she offered at Harvard: “Learn as much as possible about the other person.” She continued, “I think the basis of any successful negotiation is to understand what the other person needs. You have to put yourself into the other person’s shoes.”

Takeaway #2: Great women leaders size up potential counterparts before getting down to business.

Angela Merkel: Listening to Learn

German chancellor Angela Merkel’s rise to become arguably the most powerful woman in the world is often described as almost incomprehensible, given her reticence and lack of flash. But, in fact, these very qualities contributed to Merkel’s success as a leader and a negotiator, as George Packer described in a 2014 New Yorker profile of Merkel.

As a woman scientist and politician, Merkel often found herself as an outsider, a position that enabled her to carefully assess her counterparts, identify their weaknesses, and advance her own interests. Her comfort in the role of outsider positioned her to listen closely and learn through observation, a trait fostered by her background in communist East Germany, where those who spoke their minds were brutally punished. One longtime political associate told Packer that Merkel typically speaks 20% to her counterparts’ 80% in conversations.

Merkel seems to understand intuitively what other negotiators learn through practice: By listening actively to our counterparts—absorbing what they have to say without interruption, asking questions aimed at clarifying our understanding, and repeating what we’ve heard without judgment—we gain a fuller knowledge of their interests and build trust.

Takeaway #3: Great women leaders use their outsider position as a strength in negotiation.

What negotiation skills have you observed in great women leaders?


If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.


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