One Career Tip You Need To Hear Again & Again

October 3, 2015


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Emery Reddy

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Ask for what you want.”

career adviceThis job advice is so rarely acted upon that it deserves endless repeating: “Tell people what you want, and then go out and get it,” said Eileen McDonnell, the CEO of Fortune 1000 insurance firm Penn Mutual. In a recent interview, McDonnell shared how surprised she is that so few workers ask for exactly what they want in their careers. “So many people complain they haven’t gotten anywhere but they haven’t taken the lead.”

During a recently set of guest lectures at American college campuses, McDonnell gave out her personal contact information to nearly 100 business students and invited them to email or call her directly for business advice or help. She was surprised by the results: “Only one student contacted me,” she said. Oh, P.S., she wound up offering him a job.

McDonnell’s advice holds for those searching for employment, jockeying for a promotion or negotiating a raise or more flexibility; moreover, the tip applies to everyone from recent grads to seasoned veterans in a specialized field .

For example, consider how New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan landed one of the hottest jobs in journalism. Sullivan had worked at the Buffalo News for decades until she set her sights on The New York Times position; that gig actually involved covering the NYT from within the publication. It’s a coveted position that offers exclusive access to the people on your beat, i.e., Times editors and reporters.

“I had actually thought for many years that a fun thing for me to do would be the public editor of The New York Times,” she said in an interview on the Longform podcast released Wednesday. When she heard the job was opening up in 2012, she immediately got in touch with the current managing editor, Jill Abramson, and raised her hand.

”I pretty much did decide that I was going to get the job,” she said. A number of interviews and several memos later — there were 50+ well-qualified candidates for the role — she had landed the position.

When the Times offered Sullivan her job, she said yes without asking about her pay, which Sullivan admits was an unwise move. She later negotiated pay and reminded everyone to do the same.

“I tell this particularly to young women,” she said. “It’s not always effective, but worth asking.” The worst thing that happen can happen is you get turned down; but of course NOT going for the job means you have a 100% chance of not getting it.

Sullivan was clearly qualified for the position, but that doesn’t change the basic lesson in this story: ask, ask, ask.

And the pattern doesn’t end there. McDonnell noted that she recently offered someone a promotion after the person asked for a new role. “She’d never have been on my radar [if she hadn’t just asked]” McDonnell said.

And of course many of us have seen other people – some earlier in their careers — ask for and land raises, new positions, flexible schedules, etc. No one is scrambling to offer this if they aren’t asked point-blank.

In her own career, McDonnell has always made a point to ask for exactly what she needed. When Penn Mutual offered her the position of CEO a few years ago, she explained to the company that her priority was her daughter — now 10 years old.

“I told them, if you call me and I’m out, you know, being the mystery reader at school, I don’t want to hear there’s a problem,” she said. “If that’s going to be an issue, I’m not the right candidate.”

The hiring executives said no problem.

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