“We’ll give you any number you want.”
Never have I thought that I would hear something like this in my career. It was over a year ago when I told my boss I was resigning. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted, but I’m glad I ended up taking the offer from another company. With that move, I effectively tripled my salary compared to what I was making just a little over 2 years ago.
Am I making millions now? Not yet, but as a long-time career mentor at professional development events, I have seen many people struggled with getting ahead in their careers and I want to share some valuable lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Making strategic moves
I had a rocky start in my career. Fresh out of school, I thought I wanted to work as a broadcast producer.
Soon enough, I realized the long hours and hectic environment was not what I was looking for. After much soul searching, I decided to become a graphic designer.
If it is hard for an art student to get a job, it is 3 times harder for a foreign art student requiring visa sponsorship to even get an interview.
Most companies automatically send out “no thank you” emails upon hearing the word “visa” and there is certainly no “affirmative action” to protect us against that.
Out of desperation, I accepted a job at a small agency that surprisingly offered to sponsor me. I knew I wasn’t happy about the salary they offered, but I had to get my foot in the door or I get kicked out of the US.
At the time, I was already 2 years late in my career development because I took an extra year off for art school and had to start at square one in a new industry.
When most of my college classmates were getting promoted at their first or second jobs, I was making minimum wage.
Determined to catch up, I started looking for other opportunities while crossing my fingers for the visa to get approved.
After a long-winded process, I got my first work visa and another job offer that doubled my salary.
I was interviewing all over the place while under the tight scrutiny of my boss. Through research, I learned that the tech industry offers more money than creative agencies.
To some people, having lots of peers like themselves at the workplace is important. My priority, however, is to make more money while doing what I like. The strategy of going in-house got me the first major boost of salary.
Could I have tried to get a promotion or raise within the company? Sure, but I knew it wouldn’t be a smart move. Small companies usually have few to none upward mobility unless you’re a friend or relative of the CEO.
From what I heard when talking to my colleagues, none of them was getting a good raise even after working there for years. It may work for some people who are happy with what they have, but not for me. I knew I wanted more — a lot more and quickly.
I know a lot of people give or listen to advice like “you have to stay in a company for a minimum of x years or you’ll look disloyal to future employers”. I understand where the advice is coming from, but I personally don’t believe that is the best strategy for people who want to get ahead and fast track their salary increase. I stay in a company until I’m not learning anything new and my salary no longer supports my desired lifestyle. When explaining why I left each company, I was always prepared with good reasons. I, too, was afraid that my frequent change of jobs would scare away potential employers. It wasn’t the case because I was able to support my decision with valid reasons. I showed my potential employer that I am an ambitious professional looking to advance my career and my old position is no longer able to offer that.
I fully understand that jumping ship always upsets someone because it means that they have to spend money and time to fill your position again. I am also well aware of the preconception that millennials are job hoppers and my track record probably didn’t help to dispel that stereotype. However, when my goal was to get to the next level, I had to put my best interest in mind and all the noise from the outside world aside. Of course, I would never advice anyone to get a new job every quarter, but never stay too comfortably in one company if your goal is to get ahead and make more.
Counter offer is a dangerous trap
Just a few months into my new job, I got laid off suddenly due to a company restructure. It came as a huge shock and put me into a frantic job search mode immediately. They say that when one door is closed, another door opens. After interviewing with almost 40 companies in two months, I landed another job with more money and averted the crisis of getting kicked out of the country yet again. Even though the layoff ultimately helped advance my career even faster than I had anticipated, I learned to never take my employment for granted.
This time, I chose to join the financial services industry. Most people were shocked that a creative professional like myself would be okay working in such a conservative and seemingly “uncreative” environment. I see it differently. First of all, big financial services firms hire people from all disciplines. Lawyers, doctors, chefs, software engineers, designers like myself and even pilots work together to support their multinational operations. I was more than willing to trade casual dress code for an environment that provides more financial incentives and less hectic work schedule (front office investment bankers who make a lot more than I do obviously have it a lot differently, just to be clear).
Shortly after I joined the new company, my boss suddenly got laid off and I started to see some concerning things that I didn’t like. I made some great friends there but decided it is not a company to stay for the long term. Luckily, I was able to casually look for another job because my position was relatively stable. When I got the offer, I was very happy because it is a big-name company that I thought I could never get in. Then the counter offer came.
I was told that I could name my price. That is how desperate they wanted me to stay. I could take it as a big compliment, but I couldn’t help but wonder why a company would go to this length begging me to stay. I called up my old boss and a couple of friends to hear about their opinions. After listening to opposing views, I got even more confused. By resigning, will I lose a huge opportunity to potentially make a lot more money within the same company or dodge a bullet that is coming at me in slow motion?
After running some Sherlock Holmes analysis in my head, I got clarity. There are only two reasons that a company is desperate to keep you. Granted you’re good at your job, they either don’t like to show appreciation by giving you a raise while you’re still happy at the job or they know they would have a hard time finding a replacement. Either way, it is not the place you want to be regardless of the number they promise you as the counter offer. The trust is already broken and the next time there is a layoff, you’d be on the top of the list. Furthermore, statistics show that most people end up not staying long even after accepting the counter offer. I wasn’t going to take that bullet and I’m glad I didn’t because not long after I moved on, the boss who promised me “any number” also left.
Not taking bullshits
Upon accepting the new job offer, my salary has tripled the amount of what I was making merely 2 years ago at my first agency job.
It is still a modest salary, but I am glad that I did not stay put and wait patiently for the nominal raise to come in 2 years, as they usually promise.
Too often, I hear people say how they have been told that they don’t have enough experience, years of service or the company does not have enough budget for a raise. None of that matters if you can see through the hypocrisy. Not enough experience?
If you are damn good at your job, it is not a reason to deny you a raise or competitive salary. Not enough years of service? It is just corporate bullshit. If you have already demonstrated your strong performance, asked for a raise and didn’t get it, move on. Not enough budget? Too bad because top talents do not care. They want what they want and they always have more than one suitors.
Of course, it is always nice to negotiate a raise within the company you love working for. Who doesn’t want more money, great culture and familiarity? I wrote this piece to encourage anyone who might be disappointed or stuck in their career to take action. There is no reason to accept what is handed to you if it doesn’t feel good enough. With strategic moves and smart negotiation techniques, you can also fast track your salary increase and career advancement.