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Simon Cowell's lessons in salary negotiation

Word broke today that American Idol’s mean judge, Simon Cowell, is on the verge of signing a contract that will return him to the show for the next three years at a reported salary of $45 million annually, up $9 million a year from his prior salary.

Now there’s a man who knows how to negotiate.

Cowell’s operating on literally TV’s biggest stage, but regular people like us can learn from him. He knows a few incredibly important things: he knows his own worth, he knows the worth of the show and he knows how much he personally contributes to that worth.

Granted, Cowell is in a position in which few of us are ever lucky enough to be. Besides Idol, he has many other business ventures that earn him plenty of money. He’s probably a little sick of palling around with Randy and Ryan and sitting through those interminable auditions in the heat of every summer, so he’s likely at the point where he could take or leave Idol. That’s given him a lot of leverage in his discussions with Fox, which has unsurprisingly declined to comment.

Still, even the least of us can learn one important lesson from Cowell’s negotiations: know your worth and be prepared to defend it.

Unlike the confident Cowell, most people are wildly uncomfortable negotiating their salary. It’s something they rarely do, and it requires them to assign a figure to their self-esteem and then put it on the line. Salary negotiations can be particularly stressful in this economy because people are afraid to ask for what they really want because the reward for their assertiveness might be no job at all.

(The flip side of that argument is that if you are as indispensable as Cowell is, your worth only increases in this economy. Cowell’s employer can’t afford to lose him, and that’s a good place to be.)

Alexandra Levit wrote a online piece for the Wall Street Journal on Sunday discussing “Negotiating a Good Salary at a New Job.” Levit advises that it’s always a good idea to negotiate your salary, no matter what economic conditions the world may be in.  “Even if you are new to an industry or have been unemployed for a while, is it smart to blindly accept the first number that an employer throws out?” Levit asks. “I don’t think so.”

To avoid that situation, do your research. When you go out to buy a new car, you don’t just head over to the dealer, select a car, agree to pay the sticker price and drive off the lot, do you? (And I really hope you don’t.) It’s much the same with job-searching: you need to know your field’s salary range, taking your range of expertise and your location into consideration before you ever set foot through an interviewer’s door. Knowledge is power, and if you are going to take your time and a potential employer’s time, you should be as prepared as possible.  Typical salaries are posted at Web sites like and

Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist says to never start discussing salary until you’ve gotten a written offer, at which point you know the company wants you. Penelope offers specific language to help you defer having a salary conversation until you have more control over it. You can directly say, “I’d like to postpone that conversation until the offer stage.” If the interviewer continues to push, which is likely, you can ask him what he considers the job’s salary range to be. Once that number is disclosed, you say can “that would be a fine place to start” and move on. That way, you are not pushed into either low- or high-balling yourself. No matter how much research you’ve done, the would-be employer knows more than you do about how much he can pay you. Your increased control comes with the written offer.

In all cases, preparation is key. When it’s time to have a conversation about salary, you need to be clear about what you bring to the table. How will you make the company money? What unique skills and talents do you bring? What are some specific examples of those talents?

Prior to entering into any salary negotiation, decide on an acceptable salary range and write down what makes you valuable before you enter into that final salary discussion – it will help you keep your head on straight if the talk becomes stressful. Also, base your salary requirements on what you feel you deserve to earn based on your skills, talents and experience. Don’t base it on what you need to earn because you have a lot of bills to pay.

It’s also reasonable to take non-salary elements into consideration: how long is the commute? How eager are you to do this particular job? Can you work at home? Can you work flexible hours? If the money’s not quite there, these non-salary elements can be part of the negotiation.

There are many resources online aimed at helping you win yourself a better salary. Here are a couple more of them:

Ten Tips to Negotiate a Better Salary – this person suggests a fairly aggressive approach towards getting the salary you want.

These 32 tips are aimed at self-proclaimed IT geeks but the tips are really relevant to anyone.