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Female Leaders: Natalie Reynolds

Words: Florence Robson

Natalie Reynolds is CEO of globally respected negotiation firm advantageSPRING, author of bestselling book ‘We Have a Deal’ and Honorary Visiting Professor of Negotiation at Cass Business School. Natalie has worked with many of the world’s leading companies, business schools, governments and NGO’s including the United Nations and has a reputation as one of the leading voices on women and negotiation. In 2018 Natalie founded The Make Your Ask Project, a global initiative to challenge conventional thinking that negotiation is all about aggression, tough talk and win/lose. Make Your Ask promotes a method of negotiating based on collaboration, understanding, problem solving and creativity. In a bold bid to make negotiation more accessible to everyone, Natalie has bottled up her expertise and created an online course priced at only £10, a fraction of its market value. In addition for every £10 course sold, The Make Your Ask Project will gift a copy of the course to a woman around the world who really needs it.

You’ve founded a negotiation training firm, are a Visiting Professor of Negotiation at Cass Business School and have even written a book on the subject. What sparked your fascination with negotiation and how did you come to specialise in this area?

My background is a very varied one and I have worked across both the public and private sectors in roles that always required me to negotiate, whether that was negotiating changes to legislation and mediating policy disputes between government departments or negotiating multi-million pound contracts for FTSE100 companies or reviewing commercial supply chains for renegotiation opportunities. In 2008 I qualified as a Barrister and that really stoked my love for negotiation. I was fascinated by how the science of influence and persuasion played such a major role in getting to an agreement. I was particularly shaped by my experience of negotiating an agreement between a well-known charity and local government after a difficult and contentious Judicial Review about funding. I realised that when passion and emotion is brought to the negotiation table this can be both a help and a hindrance to reaching a workable solution. I was then approached to go and work for a big negotiation training firm and spent time training executives in large corporations; however, I disagreed with their style and approach and so after a difference of opinion about the importance of diversity in the negotiation process I left and founded advantageSPRING in 2013. Since then we have gone on to work with some amazing companies and well-known brands, as well as with leading business schools and various governments and NGOs.

Why do you think negotiation is such an essential skill for women?

I think negotiation is an essential skill for everyone! The ability to negotiate effectively can have a huge impact on everyone’s life. However, the question of women and negotiation has been a key focus for me for a number of years as there are still a number of very negative stereotypes and assumptions about women as negotiators. Examples include women not being as ambitious in what they ask for, capitulating too quickly and being less likely to negotiate in the first place.

My approach has always been to encourage a discussion about the validity of some of these stereotypes and to provide tools and tips to address them if needed. My view ultimately is that men and women are equally as capable as each other when it comes to negotiation, however we are viewed very differently when we do it. Multiple studies over the decades have shown that women are perceived as more aggressive and unlikeable when they negotiate and many women are keenly aware of this. I refer to this as ‘social penalty’ and it is one of the biggest barriers that women face, as for many of us it will them impact how we go on to ask for what we want. For me, the bigger focus is that when women are involved in negotiation processes outcomes are vastly improved. This has been evidenced in both commercial environments and in diplomacy, particularly peace negotiations. Outcomes are vastly improved for everyone when women have a space at the table.

What triggered you to launch the Make Your Ask project?

A combination of frustration and optimism! The frustration was borne out of nearly a decade in the negotiation training field and seeing so much bad advice and a constant perpetuation of the idea that to be a good negotiator you have to be aggressive and domineering. I have always believed that there is a better, more sophisticated way to negotiate that can illicit fantastic results without compromising credibility or relationships. I realised that whilst my firm was making a difference with the companies we were working with, and that I was helping to improve people’s confidence through speaking at conferences and events, there is still a long way to go.

Negotiation is at the heart of every human interaction. It shapes all aspects of our existence. My belief is that as long as people view negotiation as a battle or a competition there will be a negative impact on business, politics and society more generally. So, this needs to change. We need to reframe and reclaim negotiation. I launched Make Your Ask to do just that. Using the material I have taught at leading companies and business schools worldwide, I have created an 8-part online negotiation course that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere for only £10, as opposed to the hundreds or often thousands of pounds charged for most negotiation courses. My aim is to make good quality negotiation training available to as many people as possible. I am optimistic that the ripple effect of this could, I hope, have a hugely positive effect on how humans interact with each other and give so many people the confidence to use their voice to shape and influence the wider world.

How does your approach to negotiation differ from the more aggressive stereotypes?

My approach is to focus on people. People are the key ingredient in every negotiation as we bring ourselves to every negotiation that we do. It is essential that we understand each side's motivations, circumstances, hopes and fears so that we can then use that to help navigate to an agreement that works for everyone. I also focus on simplicity. So many negotiation courses rely on complex approaches or are too theory heavy, so are not accessible to most people. My five step DEALS™ method is designed to provide a robust and easy to use framework for anyone on any negotiation. It has been proven to be effective in every type of setting so far, including salary and fee negotiations, complex commercial transactions, political disputes and diplomacy. Finally I like to make clear that my approach still encourages people to try and win if they can. I believe we should all focus on being the best we can be, utilising our ambition and succeeding. However, I do believe there is a big difference between winning at all costs and winning in the right way. My approach allows people to win, without actively trying to make the other side lose.

You’ve partnered with UN Women for a ‘buy one, gift one’ scheme. For every course purchased, Make Your Ask will gift one course to a woman who needs it around the world. Why is that important to you?

I have always been involved in volunteering, helping others and supporting charitable causes. I spent a big chunk of the start of my career working to provide support services to victims of crime and securing funding to improve the response to rape and sexual assault. Once I started advantageSPRING, I delivered regular pro-bono work, delivering negotiation training for free to charities, NGO’s and diversity networks. I believe passionately that negotiation is a tool for empowerment. It can revolutionise people's confidence and completely change their lives. The gifting scheme is at the heart of Make Your Ask and our aim is to empower One Million Women who don’t have access to £10, with the ability to confidently negotiate and ask for what they want. Despite huge progress in terms of equality there is still an urgent need to amplify women’s voices worldwide. My hope is that by working with established charities as giving partners we can access women around the world and give them one of the skills needed to play a more active role in their communities, in business, in politics and in society more widely, as well as more confidence to advocate for themselves.

How has the power of negotiation impacted on your own life?

I am far more aware of the impact of my ‘inner voice’ and the negotiations that we have with ourselves every day. I coach people in how to effectively manage that little voice so it doesn’t derail us at the negotiation table. To this end, I try to make sure I follow my own advice by effectively addressing my fears and anxieties about something in advance rather than burying my head in the sand! More generally I think my life has benefitted hugely from being open to understanding the position of others. I always take the time to try and see the world through the eyes of the person I am negotiating or engaging with and being able to pinpoint people's motivations has been really helpful in reaching solutions sometimes in very challenging situations.

One of The Female Lead’s core themes is ‘find strength in setbacks’. How has failure featured in your professional journey?

I made a conscious choice a number of years ago to learn from setbacks rather than to be annoyed or resentful about them. As a result I try not to think to much about failure and focus more instead on the concept of ‘lessons learned’. My journey has been littered with setbacks… but by choosing to respond proactively and positively to them, I have managed to spin, most of them, into springboards for bigger and better things. The most pivotal setback I faced was when I left my previous employer. I left because of some unpleasant and sexist attitudes that quite simply made it impossible for me to succeed or thrive there. At the time I had a small baby at home and I was the main breadwinner. I did toy with staying, mostly out of fear of uncertainty and a lack of security, but I took the leap and left on principle. It was a gruelling time and scary and demoralising… but out of that advantageSPRING was born and so was my determination to change negotiation and empower women to be the best negotiators they can be. So in short, I now consider that the sexism I experienced has in fact resulted in potentially One Million Women worldwide being empowered to make their ask. My best advice is to take a deep breath, find the right help if you need it and to hold your nerve.

Your work is designed to support and empower women. Are there any particular female role models or mentors who have acted as a source of support or inspiration for you?

I have been very fortunate to have had a number of female bosses over the years who have believed in and elevated me. This has been hugely helpful for me both in terms of having visibility of women in leadership from an early stage in my career but also in terms of being put forward for opportunities that have challenged me and helped me grow. In addition I try and play an active role in supporting women in my wider network by making connections, being a sounding board and providing advice and expertise. I find this to be hugely rewarding but also beneficial. You can't expect the help and support of others unless you are willing to engage in doing the same. On the wider stage I am hugely inspired by women who have played active roles in global politics and peace processes such as Madeline Albright, Hillary Clinton and the late Mo Mowlam. We need more women shaping negotiations on the global stage.

What advice would you give to any girls or young women feeling anxious about their future?

The most powerful tool you have is your voice. Use it. Speak up. Shape the conversation. If we can't advocate for ourselves then we leave ourselves vulnerable, as we can't always rely on others to advocate on our behalf. The best way to feel more confident is to practice, practice, practice…and never ‘wing it’ in the difficult conversation.

For only £10 you can access training that will change your life and supercharge your career. For every £10 course purchased we will then gift one to a woman around the world who really needs it. Visit Make Your Ask for more details.

For daily doses of negotiation inspiration, follow Make Your Ask on Twitter and on Instagram.

To keep up with Natalie's work, follow her on Twitter.

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