Recent headlines around Michele Roberts, the first female leader of a major American sports union, naturally caught my eye. She’s perfect for the job, and she’s a perfect case study, especially for women in the negotiating world who strive to become even better at what they do. Roberts, who just became executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, laid a superb foundation for success that anyone (male or female) would do well to follow. Here’s what stands out to me about Michele.
Set the stage early
Growing up in a housing project with two brothers and one TV, Roberts didn’t get to watch her shows. She was outnumbered. So she watched hoops instead. She studied the game. Negotiating success begins by acquiring great knowledge. You have to know the fears and desires of the other side, the stakes, the possible outcomes. The more you know, and the deeper that knowledge goes into relevant details, the more you can establish authority and respect.
Find common ground
Roberts has a knack for finding common ground. Starting as a public defender, she became known as the ultimate litigator in the nation’s capital. To change someone’s mind or motivate him or her to move from their original position, you have to listen and connect with them. At the heart of that process is putting ego aside (much like a soccer mom), embracing empathy, and authentically understanding what works best for both sides. “It’s not hard if you start with respecting the jury,” Roberts was quoted in the Washingtonian magazine in 2011. “You become a juror. They’re reasonable and they’re smart and they’re honest. Don’t BS them. Don’t think you can avoid answering. You can’t ignore bad evidence. You can’t talk down to them. You can’t impress them with fancy language. You have to speak to them honestly and simply.”
Successful negotiating flows from open conversations
When Roberts went through the selection process with the players union, she obviously couldn’t hide her gender. She didn’t want it to work against her. The solution was to talk through it and move on to gender-neutral issues of competency. “The only question in my mind, really, was, ‘Were they unwilling to give me a chance because I was a woman?’” she told Time magazine. “We had so many intelligent conversations about this issue. What’s most impressive to me is, once they saw my accomplishments and the value I can add, that didn’t stop them from making the offer, even while others may have predicted otherwise.”
Ask with confidence
Understanding the power of gender in negotiations, she has established her comfort level with who she is. That leads to asking with confidence. “It’s important for women to break barriers,” she told Time. “But I don’t wake up and say, ‘Let’s break some barriers today.’ I wake up and say, ‘What do I have to do to best serve my client?’ And if I happen to break some barriers along the way, God bless me.”
Your Game Changer Takeaways for Women Negotiating
Negotiators are competitors at heart, and Michele Roberts’ skill at negotiating—more than her knowledge of labor law or sports—made her the first women negotiating on behalf of a professional athletes union. Backed up by an outstanding record as a litigator, she aligned her story and abilities with that of the men she represents. It’s common for an industry pioneer to first negotiate with her own expectations and perceived market value. With that clarity, Michele Roberts showed us how to break new ground for women negotiating.
The Molly Fletcher Company inspires leaders, teams and organizations to kick-start growth. A keynote speaker and author, Molly draws on her decades of experiences working as a sports agent. Her company’s Game Changer Negotiation Training workshops teach business people the framework for successful negotiating, so that you can close more deals while building stronger relationships. Sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter and subscribe to the Game Changers with Molly Fletcher podcast on iTunes.