‘Most people think that I get hostages released! Then they ask me about salary negotiations’: A masterclass on negotiation with Google’s Katie Snowball

Katie Snowball (1)

What are the keys to leading a successful negotiation? What skills can you acquire to up your negotiation game? And why should you be negotiating your salary, right from your career off? We catch up with Google’s Global Infrastructure — Datacentre Portfolio Strategic Lead (Nordics – EMEA), Katie Snowball.


Tell us about your role — what types of activities are you doing on a daily basis?

I buy and develop land and negotiate power and other utility contracts for Google datacentres in Europe, the large buildings holding the computers that run Google’s services, including Google search, Google Cloud and YouTube. My job involves a lot of travel. I may be talking to an electricity company about a project to build a substation, or researching changes to EU legislation and how it might affect a development I’m planning in the next five years. I can have very technical meetings with consultants who are managing a design, but then have to switch to more commercial discussions about terms in a contract that I’d like to change. I work across a lot of teams: engineering, energy, legal, local outreach and communications as well as the local teams, and I can be asked to fix any type of development problem. 


What do you like most about your role?

I like the variety of my projects and the positive impact they have. I studied as a biologist, so I’m inspired to work on sustainable projects whilst working at the leading edge of technology at scale. Google has some of the most efficient data centres in the world, and our focus on sustainability, renewable and carbon free energy is incorporated into everything I do. I’ve worked on projects using sea-water for cooling and re-routed power lines to avoid protected habitats. The sites I work on add $billions to the local economy and create thousands of jobs — and I’m very proud to be part of that. 


What are the key skills a successful negotiator needs to cultivate and how do they apply in practice to a negotiation?

Being able to plan ahead — a bit like a game of chess to work out next steps and alternatives, but then also thinking creatively when you come to a road block, so you can find a way round it. Being able to ask for what you want in a measured and reasoned way, and read people’s responses, so that you can use the plan you put in place in the most appropriate way. Being determined and clear about your ultimate goal helps you work out how to get there. 


Is negotiation a talent that comes naturally to you or have you had to cultivate those skills? 

A certain amount is natural personality, and by that I mean an ability to listen to the other party, understand their point of view and to work through issues to benefit both sides. You can certainly teach frameworks for developing a strategy and there are many books on that, but you need to add your personality and style preference to that.


What’s the number one question you’re always asked when people find out you’re a master negotiator?

Most people think that I get hostages released! Then when they find out I don’t, they ask me how to negotiate with their partner to get them to do something at home. That always makes me laugh as my husband is a negotiator too, so you can imagine we have some interesting discussions! Then the third thing they ask is about salary negotiations and how to go about that.


What’s the most ‘high stakes’ negotiation you’ve been involved in and what can you tell us about it?

I’ve travelled to many countries on holiday and have had to cross a lot of land borders which is always a negotiation of some sort. One that comes to mind is when I was driving from Russia to Kazakhstan and was at a particularly remote border post as it got dark. A group of us had been queueing for 8+ hours, without moving, to get across. When we finally got to the border post it was after midnight and the officials decided our visas had expired and were threatening to have us arrested and deported. After a prolonged standoff, I established that Moscow was in charge of setting the rules that the local team followed, and successfully argued that in Moscow our visas were still valid due to the time zone difference between the border post and Moscow. It worked, and they let us through the border!


Talk us through your process: do you have a particular method for getting started in a negotiation?

The majority of negotiation work happens before any meetings. The gathering of information about the markets, competition, key decision makers, and working out what is most important to you and the people you’re negotiating with. Only when you have the information can you work on the strategy and running through ‘what if’ scenarios. Establishing a rapport and trust is important — you shouldn’t assume you know what the objectives are for the other party (quite often they are hidden and only come out when people trust each other enough to have a more involved conversation).


What’s the most surprising situation you’ve found yourself in during a negotiation?

In a previous job at another company, the negotiating team I was on travelled to another country for a meeting. We were doing introductions, and we realised that the other party had brought a lawyer and they hadn’t identified themselves as such. We had previously agreed no lawyers should be present, so this breached protocol; when we pointed it out, the lead from the other side refused to ask the lawyer to leave the meeting, so we did instead. It was very awkward at the time as we’d only been there for 10 mins including the coffee, but it proved a point and we did continue with a more appropriate group a week or so later.


What do you wish more women understood about how they can better negotiate, for instance when it comes to asking for a pay rise or a promotion?

Asking for more doesn’t negatively affect how you’re perceived; it all depends how you frame the request, so really you have nothing to lose. Managers aren’t mind readers and they appreciate it when you know what you want from your career [because] it makes it easier to support you in the right direction. Do your homework about what a manager has in their ‘toolkit’, as some may be restricted by policies or benchmarking. Then work out what you want: is it salary, take home pay/bonus, shares, recognition, promotion, chances to learn, shadow colleagues, try something completely new? The conversation shouldn’t just be about money; if you can broaden it, you have more things to talk about and that leads to better understanding for both sides. If you negotiate your salary in your early career; you have the benefit of compounding effect and a higher base to start from for each and every future role.


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