Why Everyone Needs an Agent

We all wonder if there’s something better out there for us. How great would it be to have someone do it for you?

There’s a guy in the Merrimack Valley—let’s call him Bill—who’s ready for his next job. He’s 49, a midlevel IT executive with 20 years’ experience and two kids who have yet to hit college. He likes football, and dreams of buying a house down on the Cape. He figures it’s time to leap a few rungs up the corporate ladder. A bigger role. A better company. More pay. More responsibility.

So, over the past six months, Bill’s followed the job-search playbook to the letter: posting his résumé on Monster.com, sifting through hundreds of responses, launching into the interview process—all while maintaining his regular job (thus his desire for anonymity). Now he’s in negotiations with a New Jersey–based IT firm that’s looking to expand its Boston office. They’ve even agreed on the money.

But the deal’s far from done. The two sides are still going back and forth on what exact role he’d play, Bill says, with the company seeming to agree to his terms, then throwing a curveball at the last minute. “They’ve gotten close to putting pen to paper,” he says, “but at least once the call was, ‘We’re ready to make you an offer, but can you go work in New York for the first six months?’” Bill guesses everything will come together in the end, but if it does it probably won’t be for another two or three months. After a while, it all wears him down.

What Bill needs is someone to help him close the deal. Someone who knows him inside and out—his goals, his skills, and most important, his value in the marketplace. Someone to advocate on his behalf, negotiate for him.
In short: Bill needs an agent. In fact, we all do.

Life, really, is a series of negotiations, beginning with the infant’s unconscious pleas for more mother’s milk, stretching through the give-and-take of love, family, and career, and ending up right back where we started, in the subconscious, settling up with our god about the fate of our soul. Thing is, in the business realm most of us fail miserably when negotiating on our own behalf. We get emotional. We don’t trust our instincts. We worry that the other side—who we’ll have to work with when it’s all said and done—will see us as a moneygrubbing, arrogant jerk. So instead, we sell ourselves short.

Ben, a pediatrician from Newton, feels he’s done just that his entire career. He doesn’t know for sure, of course, because even with new research tools like Salary.com, money is still the elephant at the water cooler. “The medical world especially is supposed to be above money,” Ben says. “So I’ve never felt like I had any control. I haven’t stood up for myself, and I just let my managers tell me what to do, and now I’m behind in salary and behind professionally. But an agent might say, ‘You should be mad about this, and you should do something about it.’”

Ben is far from alone in his frustration: According to one 2005 survey, 57 percent of people looking for a new job cited being “underpaid” in their current job as a reason. The survey didn’t break responses down geographically, but even here in Massachusetts, where the $85,000 median income for a four-person family is among the nation’s highest, a lot of us feel we’re being shortchanged. If your friends are like mine, ask them if they think they’re underpaid and they’ll launch into a diatribe against everyone from their boss down to the security guard who checks their ID at the elevators.

Yet that kind of heated response can be a stumbling block to actually getting more. “The biggest part of negotiation is learning how to listen to the other party and then pick what’s important to respond to,” says Moshe Cohen, founder of the Negotiating Table, a mediation consulting firm in Cambridge. “So if the other party offers anything less than you think is the right worth, it makes you angry. Suddenly, you’re not capable of listening.”

An agent, on the other hand, is paid to keep a cool head. He’s detached from the situation. Even better, he’s on the lookout for other opportunities. Tapping his network. Gathering information. Anything he can leverage to help you navigate today’s hectic, often confusing job market—which in Boston is further stirred up by the flood of graduates from brainpower factories like Harvard and MIT. (“When you’re in your twenties, there are 100 who can do the job,” one local venture capitalist observes.)

Which is why a little push can go a long way. If you’re young and talented—or middle-aged and talented—and looking to get ahead in one of the city’s core new-economy sectors (IT, biotech, financial services), there’s vast potential. Despite the lingering dotcom hangover, a real shortage of qualified employees is looming, due to such factors as globalization, retiring boomers, and a general shift in career priorities from job security to good “work-life balance.” At the same time, job tenure is plummeting: CEOs average less than five years, and, according to nonprofit research group the Conference Board, 40 percent of midlevel managers are staying in contact with recruiters. “There are no more golden watches,” says Clark Waterfall, managing director at the recruiting firm BSG Team Ventures.

Considering all this, Waterfall and every other local recruiter I spoke with say the business-agent idea has crossed their mind more than once. It’s such an intriguing concept, Waterfall says, it’s almost inevitable—perhaps even in the next five years—and particularly for the high-skill tech sector and at the senior, or “C,” management level. What’s the point of paying a recruiter thousands of dollars to spend several months headhunting an employee who probably will move on in a few years?

Some area firms have already inched toward the agent’s role. For instance, Boston-based Essex Partners, a boutique career-advising group, does all the heavy lifting of the job hunt, says managing partner Jeff Crown. It “repackages and rebrands” C-level executives in transition, and then “takes them to market” with a few introductions. But Essex doesn’t shepherd its clients all the way to the dotted line.

The agent, on the other hand, takes his clients not only to the dotted line but beyond it, too. After all, most of us need help even after we’ve sent in our résumé and nailed the interview. Take Fred Lennox, an IT services director from Maynard, who grew so frustrated during the six-month negotiation with his current company that at one point he walked away from the table. “It was a classic situation where it would’ve been great to say, ‘Hey, look, there’s interest on both sides, now the rest is in the details,’” he says, “and then hand it over to someone to work through the details.”

Waterfall calls it the “reactive model”: The agent would help negotiate the devilish calculus, post-offer, hammering out stronger comp packages, bonus scales, performance expectations. “Even having an agent who could help you understand a benefits package could be useful,” says Matthew Hepler, a new midlevel manager at a Boston consulting firm. “I’m a reasonably intelligent person, and let me tell you, trying to figure out and compare two benefits packages is a nightmare.”

Or the agent might come into play at the annual review. I spoke with one local financial-services executive who feels he’s outperformed his coworkers since coming aboard a year ago, and says there’ll be a problem if his promotion doesn’t come through this month. Stressed about the possibilities, he thinks a proxy could better explain his position (and spare him from the “arrogant jerk” label).

Then there are advisory boards and speaking panels and lecturing gigs that an agent might scare up—kind of a working stiff’s version of celebrity endorsements (though not, you’d hope, to the annoying level of Curt Schilling). “Basically, you’re marketing yourself and building your résumé,” Hepler says. “For a businessperson, a speaking engagement or a board seat is about your cachet, in terms of your relative value. These are things that make you more employable down the road.”

And even at the end of the road, an agent may come in handy. Say you’re a long-standing manager at a big corporation like Gillette, or Reebok, or John Hancock—take your pick—and your job is suddenly downsized. Your agent could negotiate a better severance package, based on the value you had brought to the company over the years. No hard feelings.

I come at all this from the world of professional sports, where agents do it all—though during my three-year soccer career, including a stint with the New England Revolution, my own agent didn’t really have much to do. I mainly languished way down on the “depth chart”—the ego-preserving term coaches use when discussing a player with a better chance of topping the cheerleader pyramid than seeing the field. But I had an agent anyway because 1) everyone else did, and 2) he was the only person I trusted to tell me the bitter truth about my market value. Each year I’d fax him my contract, and each year he’d say something along the lines of, “Well, that’s as good as you’re going to get, so sign it if you want to play in the majors.” And that was enough for me to know his 5 percent was worth it.

After retiring from sports, I began looking for a job in the Boston media and once more found myself staring at the end of the bench. I was a 27-year-old former pro soccer player with a vague liberal arts degree (“What exactly is ‘American Civilization’?”) and no experience. Through a temp agency, I stumbled onto an opening for a magazine copy editor, and without a second thought—or a call to my agent—I took the first deal offered. But something nagged at me that I had given in too easily.

“I can’t tell you how many people tell me they accepted the original offer,” says Cohen, of the Negotiating Table. “They just said, ‘Okay!’ and it was done. People avoid negotiation because they are afraid the offer will disappear.”

At my first annual review, I felt more prepared. I was determined to recoup some of the money and benefits—and pride—I’d left on the table the first time around. But as soon as the meeting started, I got nervous. Sweaty palms, measured breaths, the whole shebang.

Of course, my boss played hardball because he had his agenda, his bottom line, his boss. It was at this point that I really needed help. My conviction was leaking out like air from a punctured soccer ball.

Afterward, I did what we all do when it comes to our jobs: I called a friend, an old teammate who had made the transition from the field into management.
“I don’t know what an editor should be paid,” he said. “Call your agent.”

“But he’s a sports agent,” I said.

“So what? He’ll figure it out. That’s what agents do.”

From the start, agents have carried reputations as slick wheelers and dealers. In 1925, the first modern sports agent, an Illinois movie-theater magnate named C. C. Pyle, negotiated a $3,000-a-game contract for legendary running back Red Grange. Pyle was reviled by owners, who nicknamed him “Cash and Carry.”

Though that slightly smarmy image has persisted—think Arliss, or Entourage’s Ari Gold—agents have become far more commonplace and accepted. Models, authors, artists, rock stars, even video-game designers all have their place on the modern agent’s client roster. In the sports arena, off-the-field types such as general managers and broadcasters are getting agents, too—early crossovers into true executive reps.

Much of the business world, though, still considers “agent” a four-letter word. Employers see a third-party presence in a job negotiation as not only strange, but also detrimental to the process. “There’s something tainted about it,” says Crown, of Essex Partners. “There’s a sense of trust and business ethics and core values that has to come across from a business executive marketing himself that doesn’t necessarily hit the same tone as a sports star or a Hollywood star.”

An intermediary would also take away one of the hiring execs’ favorite assessment strategies: using the negotiation process to further size up a candidate, particularly when filling positions at the highest level. “If I’m hiring someone, and the candidate can’t handle the negotiation, then he or she is not the best person for the job,” says a local venture capitalist. “It’s not just a skills thing. It’s about the personality of the individual, combined with smarts and vision. It’s about chemistry.” An employer might well ask: If this prospect can’t work with us one-to-one on the negotiation, can he or she work with us at all?

“One of the ways you build trust is to work directly with that person, and through that process you hopefully build up a relationship,” says Chris Sanzone, a partner in Sanzone & McCarthy, an employment and labor law firm in Wellesley. “Injecting a third party into that process right off the bat—it’s hard to say what the impact would be.”

And there’s the rub. Although everyone would love an agent, we all know that employers across the board would be loath to see the playing field leveled.

“The question is adoption,” says Fred Lennox, who has hired more than a few people himself. “Would employees be willing to pay for the service? And would employers be willing to interact with these agents? The latter is the more interesting conversation. To be honest, I don’t know how I would deal with that, if someone approached me with a representative.”

But at some point, it’s going to happen. Agents have become too ubiquitous and their services too desirable for it not to. Will that be a good thing? Depends which side of the table you’re sitting on.