Design Domination Podcast Episode #17: Talking Confidence, Bullying and Negotiation With Ted Leonhardt

Ted Leonhardt and I talk about confidence (or lack thereof) and bullying and how they affect our value, setting our rates and negotiating salaries.

Ted LeonhardtTed Leonhardt started as an illustrator in a Boeing in-house design group, then worked for a design consultancy before starting his own firm, which grew steadily over many years. He sold The Leonhardt Group after it reached $10 million in fee sales and had a staff of 50, staying on for the new owners as chief creative officer. In that position, he was based in London and responsible for about 500 creatives in 27 offices worldwide.

Over the next couple years, while helping a group of investors buy design firms, he began to realize he was on the wrong side of the table. He wasn’t helping the creatives he knows and loves—but investors who were only interested in financial returns. Ted didn’t want to see creatives treated solely as financial instruments—as widgets on an assembly line.

Since then, Ted has focused solely on helping creatives thrive from his office aboard an all-wood motor yacht in Seattle. Ted can be found at

Colleen Gratzer: Welcome to the podcast, Ted. I’m so excited to have you here.

Ted Leonhardt: Thanks, Colleen, I really appreciate this.

Colleen: Likewise. So you made a comment on your blog that creative works contribute $698 billion dollars to the U.S. economy and that creatives should feel comfortable asserting their value in the marketplace.

Ted: That’s a lot of money, isn’t it?

Colleen: Yes, that’s a lot of money. So why do we creatives have such a hard time talking about money sometimes?

Ted: Well, we are more tied into our feelings than the general population, and this is terrific when we’re creating work where we’re trying to make a connection between our work and the people that it’s intended for. But it’s difficult when we’re … we need to be more empathetic to actually do our jobs, but when we’re negotiating or asking for money, one of the things that happens to us is that our feelings become prominent and they can keep us from feeling comfortable. So we tend to kind of roll over, give in, or just not ask for what we need because it’s easier to do that than it is to ask.

Colleen: And this really can affect creative professionals with setting their rates I think and also negotiating salaries with potential employers?

Ted: Well, and we always think our work can be better. So one of the things that happens to us is that we do our work and typically we have a deadline of some sort that we need to make and we deliver the work and we always think, if I just had a little bit more time, I could just make it a little bit better, and so we’re … which is a good thing when we’re driven to do the work itself, but when we’re asking for money, that kind of puts us at a disadvantage because we think our work can always be a little bit better. Maybe it’s not good enough, maybe we’re not good enough.

Colleen: Right, well, you also said, “If you waffle, you’ll get taken advantage of, but before you can start talking price to prospects and clients you’ll need to establish value first.”

Ted: Right, yeah, yeah. So one of the ways we establish value is by establishing expertise, and so building slowly on our careers over time, we build up our expertise and we become more confident within the area of our expertise, so … and of course one of the things that’s important to remember is that our creatives, we begin in early childhood, we begin to do our work and we begin to establish what we’re going to do as professionals, often as early as first grade, second grade, when we discover that we can write or we can create music or we can draw and we begin to focus on that and so by the time we enter adulthood we actually have a significantly lengthy career already developing our skills. Expertise is really the key and believing in your expertise is what gives you confidence.

Colleen: When we’re talking about negotiation, you have a great post on your site where you’re talking about the one question that you should never answer from a client or prospective employer, and I loved this because when I was in a job interview one time, many, many years ago, I was sitting in an office talking to two or three women that worked there and they were asking me the typical questions in an interview and then they came to ask me about, “Well, what are you making at your current job?”

I was so uncomfortable, I thought it was such an inappropriate question, and they literally tried to bully me into answering them and I said, my skills are constantly getting better and I’m not looking … I’m looking for new opportunities where I can add value and make more money. I just remember the looks on their faces, they were so angry that I wouldn’t answer the question, then they threatened me by saying they were going to ask my employer what I was making, and then I thanked them and left.

Ted: Yeah.

Colleen: So on your post, you say that’s the one question that you shouldn’t answer from a client or prospective employer, so—

Ted: Yeah.

Colleen: Your thoughts about that?

Ted: Yeah. Well, you should never answer the question, because of course what it does is it pegs your future earnings.

So the moment you tell someone what you made in the past or what you charged in the past, you’re pegging in their mind what you’re going to be paid in the future, so that’s the problem. The best way to answer it is to say that what you were paid in your past salary is a private matter between yourself and your former employer, and leave it at that. This business of bullying people into revealing what their past salary is, is of course very common and the best answer is simply to … simply say that it’s an inappropriate question and the way of saying it is by politely saying that, “I view my past salary as a private matter and actually as a private matter between myself and my past employer or my existing employer,” and then just leave it at that.

Colleen: I think with clients, when you’re talking about money to clients it’s easier, it’s much easier to get around that question because you can always, every job is so custom you can always give like an example job around how much that costs. But do you find that that’s limiting too, or do you find that that is an acceptable way to answer a question from a client about, how much would this cost.

Ted: Yeah. I always believe that when you’re in a meeting with a client and you’re close and you’re discussing a potential project and the conversation has gone into detail about what’s included in the project and what the client needs and what their perspective is on it, and what your observations of the project are.

So now you’re zeroing in on defining the project, and the best thing to do in a meeting like that, where you’re seriously being considered for the work is to actually summarize the project, and what the deliverables are gonna be and describe the timeframe that you believe that I will take to do the project and then tell them in a project like this, if the fee is typically this many dollars and then say how does that sound.

I call that the three-step close. So the first step is a summarization of what the deliverables are. The second step is, a project like this should take, in my experience, three, four months, how does that sound you can say. They may correct you on the deliverables, which would be terrific, then you say, oh my god, I didn’t think of that, that’s right, we did discuss that. Yes, that would be a part of the assignment.

So then you can re-summarize the deliverables and when you get the client nodding in agreement and then say, in my experience, a project like this takes $20,000. How does that sound? Just get it out in the open the discussion of deliverables, schedule and budget and then shake hands on it when you’ve reached agreement.

If nothing else, what you’ve done is you removed shocking the client about the fees in a document later on.

Colleen: Right.

Ted: So you’ve shown the client also that you’re a true professional, and you do understand what’s involved in projects lid this, and you understand how long they should take, and what they should cost. So you’re basically demonstrating your expertise on the spot, if you will.

Colleen: Yeah, excellent points.

Ted: It actually gives the client confidence that you know what you’re doing.

Colleen: Now, you said that your dad taught you how to deal with bullies because he was one.

Ted: Yes.

Colleen: How did that teach you to deal with bullying clients or potential employers that acted like bullies?

Ted: When you’ve been bullied, if you’re able to survive it, you develop a strong sense of how to deal with that particular type of difficult personality and bad behavior. Number one, bullies, they’re relying on their aggressive attack on you, they’re relying on that to get you off balance and for them to get what they want.

So bullies typically don’t know as much about the project as you do they don’t know as much about the subject as you do, and the most current, and the most effective technique that you could use is to wait them out and not go tit for tat if you will. Not to fight fire with fire if you will.

So let the bully rant, let the bully scream, let the bully carry on. Then summarize what the bully said. Do not allow yourself, you can say, is this what you’re thinking about, is this what you’re concerned about. I believe that we can deal with it in this manner whatever. In other words, do not go tit for tat with them. Do not simply jump in and fight them back. Allow them to blow off the steam being quiet the whole time. So that was basically the technique that I learned. I mean basically we don’t wanna deal with bullies.

You don’t wanna work for a bully, you don’t wanna do a project with a bully, but you may discover after the fact you’re engaged with a bully. So then you have to deal with them until you can get out of there. The most effective way is to actually let the rant go on, then of course you can always say something like, did you mean to hurt my feelings. In other words, expose them, expose their bad behavior. Because one of the things bullies fear the most is actually being exposed as a bully.

Colleen: Oh, really.

Ted: Yeah.

Colleen: So what different forms does bullying take?

Ted: Well, there’s the direct aggressive kind where somebody is just ranting on you, and then there’s the joking asides. The sort of little put downs and the ha, ha, ha, which is much more common in the workplace. Most workplace bullying is kind of low level. What you have to do with that low level is point it out to them that it’s inappropriate.

Colleen: Another thing that you said is, if you believe that you have to force people to do what you want in order to get what you want, you won’t bother learning how to sell them.

Ted: Yeah. I mean when you’re negotiating with a client or a potential client or an employer, in effect what you’re doing is having a discussion that’s defining the relationship going forward. Bullies are simply demanding, they’re not interested in defining a relationship going forward, they’re just trying to run roughshod over you, just sort of get what they want.

What you really need to do is you need to ask questions and listen to the answer. Then indicate an observation of your own and see what they think about that. Then asking a follow-up question. So, in effect, negotiation is a process of … it’s a research project where you’re discovering whether or not there’s a fit and you’re discovering together how their skills and their experiences combined with your skills and your experiences will together create a better project.

Colleen: And at what point do you think that you should fire a bully client?

Ted: Oh, anybody that behaves badly, that has any track record of behaving like that you shouldn’t be working with them. It’s just instantly, if you’re able to, you cannot deal with a borderline personality.

Colleen: Yeah, I actually had a client years ago, he was always paying late on the invoices, and when I started actually enforcing the late fees, even though my contracts had always said that I could charge them. He always ignored them, and when I finally decided to put my foot down about it, he became a bully. No he had been a bully, he really showed it this time and he said if you’re gonna make me pay that couple of dollars in late fees, then we won’t be working together anymore. I said, that’s fine, because you’re not respecting the processes and the contract. He had exhibited other signs before that and I just chose to ignore them, but when I got rid of him, it felt great.

Ted: Yeah, well, penalty fees are a problem in and of themselves, change orders are a problem. Because they are basically slapping the client on the wrist and saying, “You did something wrong.” One of the problems that we have in creative services is when the client goes outside the negotiated scope of work, what we typically do is we have a change order that we explain to them that because we’re doing something else now, we need to charge them extra dollars.

That feels like a slap in the face to the client. So what I try to do with my client is establish what I call an “iteration fee.” Because the fact of the matter is that human beings are, we are iterative by nature and the creative process is an iterative process. When we’re working and doing a creative assignment for a client, often when they see the first round of creative, they will think of something different than what they originally thought because they’re reacting to what we’ve done for them.

So what I try to do with clients is explain to them that that a normal part of human behavior is discovering something new based on the ideas that are being presented, and that’s great because that actually makes the project better. But if we only established a limited amount of money to do the project, we can’t cover all of those in advance. I like to say, “Think of this budget as ‘this is the budget for the project that we’ve described’ and then let’s think about having 20% be a potential iteration fee if we decide that we wanna go in a different direction once we have established the first bit of work on the project.”

All of a sudden, the client is now engaged in the idea that, “Yes, I get it. I get to have input, and then, of course, if it changes the scope of work, that would be a fair thing to do,” but that is in fact making the work better. So I call it an “iteration fee” rather than a change order, and I introduce the idea at the beginning of the relationship, not after something has already been done and now there was a change order. It’s a way of thinking about the process as a process which does evolve, and sometimes there needs to be some extra money. So we try to get that extra money established up front.

Colleen: But if they’re paying late though, how would you typically handle that, paying the final bill?

Ted: Paying late’s not acceptable. That’s why getting paid in advance is really important. Being a bank for your client is not what you signed up for.

Colleen: Right, exactly.

Ted: So getting paid in advance is actually the best solution to that. So if you’ve got a project that’s gonna take three months, six months, whatever it’s gonna take, have the client pay you at the beginning of every month for the following month’s work.

Colleen: Then you just avoid the awkward conversations of “Here’s my late fees.”

Ted: Yeah, because you got paid in advance. If they don’t pay you, you stop work.

Colleen: Excellent points. We were talking about confidence and bullying earlier. So what are some ways that creatives can build confidence?

Ted: Well, my favorite technique for building confidence is one I stumbled into a million years ago. I would be incredibly nervous prior to a major meeting with a client. What I would do is I would go to the men’s room—this was before cell phones—go to the men’s room and sit down and get a scrap of paper or a little notebook and I would make a list of my credentials as they related to the upcoming client or the upcoming meeting.

I would try to do that 20 minutes, half an hour before the meeting. I would literally make a little list of accomplishments that related to the upcoming meeting. What that does is it preloads your frontal lobe with actual credentials that are important to this meeting that’s upcoming, and it keeps the fight-or-flight tendency that we all have from shutting down our frontal lobe and literally making it impossible to remember why we’re in the meeting.

’Cause that’s what happens when fear begins to strike, what happens is we begin to lose access to our rational mind. In my experience, the first thing to go is why you’re in the meeting. You created the branding program for this multi-national and that multi-national or for this client down the street or that client down the street, and you’re being asked to do something similar to that, and those projects are all very successful, and you have happy clients, you tend to forget that. You forget those credentials when you’re under stress.

So by making a little list of those in advance, what happens is that you are, in effect, preloading your frontal lobe so that the fight-or-flight syndrome does not drive away your expertise basically. I remember cleaning out my nightstand beside my bed once and I had these little lists and most of the lists were exactly the same.

But it didn’t matter that they were the same, what was important was this literally preloading myself with my credentials in a way, and when I get in the meeting, I wouldn’t make a list of my credentials, I wouldn’t verbally walk through a list of my credentials. But they were just kind of there in the back of my head reassuring me.

Colleen: That’s great, I love that. So do you have any tips to deal with difficult personalities?

Ted: Well, you don’t wanna work with difficult personalities.

Colleen: How do you notice some of them? Let’s say a client calls you. What are some of the red flags do you think that you can try to spot to determine if they’re gonna be difficult to work with?

Ted: Well, first of all, it’s a very small percentage of the population, very small.

Colleen: That won’t be difficult or that will be difficult?

Ted: That will be difficult, yeah, very small. Most people are good solid citizens who simply want some help from a person with a particular expertise. In my career how many times did I run into somebody really difficult, two or three times that I can remember. So it’s really very rare, very rare.

Now there were times when I created difficult situations and I just wrote a piece about that. But actually running into people who were extremely difficult personalities, very, very rare. I remember them vividly because they were emotional moments, and you tend to remember those emotional moments.

So first thing is we don’t work with them. Second thing is we define the parameters in some way so that we can be successful in the engagement. If you do this, I’ll do that, like being paid in advance. Being paid in advance gives you huge leverage in the relationship because they’ve already paid you.

Colleen: Right.

Ted: So it takes away people’s tendencies to kind of slide around the issues a little bit.

Colleen: I feel too, like when I think back to my less confident days when I was first starting out and I didn’t recognize red flags, I did take on clients that were problematic. I feel like as my confidence grew over the years, there were a lot less of those.

So do you think that confidence and knowing your value and believing your value too—I think believing it is another thing—that that confidence is going to help you attract better clients as well?

Ted: Well, there’s nothing like experience—experience every time you work with a client and especially when you realize what you need to do to make a relationship be a successful relationship. When I was first starting out, one of the things I avoided doing was doing the homework. Once I learned how important and how successful I could be if I did a lot of homework about the client in advance, so that I really knew what they were about and what they were trying to accomplish, I gained tremendous confidence.

I think of the process of negotiating with a client as, in effect, a research process. I begin by doing research on that client and their organization long before we do any work. That gives me tremendous confidence because I know a lot about them, and it doesn’t mean I lecture them on their situation. I certainly don’t. I just have it all in the back of my head and use it to form questions about what we’re trying to do and why we’re trying to do it.

So the very process of questioning the client about what their goals are and what they’re trying to accomplish gives me a strong sense of confidence in the interaction, and it allows the client to do the most of the talking, which makes them feel good about themselves and about you.

So the very process of negotiation with the client is, in effect, a fact-finding mission that’s going to give you the information so that you can do a good job for them and for yourself all at the same time.

Colleen: So if a designer is having issues with some of these issues, when should they seek out the help of a coach?

Ted: Well, the people that reach out to me, it’s always some turning point. They’re negotiating a fee for a project that is bigger than they’ve ever done before. They are out of work and they’re going into a series of interviews.

They had some sort of change happen in their professional career, which is making them rethink where they wanna go. They’ve had an encounter perhaps with something that’s given them a new insight, and they want to consider a whole different range of possibilities. So it varies, but it’s almost always has to do with some sort of change in a career path, in getting a new job, in negotiating a new gig that’s different than the something they’ve done in the past. It’s kind of a change point.

When people reach change points, oftentimes they think, “Maybe I can get some help here,” and that’s pretty typical.

Colleen: Well, great. This has all been really insightful.

So you offer a lot of resources, free resources on your site, you’ve got great blog posts too, you have coaching. What else do you offer and can you give some more information about those?

Ted: Well, I’ve actually been writing for clients, which has been kind of interesting. That’s not even on my site. Yeah, I’ve actually been doing some writing for some of my clients which has been an interesting shift for me. That’s not even on my site, I don’t market myself as a writer. But, you know, basically I am someone who’s kind of been there, done that, and had a lot of experience with struggling as a creative professional, and then I’ve had this wonderful opportunity to be an advisor to creatives all over the world.

I have clients in Australia and Singapore and Hong Kong and London, and all because of the experience I had when I worked in London as a creative director. South America, I’ve got a Buenos Aires client, and then in the U.S., clients on the east coast and the west coast, and even in the middle actually, now that I think about it.

So it was the experience of managing creative professionals in multiple offices that actually gave me access, that’s basically built my little consulting business.

Colleen: Then you have your Mentor Mornings in person over there in Seattle?

Ted: Yeah, yeah, and I do that, so I try to do that twice a month. We come up with a subject and I limit it to 10 people and they usually sell out—not always, but mostly—and that’s fun.

Colleen: Then you have your Creative Live courses.

Ted: I do. You caught me. I’m totally forgetting.

Colleen: That’s a lot to remember.

Ted: Yeah, I have a series of classes on Creative Live, and I have a couple of classes on YouTube, and then I have my own Worth It seminars that I offer off of my website. Then there’s my book for sale, which is only five bucks I think. I just sold a couple of them this morning as a matter of fact.

So it’s all stuff I’ve done kind of along the way as I’ve developed my career as an advisor to creatives.

Colleen: Excellent.

Ted: Thanks.


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