Asking for a Pay Raise

One of the most stressful things about having a job is asking for a pay raise. It would be nice if all managers proactively handled matters related to promotions and pay raises. But few do. This means you’re going to be the one to initiate the conversation 90% of the time. That’s the purpose of this article.

Your Goals

Before asking for a pay raise, you’ve got to take a step backwards. A pay raise is just one small step on your long, professional journey. If you don’t already have a set of short, mid, and long-term goals, now is the time to set some.

In this article, I don’t describe various techniques for setting goals, but you can find plenty of articles on that. I recommend starting with personal goals. Below are some questions you might ask yourself to help reveal some personal goals. For each, determine if the answer is different in the short, mid and long term.

  • What do I want my life to be like?
  • What sort of things would I like to be able to do? Do any require that I learn new skills?
  • What sort of things would I like to accomplish?
  • What are some of my measures of success?
  • Are there financial goals (amounts of money accumulated) that will best enable my goals?
  • At what age would I like to be able to work because I want to, not because I have to?

To give you an example, when I about 24 years old, my first set some long-range personal goals included the following:

  • Semi-retire by age 58 (revised several years later to 53) – able to work because I want to, not because I have to
  • Travel the world
  • Maintain good health and stay in shape
  • Build a custom house
  • Write a book

Career versus Paycheck

When it comes to asking for a pay raise, you want to put everything in context of progressing through your career. So the second part of the exercise is to list out some of your career-related (professional) goals. Where do you see yourself professionally in 2, 5 and 10 years?

The answers might relate to being promoted through multiple layers of management? They might relate to expanding your scope of responsibilities or pivoting into another function. They might relate to dramatically expanding your skills in a particular area. Or they might relate to starting your own company.

One of my first long-term, career-related goals was to either be the CEO of a company or sit on the board of directors of a company. But there are many career-related goals that don’t require climbing the management ladder.

Setting the Stage

Way before you ask for a pay raise, you should share your personal and professional goals with your manager and perhaps also their manager (your second-line manager). Some of this can happen casually, maybe during a coffee or lunch conversation in which it seems logical to mention a goal or two. And some of it can happen more formally, perhaps during a recurring one-on-one meeting or especially during performance review sessions.

Your manager might not feel qualified to give an opinion on how realistic your personal goals are, but they definitely should have opinions on your professional goals. Their opinion might be more specific for your 2-year goals versus those further out. Either way, seek feedback on your near-term and mid-term professional goals. If your manager doesn’t feel you’re currently on track to accomplish them, engage in a discussion about what things you and your company could do in order to make them more achievable.

Asking for the Pay Raise

The scenario I’m most focused on is when your manager has not been communicating or setting expectations about your next pay raise – both timing, needed accomplishments, and pay raise amounts. Instead, you’re mostly or completely in the dark about your next pay raise and feel the need to activate that conversation yourself.

Don’t start the discussion with narrative related to a pay raise. Instead, start with a reminder of your short-range and mid-range goals – both personal and professional. In fact, it’s usually the case that accomplishing your professional goals enables accomplishing some of your personal goals.

After that, turn the discussion to compensation. But don’t yet ask for your next pay raise. Instead, mention the compensation you’ll need, and expect of yourself, in 2 years in order to meet your near-term and mid-term goals. As your manager if they feel that sort of compensation is possible in that timeframe.

Their response to this dialog will best inform you how to discuss the timing and amount of your next pay raise.

Roll Play Example

Me: Hey Kirra, one of the topics I’d like to discuss during our one-on-one today is some updates I’ve made to my personal and professional goals. My wife and I plan to get serious about having our first child in the next year or so, and we’d like to be in a position to move out of our apartment and into our first home.

[Note: You’ll notice that I started with some personal goals]

Manager: Hey, that sounds exciting. I remember being there myself several years ago and I’m excited for you two.

Me: Thanks. We know all of that is going to cost some money, including setting up a college fund for our child. So I’ve set a goal for myself to be making $100K within 3 years. I’m currently making $65K. Do you think my goal is realistic.

[Note 1: You’ll notice that I messaged a specific professional goal that enables my personal goals]

[Note 2: I recommend messaging a future salary goal that’s at the high end of whatever salary range you identified as your true goal. Or if you only have a single number as your goal, I recommend adding 10% to that number for this exercise with your manager.]

Manager: I don’t think that’s impossible, but it’s fairly aggressive in my opinion.

Me: Are there things I can do in order to put myself in the best position to reach that goal, and are there things you and (company name) can do to help me reach it?

[Note: You’ll notice that I’m accepting responsibility but also sharing some with my manager, which means I expect her to be on the hook for some aspect of it]

Manager: Sure. We should incorporate this into your upcoming performance review and the new performance plan we put in place for next calendar year.

Me: That’s great, I’d love to do that and will put some additional thought into my goals so that I’m ready for that. Also, to keep myself on track towards my goal, do you anticipate that I’ll be eligible for a pay raise in the near term? If so, what might that look like and when might it occur?

[Note: From this point, the manager’s answer will take the conversation in one of multiple directions. Regardless of their answer, at least you’re now talking about your next pay raise. The ice has been broken and that’s often the hardest part.]


Did you notice that by the time I got to actually asking about my next pay raise, it didn’t seem like I was optimizing for a paycheck, but rather optimizing for my short-term and mid-term goals (both personal and professional)? That’s powerful and super-important.

Hopefully you also noticed how specific I got in my last questions about any upcoming pay raise. Not just might it happen, but also when and how much. An answer to the first part could be “Sure, I think getting a pay raise in the somewhat near term is possible.” If you walk away without answers to the next questions, you’re only barely better off than before the conversation.

I hope you are able to take this template and tools and adapt them to your personal situation. One thing I can tell you from experience is this method works no matter how early or late you are in your career.

Author: Gordon Daugherty

Gordon Daugherty is a best-selling author, seasoned business executive, entrepreneur, startup advisor and investor. He has made more than 200 investments in early-stage companies and has been involved with raising more than $80 million in growth and venture capital. From his 28-year career in high tech, Gordon has both an IPO and a $200-million acquisition exit under his belt. Now, as co-founder and president of Austin’s Capital Factory and as author of the book “Startup Success”, Gordon spends 100 percent of his time educating, advising, and investing in startups.

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