The ‘Grey’s Anatomy’star shares advice for negotiating and getting started in a new career.

By Lauren Phillips
Updated May 15, 2018

Ellen Pompeo is the star of one of the most-watched TV shows currently on the air, where she plays talented surgeon Meredith Grey. Off-screen, Pompeo is a wife and a mother of three—and, newly, one of the highest-paid actresses on television.

This elusive status is newly achieved, thanks to the stunning $20 million annual salary Pompeo earned after negotiating with studio and network executives. Real Simple had the opportunity to sit down with the Grey’s Anatomy star at the launch of Young Living Essential Oil’s Seedlings line of baby care products, where we had to ask: After her big win, what advice does she have for women thinking about taking on the same fight for fair pay?

“I was in a pretty unique situation where I could see the actual hard data and the numbers that Grey’s Anatomy generates,” Pompeo said. “Most people don’t have that luxury. In a normal corporate environment or tech environment or anything, you have to be armed with information. If there’s a man or another employee who does the same job that you do and you know you’re being paid less for it, you have to speak up!”

Just having data reflecting your successes and the knowledge that you have worked hard and deserve a pay increase for your efforts isn’t enough, though—Pompeo said you have to be willing to walk away if your request is denied.

“You have no position in a negotiation if you’re not completely willing to walk away, and you’re not completely willing for it to not go your way,” she said. “You have to be okay with it [not going] the way you want it to. … You have to be like, ‘I gave an ultimatum. I want this, or if I don’t get this, I’m willing to walk.’”

This is how Pompeo went into her own negotiation, she said. Shonda Rhimes, the mastermind behind Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and more, left ABC Studios—which produces Grey’s Anatomy—after she didn’t get what she asked for, and Pompeo knew she needed to be willing to do the same thing to prove she was serious.

If you’re still working your way up through your career—whether you’re just out of school or embarking on a new career path—Pompeo has advice for you, too.

“I spent most of my life being a real people pleaser,” she said. “And while I do believe that we should lead with compassion and kindness first, always, I think in our younger selves we’re very eager to please. I think, for me, it may be easy to say—the financial independence gives you the freedom to not worry about what people think of you. That’s harder for younger people coming up in their careers to do. But try to be as authentic as possible and try not to be such a people-pleaser.”

By only taking on tasks that you (or someone you care for) might benefit from or that you enjoy (a.k.a. being less of a people-pleaser), you can free up your precious time and energy for efforts that help further your goals, whether they are building relationships with your family and loved ones or reaching a new career benchmark. If you find saying no difficult, try these 7 secrets to saying no (and not feeling guilty about it).