The lesson of rigorous preparation has been taught throughout history.
In the 5th Century BC, Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, denounced lack of preparation as the most heinous of crimes, and celebrated good preparation as the greatest of virtues. In the 1st Century, Seneca defined luck as something that happens when preparation meets opportunity. Michelangelo grumbled that if people knew how hard he had to prepare to gain his mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all. In Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3, Shakespeare has the King giving the most famous pep talk in history to his overwhelmed army as they prepared for the unlikely English victory at Agincourt in 1415, explaining that “all things are ready if our minds be so”.
President Lincoln is often credited with the remark that if he had eight hours to cut down a tree, he would spend the first six sharpening his ax, though the comment has more plausibly been traced to an Appalachian lumberjack in 1956. Napoleon admitted that it was not innate genius that suddenly and secretly enabled him to decide what he should do in unexpected circumstances, but thought and planning.
In 1946, the first President of the International Standards Organization, Howard Coonley, accurately predicted that business leaders would in future be rated on their ability to anticipate problems rather than to meet them as they come. A stream of legendary American Football coaches, among them Michigan’s Fielding Yost and Alabama’s Bear Bryant, have perpetuated the pre-game mantra that “the will to win is worthless without the will to prepare“. And decorators the world over, when asked to name the ultimate secret behind a beautiful paint job, are certain to reply: “preparation, preparation, preparation“.
This increasingly busy world leaves most of us with less, or even no, prep time. We suffer from task saturation. Normality, in this constant state of un-readiness, is forcing us to rely on assumptions, instinct, hearsay, gossip and guesswork to get through the day. Negotiators who claim an intricate familiarity with the industry, subject matter or past experience, will often use this knowledge to compensate for a thoughtful and thorough analysis of the esoteric situation at hand. They may be deluding themselves.
I learned the importance of preparation through embarrassment. Almost 45 years ago, about three months into my job as a junior counsel with Gillette, the GC decided I should gain familiarity with the business. One assignment was to spend a few days with a wholesaler’s sales manager visiting retail stores. We went from one to another, discussing planned stock levels for different products, point-of-sale materials, upcoming advertising campaigns and credit terms.
On the afternoon of the second day, the sales manager suggested that as I had now witnessed how things are done, I should take the lead with the last customer on our visit list. It was a local chain of convenience stores and our appointment was with the owner in person. The sales manager had given 120 days credit terms for a limited period to help the stores through a difficult time, but now wanted to bring this down to 60 days. He asked me to take the lead. I had a weak grasp of the customer’s sales levels of our products, no real understanding of their business model and did not spare a thought for their situation. I should have asked the sales manager these questions as we traveled to the meeting. But in the over-confidence of youth, I thought I could do it spontaneously, as the sales manager had appeared to do with the previous customers.
It turned into a humiliating experience. The owner of the stores, who thought I was a management trainee, took full advantage of the rookie that I was, agreeing to tighter credit but in return proposing new terms that sounded perfectly reasonable to me, including additional volume discounts. The new terms would have undone years of painstaking negotiations by the sales manager and his team. He took over from me, and wrapped up the discussion. I still fairly accurately recall the severe lecture he gave me in the car afterwards: “I threw you in deep because I expected you to fail and I was there to rescue the situation. In whatever you do, figure out your goals and stick to them, do not underestimate anyone, know more about them than they do about you, never assume, listen carefully, be patient, and leave a good feeling, as you may return“.
Fortunately, there is much we can do using available tools to reduce the time and effort needed for effective negotiation prep work, though all these tools demand discipline, initiative and care. Most of these time and energy savers can be adopted by anyone facing the prospect of any form of negotiation. With the right e-tools, you really can prepare on the fly.
To be their most effective, negotiators need to cover a lot of territory:
- be perceived appropriately by the other party;
- understand as much as possible about those you deal with;
- have the best possible information you can get;
- know your real leverage and focus on the other party’s;
- think carefully about where the other side is coming from;
- distinguish between what they want and what they need;
- separate fact from fiction, and fairness from unreasonableness;
- know when to talk and when to walk;
- bring your own side along with you;
- know where best to turn for support;
- be skilled in listening, questioning and deep exploration;
- focus and do not let yourself be distracted; and
- generally be psyched up for the task.
Written by Michael Leathes.
This is an extract from his book ‘Negotiation: Things corporate counsel need to know but were not taught’ (page 11-13).
Michael Leathes spent his career as a corporate counsel with Gillette, Pfizer, International Distillers & Vintners and BAT based variously in Brussels, New York and London. His pro bono duties included board memberships of CPR Institute (2003-2006) and the International Mediation Institute (2007-2015).