Years ago I was asked to evaluate a sales-training ‘game’. The player sat in front of a screencast as a salesperson tasked with winning an order from a big corporate prospect. As the story unfolded the player was asked to make decisions from a multichoice selection and then given feedback. My evaluation was based on me being that player/salesperson.
The first decision required was ‘Who to set up a client meeting with?’. The choices ran from MD, COO, Director of Buying, Purchasing Executive, or Purchasing Assistant. The answer was obvious – get in to see the top decision maker. I selected MD from the list. I waited. The game informed me that the MD’s response to my request for a meeting was ‘Go and talk to people at your own level and never bother me again’.
For negotiators hierarchy is important. There is the obvious issue of ‘face’ – senior people don’t like negotiating with juniors – but it is also important that in the early stages the maximum amount of information is obtained by both sides so that priorities can be established, and expectations set. That is often more accessible from managers down the pecking order from a C Suite decision maker. In the end game, when compromises and concessions have to be agreed by both sides there should be an understanding that these will be staged over both time and hierarchy. More junior negotiators will run out of authority to make changes, so the negotiation is escalated upwards, perhaps several times, until eventually the ‘gods’ on each side meet, and terms are agreed.
Nothing controversial here, except for the problem of competence. A client once confided to me that his MD always stayed away from a negotiation until the end of the endgame, when he would be ‘brought in’ to make the final concessions and claim success. Except, said my contact, he was really bad at doing it, with a tendency to agree far more concessions than were necessary.
So the decision announced by the Prime Minister on Tuesday that she will henceforth lead the negotiations with the European Union is of some considerable importance. Consider the reasons she would make that decision now :
- Because she believes we are now in the end game? – but we are obviously not – the EU hasn’t even responded formally to the UK’s White Paper Proposal. We may be only 11 weeks out from the October parliamentary deadlines, but in these negotiations, 11 weeks is almost an eternity.
- Because she is desperate to claim a done deal? – how revealing is that to the other side?
- Because she believes the detail is agreed and we just need a grand finale? – but we are a million miles away from agreement on the Irish border, trade terms, collection of tariff terms etc ad nauseam.
- Because she believes the time has come to escalate up the hierarchy? – except that Mrs May’s declaration doesn’t require the EU to similarly escalate, with her condition for getting personally involved dependent on them fielding M. Barnier’s boss.
- Because she doesn’t trust Dominic Raab to do the job she appointed him to do 2 weeks ago? – then why appoint him?
- Because she has had feedback from the EU that after the first 2 weeks of negotiating with the new Secretary of State they can’t deal with him and want him removed? – which won’t say a lot for the EU’s evaluation either of her people skills or her loyalty to colleagues.
- Because the nation will be relieved that she is taking over because she is a safe pair of hands? – she should remember the legacy of David Cameron’s similar expedition into Europe in 2015 when his supposedly safe pair of hands returned with a deal which was much derided.
I think the Prime Minister has gone in much too early, and in doing so has revealed several weaknesses in the UK’s negotiating position. Her announcement, once made, is irretrievable, She now needs to perform exceptionally well over the next few weeks. Because she is the top banana on our side of the negotiating table, and if she screws up we have Nowhere Left To Go.