Strategy & Operations » C-suite Communication » Skilling up: Art of negotiation

When Mary Ellen Genovese, MD of European operations at 8×8, the cloud communication and customer engagement specialist, was building her career in finance positions at tech companies she developed a skill for negotiation.

The fast-talking American, born in the Bronx and raised in New Jersey, says that at crucial stages of her career she was able to hammer out agreements with people with different parts of the businesses she worked in, through developing business partnering roles. But she was also able to secure good terms for herself in important stages of her life.

After 11 years at General Signal Corporation she ended up as European controller for the group’s semi-conductor equipment business but when that assignment ended wanted to head back to California, as she was engaged to be married. “I was smart enough to negotiate an exit package so that I could return to California.”

Back in the US she moved to location services provider Trimble Navigation where she rose to CFO before switching to Savi Technology where she negotiated hours that suited family life. When Savi was taken over by defence giant Lockheed Martin, she was able to continue part time. Now she’s in a commercial role, where her negotiating skills are being fully exploited.

The career rise of Genovese reveals the increasing need for finance chiefs to develop negotiating skills, especially as they rise in an organisation, whether its dealing with an external entity or having to undertake a difficult presentation to the board. Or it might be in reshaping the terms of a role to secure a better work/life balance.

Typically, there is a position that finance people get to where they have a full range of technical skills, but to get to the next stage they need to develop negotiation skills, says Simon Horton, who penned the book The Leader’s Guide to Negotiation. “For various reasons they will find themselves in far more situations requiring negotiating skills where they might find themselves getting out of their depth,” he says.

Importance of negotiation

Dr Moira Bailey, of Aberdeen Business school, at Robert Gordon University, says there are a number of reasons why it is important to develop negotiating skills in a contemporary business environment. “The first is that negotiation is one of the transferable, or ‘portable’, skills that is required of everyone starting a career in business today.

“There is an expectation that entrants possess a wider and more diverse range of knowledge and skills than has traditionally being expected. Technical and functional knowledge is no longer sufficient. Other transferable skills include, problem solving, decision making, critical thinking and team working.

“Secondly, it is often the case that an individual’s success, by creating value for the organisation, will depend on their negotiating ability whether it be in terms of gaining resources, buying or selling on behalf of the organisation, solving a problem or ensuring a team member or subordinate completes a task.  Thirdly, negotiation is often considered as the most effective method of resolving differences which is an element of the modern business environment,” she adds.

As an individual progresses up the career ladder there is increased emphasis on these transferable skills, says Dr Bailey, who is academic strategic lead for the People, Organisations and Practice department within Aberdeen Business school.

She says there is less emphasis on the technical and functional knowledge, particularly as an individual progresses up the career ladder, but more on skills such as leadership, delegation, listening and negotiation.

“It is therefore incumbent on those progressing up the career ladder to ensure they are continuously developing and improving skills such as negotiating.  It is arguably all the more important for more senior professionals to understand that negotiating requires give and take and that good negotiations can contribute significantly to business success in terms of helping to build better relationships, as well as delivering lasting, quality solutions rather than poor short-term solutions that satisfy the needs of neither party.

“They can also help the professional avoid future problems and conflicts and leave each party satisfied and ready to do business with each other again, something that is advantageous for someone climbing the career ladder,” adds Dr Bailey.

Making the negotiator

Unquestionably it is possible to train someone to become a better negotiator – despite the fact that is commonly believed that negotiators are made and not born, says Dr Bailey. But she says that although some people ,and some cultures, possess a natural instinct for negotiation, it remains an intimidating and difficult task.  “There are a number of tools, techniques and frameworks which can be learned and applied to help someone be a better negotiator,” she says.

“Approaching any negotiation with thorough planning and effective tactics can enhance the outcome considerably. To be a successful negotiator techniques and tactics need to be learned, the execution and personal refinement of these need be practised so that an individual’s ability to bargain successfully and ethically in any situation is enhanced. In negotiating the natural pre-disposition to being assertive, competitive, flexible and prone to avoiding conflict needs to be guarded against.

“It may be perfectly acceptable to negotiate hard to beat a car salesman with whom only a short-term relationship is likely, but when negotiating with a long-term supplier or business colleague, the consequences of “beating” them need to be considered carefully.  Negotiating can be seen as a game with each participant trying to outwit or out manoeuvre their opponents and the very act of the game can be a powerful motivator in negotiations.  All of this, however, can be considered and addressed through effective training and continuing professional development,” she adds.

Simon Horton, who has trained on negotiation for over a decade, including the teaching of hostage negotiation, says if finance leaders seek to gain agreement in an internal discussion, they will need skills above and beyond their ability with figures. “So these skills are necessary to achieve your outcome in anything that involves other people, and nearly everything involves other people,” he says.

“A lot of accountants find that when they end up in a management position they may suddenly have a feeling of being out of their depth. They would have been promoted on the basis of their technical skills but management requires a wholly different skillset,” says Horton, who started his career at management consultants Capgemini before spending 12 years as a consultant in the banking sector. He is now lead trainer at consultancy Negotiation Mastery.

At senior leadership roles that skill set is much more about selling a vision of what can be done whereas management is about implementing that vision. “It’s about seeing how change can be affected and how you can improve people and performance with those changes by communicating effectively,” says Horton.