How Do You Eat an Elephant?

Has anyone ever asked you this question “How do you eat an elephant?” This question has never been asked to me, and I discovered it while reading an article. This question and answer is a powerful metaphor for learning and development for all professionals.  The answer to the question is “one bite at a time.”  

Think about it, and if you tried to eat an entire elephant in one sitting, you would get sick. From that experience, you would never want to try to eat an elephant again. However, when you take your time eating one bite at a time, over a period of weeks or months, you would be able to consume the entire elephant.

Another way of thinking about this metaphor is that you have back issues and decide to strengthen your core by doing stomach crunches.  You have not done any abs exercises since Nixon was President of the United States.  Day one, you choose to do ten crunches, and you have success without any muscle cramps. You continue this daily trend, and by day 20, you might be up to 30 crunches by adding one additional crunch a day (small bites). By the end of three months, you might be able to do 75 crunches. However, when you look in the mirror, you don’t see any difference in your body shape, and your back is still giving you issues. Yet, you don’t give up, and you keep on putting in the daily work. This is the journey I started back in November of 2020.  This morning, September 3, 2021, I successfully did 1,000 crunches which took me 14 minutes. As a result, my back is stronger, and I even have a better definition in my abs. 

The question now becomes – How long does it take to create a habit?  If you search the internet, you will find that it takes 21 days.  However, that is a myth.  According to research, it takes 66 days to start a habit. That’s right, a little over two months to START the habit AND don’t forget to continue this habit development every single day, if possible. So if you miss a day or two, don’t get discouraged, start again, and try not to put too much distance between when you stopped and then started again. And don’t beat yourself up because you miss a day or two or even a week. 

I began 20 + years ago adopting the mindset of an improviser.  I would leave sticky notes around the house, my car, and my office that said Yes! And. I wanted to keep those words accessible to me so I could create a habit and enact change. Unfortunately, over the 20 + years, I have fallen off the improv wagon way too many times than I wish to count. I would have to force myself back on the improv wagon and away from my old habits in the early years.  Getting back on the improv wagon was not easy at all. I was very comfortable with my earlier bad habits – letting my ego get out of control, not being a good listener, and trying to make it all about me.  However, I felt that those were not the suitable characteristics for a good leader and business professional, despite the behaviors I was witnessed by my current bosses/leaders.  

So, I would get back on the improv wagon and keep working toward my goal.  I learned that the amount of time it took me to get back on the improv wagon decreased because I was building up solid improv skills.  

Why is “one bite at a time” essential to learning and development for all professionals? Let’s break it down into two pieces – technical learning and development and non-technical learning and development.

Technical learning and development is the mastery of your technical competency. 

You want your surgeon to be technically sound as they cut into your body. You want your attorney to be technically sound while they are representing you in a jury trial. You want your insurance salesperson to be technically sound in the insurance policy they are offering their clients. Features, benefits, and side-effects are valuable information that is memorized to avoid getting policies confused with other policies or products. 

You developed the foundation for these technical skills during your college years. That foundation allows you to elevate into developing your complex technical skills.  

Non-technical learning and development, ahh, okay, let’s change this to Power Skills learning and development.  Today’s technical professionals (accounting, finance, engineering, health care, etc.) need to develop the mastery of power skills: communication, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, listening, adapting, strategic thinking, innovation, and more. When you sum all of these power skills into one, it becomes LEADERSHIP.  

Okay, I see some Scooby-Doo heads tilted and thinking, why?  I am technically sound in my craft, so why do I need to invest time into developing my so-called power skills to become a leader.

Let me sum it up in two parts. 

Part 1, the technical knowledge, jargon, and acronyms you spent years developing are now considered foreign languages. Have you ever had a meeting with your CPA, and you had no idea what the person was trying to say when you left? For example, I had a conversation with my doctor concerning some test results, and a massive tsunami of medical lingo consumed me.  I stopped her and politely said, “I have no idea what you just said. Can you tell me in plain English?” She paused and then said, “You may have cancer”. Okay – I heard and understood those words. And that gives me the knowledge I need to know what I possibly am dealing with (it was not cancer, thankfully). 

Anyone in any technical profession needs to become a better translator of their knowledge and expertise into plain English so others can understand and act upon the information.

Part 2, what business are you in?  It seems like a silly and simple question to answer, right? Yet, when I ask this question during a keynote or workshop to a group of CPAs, I get replies like auditing, tax, consulting, data analysis, etc.  I reply, “that is not the business you are in. That is the by-product of the actual business you are in”.  I take it to the point that either someone gives me the correct answer or it looks like someone wants to punch me out.  The correct answer is – you are in the people business, first and foremost. Without PEOPLE, you have no business!

I hope you ponder this thought for a while and come to realize that I am correct.  Since we are in the people business, we better develop those critical skills, or we will be out of business.  Business improv develops all of the critical people skills that everyone in an organization needs to master. Business improv is about letting go of your agenda to listen intently — to be empathetic and open-minded in the present moment — so you can truly connect with colleagues and other stakeholders to generate optimal results.

Think about that elephant and what that elephant represents – Leadership. Now, take one bite at a time and start investing in your power skills so you can have a greater impact on the people you hire, on the people you lead, on your customers and clients, on the people that are your business partners, the people in your community, and the people of the world.

Power Skills are Hard to Master!

On August 10th, I delivered the keynote address welcoming the Master of Science in Accounting students at Oklahoma State University to the Fall 2021 semester.  The title of my keynote was Improv Is No Joke.  Not something you would expect to be a keynote title to a group of accounting students.  

Prior to the students attendance, I had a conversation with the department head of the school of accounting, Dr. Audrey Gramling.  Dr. Gramling is a huge proponent of developing accounting students’ power skills.  You know, those skills that we commonly refer to as soft skills.  I like to say, ‘we may call them soft skills, but they are very hard to master’.  I assured her that my presentation would focus on these Power Skills.  

Before my keynote began, there was a video message to the students from the dean of the Spears School of Business, Dr. Ken Eastman.  In his welcome to the students, he referenced the Korn Ferry five skills that need to be developed right now: Agility, Creativity, The Service Mindset, Communication, and Leadership.  In other words, the improviser’s mindset.  

Let’s dig deeper into the Korn Ferry blog posting, ‘Five Skills That Need to be Developed Right Now’. Agility, Creativity, The Service Mindset, Communication, and Leadership.

Agility means “being able to adapt quickly to uncertainty and constant change.” That, in and of itself, is improvisation.  The ability to adapt or be agile means focusing on the things that we have control over and letting go of things that we have no control over.  This is accomplished through the philosophy of Yes! And. Accept the premise that is handed to you, and positively add to it.  

Creativity “can be as simple as staying curious and not falling into the trap of “this is how it has always been done.” It also requires two separate and distinct types of thinking, divergent and convergent thinking.  Divergent thinking is the process of coming up with lots of ideas without censoring yourself or others, or saying the dreaded creativity killer, “we can’t do that.” In improv we say, you can’t create and criticize in the same space. Criticism is essential in creativity only after all of the ideas have been vetted. Convergent thinking is the process of analyzing those divergent ideas to determine which ideas can solve the problem at hand. 

The Service Mindset is “having the awareness to adjust the goods and services we provide to customers, in the way they need them, when they need them – this is a critical skill for talent.” To do this effectively, you need to park your ego and listen to what the customer wants, not what you think the customer needs. In improv, it is all about the team, and the customer, and less about ourselves.

Communication is essential ​​in both “written and verbal skills and presenting well in-person and on videoconference, [these] are growing in strategic importance.” The ability to articulate your thoughts and deliver that message in a way that your audience can understand has always been important, even more so when delivering it virtually.  This communication also extends to your body language, both in-person and on Zoom and other virtual platforms. Always present positive body language when speaking or attending any meeting or presentation.  This means no slouched posture, no using your smartphone, and always have your camera on when in a virtual environment, just to name a few.  

Leadership is developing “talent with the ability to reach out and take the initiative, build relationships across the organization, and foster trust and inclusion through behavior and actions – [these are skills] in demand at every level.” Leadership is also about being vulnerable around your team and letting them know when you are wrong.  In improv, it is all about the team and less about you. Our job is to make the individuals on our team look good, support them, and treat them with the highest respect. It is not our job to disrespect them or tear them down. That is just your ego getting in the way. Let your ego sit on the bench for a while and focus on what is best for the team.

The two-hour keynote on improv contained the essence of this Korn Ferry blog, along with helping these accounting students understand that they speak a foreign language called accounting.  Those in the corporate world who are not well versed in the foreign language of accounting have no idea what you are saying.  The sixth critical skill that every accountant, engineer, or financial person needs to develop is a translation of technical language into plain English.  When you master all six of these skills, you have become a well-versed and highly impactful leader within your organization. 

If you would like to discuss this article, please email me at peter@petermargaritis.com

Psychological Safety is a Must if You Want Your Organization to Succeed

Have you ever been in a meeting and your boss asks you a question about your ideas on a particular subject? After you share your thoughts, your boss has that look of disgust on their face and says, “we can’t do that because this is the way we have always done this,” or “we tried that in the past, and it didn’t work,” or everyone starts laughing and someone says, “their he/she goes again while rolling their eyes.” Negativity and dismissiveness hurt! When your boss responds this way, creativity stops and suppresses the rest of the group’s creative thoughts and ideas. No one wants to be humiliated like this in front of others. 

Then it gets even better – you are in a meeting with the accounting and finance team, and they are reviewing your financial results for the last quarter.  You are afraid to ask questions or make any comments because you don’t want to look stupid.  After all, you don’t have an accounting or finance degree, so what do you know?

What is the real issue in both of these scenarios? The corporate culture does not allow you to speak your mind and ask questions without feeling insecure or embarrassed. In my 30+ years in the corporate world, I had experienced too many times when I was ridiculed because I said something that was perceived as stupid, or I should have known the answer. Is this behavior motivating, inspiring, or productive? Of course not, and yet, we’ve all experienced it at one time or another. 

The good news is, you can create a culture where all ideas have validity, where ideas are accepted and discussed; and, where questions are asked without any judgment or the fear of embarrassment. Okay, quit shaking your head and thinking that will never happen, and saying, “there he goes again with his crazy ideas and comments.” As you continue to listen to this episode, do this – keep an open mind, and don’t pass judgment until you hear me out. Deal? DEAL! 

There is one critical element in creating this new corporate culture, and that element is psychological safety. In a Harvard Business Review article titled, “High Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety And Here’s How To Create It,” the article defines psychological safety as “the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without the fear of having it cut off.” I know someone out there thinks that I am making this up and using HBR as a cover, but I am not. Psychological safety is a real thing. Google the term to learn more.  

In a similar article by re:work titled “The Five Keys to a Successful Google Team,” the article starts off stating that “who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure the work, and view their contributions.” In other words, the way the team collaborates is more important than who is on the team.  In improv, the team is the sum of all of its parts not just the individual contributions.    

The article goes on to state that there are “five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google, and the number one dynamic is psychological safety.” Psychological safety is defined as “can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed.” The remaining four dynamics are… well now – wait a second. I have a better idea.  Google the article and read it to learn about the other four!  

So, the question becomes, how do you increase psychological safety on your team? The HBR article states that “approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary when conflicts come up, avoid triggering a fight-or-flight reaction by asking how could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome and be curious to hear the other person’s point of view.” 

I am no ‘brain expert’, but what I do know is that when you are harassed by your boss, or one of your coworkers with an over-developed ego, or one of the “whatever” coworkers, your brain goes into the fight-or-flight mode. In other words, we act first and think later. That has never happened to you, right? Well, when this happens at work, it debilitates our strategic thinking and kills our self-esteem. Are we now a productive member of the team or a disgruntled employee? Once again, you know the answer. 

When I read both of these articles, my mind went straight to improvisation. For those who have been following my work, you are thinking “shocker.” (just a bit of sarcasm). There is a lot to unpack here, so let’s start with “the belief that punishment will not occur when you make a mistake.” In improv, we say, “there are no mistakes, only gifts, and happy accidents.” No one is perfectand even those who don’t suffer from a lack of certainty make mistakes. Leaders and teammates need to respect each other, trust one another, and support each other when taking risks. Remember, there are risks in everything we do. Don’t punish but praise the person for taking the risk. There is another saying in improv, “Bad ideas are bridges to good ideas. No ideas lead to nothing.” If everyone justifies everyone else’s actions, there are no mistakes.

Then there is the fear of being embarrassed and feeling insecure.  Once you put your ego out of the way, we stop judging others’ ideas – instead, we consider them brilliant and eagerly follow them! You see that great improvisers accept the ideas of the other teammates without judging them to be “good” or “bad,” always thinking, “This is now our idea.” When we do this unilaterally throughout our team and give people the freedom to speak their mind, magic will happen almost immediately. 

One of my all-time favorite improv quotes describes psychological safety by saying, “There are gems in every idea. Embrace and build. Treat every idea as though it has the potential to change the world, and at some point, one will.”

Creating a safe place for the team to share their ideas under the umbrella of psychological safety may be easier to achieve versus asking a question during a financial meeting when you don’t have the financial foundation necessary to articulate a question. To avoid being perceived as stupid, we are more inclined to nod our heads up and down and agree than ask a question.  

However, when you ask the financial question, you will more than likely receive an answer full of accounting and finance jargon, leaving you even more confused. So, what is the solution? Knowledge is the solution. Accounting and finance knowledge, to be exact.  I addressed this in S4E8; I discuss what is financial leadership. The answer is taking an accounting and finance fundamentals course powered by Color Accounting. 

In S4E8, I describe the Color Accounting process, the benefits, and provided three perinate examples.  I would highly suggest that you listen to that entire episode to learn more.  In the meantime, I have another case study to share with you, and it is entitled “We Could Save About $80K a Year.”

In early 2000’s, Mark Robilliard was facilitating a corporate workshop for team leaders and middle managers in a large multinational HQ in Sydney Australia. After becoming accounting literate using the Color Accounting System™, the final session in this particular workshop involved the participants having a quick review of their own work area and then discuss any thoughts on generating additional revenue or incurring less expenses. One of the participants (the Team Leader in the internal mail room) shyly raised their hand and nervously said “I think we could save about $80k per year if we changed how we do this process.” The CFO who just happened to be in the room almost fell off his chair and when he recovered his composure, he asked the team leader “How come you never brought this to us before?”. The answer was simple: “I just do my job – I didn’t know we should be thinking about the business too.”

What value would these type of business conversations have in any organization? Shouldn’t everyone be accounting literate and develop a ‘business owner’ type mindset?

Everyone in your organization should increase their accounting literacy because how much money would your organization save if they did their job AND thought about the business too. Novel idea, right? 

How effective are your senior managers, managers, sales team, and back-office teams around finance? Do they perform with psychological safety in your accounting and finance meetings? Do they speak their mind and ask questions without feeling insecure or embarrassed?

In conclusion, the HBR article states, “if you create a sense of psychological safety on your team starting now, you can expect to see higher engagement levels, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, more learning and development opportunities, and better performance.” So, what are you waiting for? 

If you would like to learn more about how improvisation leadership creates a culture that fully supports psychological safety within the organization and/or more about the Color Accounting process, please contact me at peter@petermargaritis.com

Financial Leadership

The CFO contacted me last night and wanted to get about 5 min this morning at our annual sales meeting.  

The meeting begins – she steps to take her 5 minutes. All 10 salespeople in the meeting roll their eyes.  She starts by saying, “I would like to commend all of you for growing our top line revenue this year by 15%. However, our net profit margin decreased by 16%, and we ended the year at a loss.  I would like you to be more vigilant in the pricing of your deals to strengthen our margins and return to a profitable business.  Any questions?”  Dead silence.  “Hearing none, thank you for your time,” and she leaves.  All eyes are on the SVP of Sales. Then one brave person raises their hand and says, “what the hell was that? I have no idea what she was talking about other than the compliment she gave us.”  The SVP of sales responds, “let’s get back to our agenda and look at ways of finding new customers.”  

Does this sound familiar?  Why? There are a couple of reasons.  First, the CFO is speaking in the foreign language of accounting – not plain English – and she cannot translate accounting speak into English.  Second, accounting has an image problem for non-accountants. It’s an image (or better yet, memory) of pages of mind-numbing numbers that make no sense, leading to ‘listener shut-down; creating a phenomenon that, in turn, leads to a lack of financial acumen within your organization.

So, what is the antidote to this mind-numbing issue?  Leadership.  When searching the internet looking for keywords as it relates to the topic of leadership, you will find the following: confidence, charismatic, motivation, success, inspiring, trust, vision, influence, people, accountability, courage, humor, respectable, and making good decisions, to name a few.  I agree with all of these, except that there is one missing – financially responsible in every list I researched. 

The best and most effective leaders have a good working knowledge of the company’s financial health, and their decision-making process is established in the organization’s financial truths. Armed with this financial acumen, the effective leader can influence decision-making by conveying the tactical connection between the mission statement and the financial statements. 
Let me pause for a moment and stress that this financial acumen is not the CFO’s sole responsibility.  It is the responsibility of everyone who is in a leadership role within the company. Financial acumen should be the basis of understanding in every business conversation and decision made within an organization.  

Think about it this way, who are the people in your organization that is making decisions?  How many decisions are made every single day in an organization? What percentage of those decisions have a financial impact on the organization? 75%? 80% 100%?  There are leaders within organizations that don’t understand accounting and finance fundamentals—for example, the lending department within a bank. Lenders are the salespeople of the bank. They’re responsible for generating deals for customers so that they can lend money to them and grow the bank’s business.  We all know that – right.

However, these lenders can earn a bonus on the cumulative dollar amount that they lend.  Do you see what is missing here?  You are incentivizing the lenders on revenue generation and not profitability.  This is and has been a recipe for loss in profitability.  What is missing is taking into consideration the loan costs. 

I hear stories from CFO’s about how the sales team needs to grow their business by 25%, and yet in the process, they lose 15% in profits.  In my interview with Ken “Mr. Biz” Wentworth, he calls this phenonium ‘the silent killer’ to all businesses.  He shares a story of one of his construction clients wanting him to review a bid on a new piece of business.  After reviewing, he advised the client not to bid on the work at that price and raise the price by 25%.  The pushback from the owner was that they needed to bid low so they could get the job. Ken, knowing the cost structure of his client’s business, responded, “You can bid the job at the lower price, AND you will lose $40,000 on this job.” The owner replied, “I am bidding it low to get my foot in the door for future work.” Let’s stop right here. We all know that is a falsehood because when the owner asks for a bid on another project and we give our full-pricing structure, what do you think the owner will do? That’s right. Find someone cheaper. I have used that strategy in the past, and it hurt my business.  

The silent killer of a business is not understanding the fundamentals of accounting and finance. We need this understanding and knowledge to make more informed, smarter, and more profitable decisions. If you understand accounting, you can understand finance. If you understand finance, you can understand your business.

When your leaders are in meetings and the conversation shifts from operations to finance, are your leaders participating in the conversation or just witnessing the conversation?

The solution is leadership.  Financial leadership.  The next time you have your leadership team participate in a leadership development program, add a day of accounting and finance fundamentals.  Oh, I know…. I can see all of your bitter Grinch faces.  You are thinking, an accounting course.  Oh, hell no!  I’d rather have a root canal without any novocaine than sit through a full day of an accounting and finance course.  This goes back to the image problem accounting has – and it’s a big image problem!  And it exists because of the traditional way of teaching accounting to non-accountants in the same way we teach accounting to accountants.  That’s like teaching any subject in a foreign language that the students do not understand – it’s impossible to learn!

We need to teach accounting and finance to non-financial leaders in a different way.  We are not trying to turn them into accountants but rather into leaders with financial acumen.  We want to help them gain access to critical knowledge in a manner that removes the complexity of accounting/financial jargon and teaches in plain English.

The solution to this puzzle is a product that is offered by the company Wealthvox.  The product is accounting and finance fundamentals powered by Color Accounting.  Color Accounting is a learning approach that makes accounting simple. The courses deliver real financial literacy quickly and effectively. Accounting and finance often feel confusing because people can’t see how the numbers work or understand the language. Color accounting fixes both issues by approaching the subject visually.
 
This unique, visual framework enables us to use simple concepts to explain the mechanics of accounting and the structure of financial information. The language of accounting is then brought to life with logical and intuitive examples.
 
All of this is achieved interactively and engagingly, enabling you to build a holistic understanding of how financial information tells a business story.
 
The really cool aspect of color accounting is that it is delivered without the use of PowerPoint.  That’s right, no PowerPoint numbing slides.  It is delivered visually using flip charts or whiteboards and hands-on materials that include a manual and a pop-up board.
 
After a six-hour workshop, you will be empowered to:

  • Analyze and interpret financial information with more confidence
  • Understand the story of a business using key financial metrics
  • Understand the relevance of key profit measures such as EBITDA
  • Engage confidently in internal financial conversations
  • Improve communications with clients, customers, and colleagues
  • Understand the financial process in your business
  • Improve financial decision-making in your business
  • Manage profits and cash flow more efficiently.
  • Price your products and services more profitability
  • And more. 

 
The results are remarkable. Westinghouse is a client of Color Accounting, and before the pandemic, Color Accounting delivered over 30 workshops to their leaders, project managers, and engineers.  I had the privilege of leading one of these workshops in January 2020 to a group of 24 project managers and engineers. By the end of the full six-hour workshop, this group had a greater understanding of their role within this large organization and the financial impact on the wealth and bottom line of the organization.  As this group left, they were all thanking me for the engaging and thought-provoking workshop and that their mindset towards accounting had become completely different.  
 
There is a case study that Wealthvox has written, and here is a small portion of that case study:
 
At this point, we delved into a section explaining the differences between the two M’s – gross margin percentages and markup percentages. 
 
A margin is sales minus the cost of goods sold. A markup is an amount by which the cost of a product is increased. I explained that when you apply the markup percentage, that will give you the resulting but lower margin percentage.
 
The MD of Home Chefs, Rupert, turned white. He held his head in his hands and asked us for an example. To clarify, we applied a hypothetical scenario. If a Home Chefs’ dinner for four is £100 minus costs of £25, there is a margin of £75. This is a margin percentage of 75% but a markup of 300%.
 
Rupert sighed and said: “This explains a lot. We haven’t been getting the profitability that we wanted, and this is why!” His company had been trying to achieve a 10% margin when they were, in fact applying a 10% markup. He went on to express that he’d had an uneasy feeling. He knew something wasn’t right but didn’t know what was wrong. The problem with applying the 10% markup is that you actually end up with a margin of 9.1%. To achieve a 10% margin, the markup percentage needs to be 11.1%.
 
Rupert couldn’t believe that he’d mixed up something seemingly so simple, yet in fact, crucial.
 
One final example came about when I explained Color Accounting to a colleague who has a successful speaking and coaching business. The response back to me was, “I don’t understand accounting. I don’t like numbers. Never have. You will never get me to take an accounting course. I have run my business for 15 years, and it is very successful, and I have large to medium size clients.” So, I made this person a deal, take this course, and after six hours, if you are still lost, I will refund your money and add 10% more for wasting your time.  DEAL!
 
We broke the learning into 2-hour chunks over three weeks, and it was delivered live using Zoom.  Before starting the second week’s class, I ask if there were any questions or comments. My client commented, “Every morning this past week, I have woken up thinking about my balance sheet.” By the end of the class, my colleague could read and understand the balance sheet and the income statement AND was not afraid of accounting.” We are continuing this conversation because now my colleague is asking better questions about the business, starting with, are my products and services priced correctly? What are my expenses, and are some of my expenses non-productive and should be eliminated to increase my overall wealth and profitability?
 
When you switch the accounting and financial light bulb on and include it as part of leadership development, your leaders will make better business decisions because their business acumen has been fully achieved.  Business acumen is built on a foundation of accounting acumen, plus financial acumen, and every leader should strive for this excellence.
 
If you would like to learn more about the Color Accounting process, please contact me at peter@petermargaritis.com.

Effective Negotiating in Corporate America

What do you feel when you hear the word, negotiate? Dread, Anxiety, Excitement? Do you believe that negotiation skills can be taught? Do you agree with this statement – “we negotiate all the time”? Have you ever searched Google asking one or more of these questions: 

  • What skill is the most helpful during a negotiation? 
  • How does ego play a role in negotiating? 
  • What role does leverage play during negotiations?  

I will address all of these questions, and how the world of IMPROV can help make you a much better negotiator, and more, in this episode.  Yes!  And this same topic will be continued in at least two, if not three, more upcoming podcast episodes.  Stay tuned!

Let’s get started! Most of us have experienced a negotiation gone bad.  However, have you ever been negotiated up? That’s right negotiated up.  Early in my business, I wanted to work with a specific association because of the painful negotiation their members were experiencing. I knew I had a solution for that pain.  In my conversation with them, they asked what my fee was? I replied, what is your budget for this event?  The person responded with the speaker budget for the entire year and it was $1,000 above my fee for the event.  I wanted the job, so I offered a fee that was 75% less than my normal fee.  Then came the awkward pause.  After about what seemed like 30 min but more like 30 sec, the person replied with a fee that was 50% more than I offered.  I got negotiated UP! I learned a valuable lesson that day.  Learn how to negotiate better!  So from that point forward, I offer my full fee, and if rejected, I work with the other person to find common ground where both parties WIN and walk away with value.  

Not every negotiation table has a client on the other end. Sometimes it’s an employee. And when it is, it is often about negotiating to give them a voice their role within the company and in the business’s direction.  These negotiations take success to a whole level. 

So. What makes some negotiations successful and others dead in the water? Conducting a successful negotiation requires the use of six essential skills – and they are ALL foundations of Improvisation.

These six skills will ensure every negotiation has the potential to end with a positive solution.

6 PRINCIPLES OF IMPROVISATION

  1. Take your ego off the table
  2. Have and show respect for the other party
  3. Be in the moment (focus)
  4. Listen to the other party’s needs and wants
  5. Adapt to the situation
  6. Yes, And…

These steps truly help everyone one win in a negotiation. One of biggest impacts the 6 principles have is to  take the emotions off the table. Heated emotions can cause negotiations to shut down. They are more likely to end in a stalemate with wasted efforts. Anthony K. Tjan wrote in a Harvard Business Review blog, “Time and emotion — these are the two things most often wasted during a negotiation.” And he is right. We tend to react emotionally and negatively to any points of negotiation that oppose our own agenda. And that wastes time and energy. When our goals for a negotiation are so firmly anchored that we cannot budge, it becomes hard to see any common goal as a solution. Instead, emotions kick in, and egos inflate—and we cease to listen. All we hear is our own voice in our head trying to find a way back to what we want.

SKILLFUL NEGOTIATION IS ROOTED IN IMPROVISATION

Tom Yorton was once in the corporate ranks before becoming CEO of Second City Communications, the business solutions division of the world- renowned comedy company, The Second City. He had this to say in a recent Business Innovation Factory article, “But my experience – and in fact, my scars – are from bumping up against the same organizational hurdles that improv is so effective at helping companies get over – challenges that include connecting with customers, engaging employees around change, moving into new

markets, innovating new products and services, working without a script.”

All of the aspects of driving positive change inside the company depend on how well leaders in corporate America can negotiate. That equates to how well business professionals can handle ‘blocking’. ‘Blocking’ are those things that are brought to the table that are unexpected – out of the blue – out of nowhere Blocking like this It halts forward momentum and does not neatly fit inside the box of your agenda.  And it happens every day.

Daena Giardella teaches an improvisational leadership class at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She spends an entire lesson on teaching how to avoid using the most common block, the “yes, but.” In an NPR article, she points out, “Even though you say, ‘Yes,’ the but says, Yeah, but that’s not really valid because here is the better point.“

Negotiations can quickly come to a grinding halt when “yes, but” comes to the table. It is when emotions get heated and time gets wasted.  Michael Wheeler, Harvard Business School Professor and Program on Negotiation (PON) faculty member wrote the book The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World. Michael states in a PON Q&A interview that, “real-world interactions between parties by looking at the uncertainty of negotiations and how to develop flexible strategy when you have incomplete information. Negotiation cannot be scripted. Your goals may change during the course of negotiation, a little or a lot. Unexpected opportunities and obstacles may pop up. Your across-the-table counterpart may be more or less cooperative than you expected.” 

Too many times we practice a rigid strategy – a script – a plan – prior to going into a negotiation.  By doing so, we quit listening to the other party because we are following the linear thought process we created and practiced.  We miss out on key opportunities or threats by not being fully present. Michael states in this Q&A, “There’s a misperception that military strategy is very rigid. Yes, there’s a chain of command, but there’s also a military saying: “Plans go out the window with first contact with the enemy.” In an uncertain situation, you have to think through your best- and worst-case scenarios.” This military strategy can be witnessed back in 2011 when the U.S. Navy SEALs executed the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.  “The mission had been meticulously planned; the SEALs trained for it over months and several contingency plans were developed and put into place. When one of the navy’s Black hawk helicopters crashed within the compound, a very specific kind of improvisation was required if the mission was to succeed.” This is adapting to the change in the strategy in order to achieve a positive outcome. 

Improvising is not winging it or making things up.  Improvising is all about over-preparing and developing alternative plans and when you enter the room, you throw the script away, you listen and stay present in the negotiation and adapt in order to achieve success.   

Time to remember the 6 principles of improvisation!

  1. Take your ego off the table
  2. Have and show respect for the other party
  3. Be in the moment (focus)
  4. Listen to the other party’s needs and wants
  5. Adapt to the situation
  6. Yes, And…

Listen to the other party’s needs. What are they really saying when they block your proposal? Be adaptable by taking your ego off the table. Take a deep breath if you need to and then let the next words that come out of your mouth be “Yes, and…”

A successful negotiation is birthed from being able to rebound, to take the blocks and build with them. That is how you connect with other people.

Have you ever watched preschoolers play with blocks? They take turns stacking them on top of each other until it gets so high it just topples over – or they like to watch it fall and knock it over on purpose. But the point is that both of them have an agenda. They each want to pick up a block and put it on the tower and each one probably has an idea about what the tower will look like, but they keep building until they can’t build anymore.

We are more likely to succeed in negotiations when both parties can envision a common goal. Improvisation teaches us to set aside our personal agendas and ego and take whatever the other person gives you and go with it. The glue that ties it all together is the principle of “Yes, and…” Successful people all intuitively do this. They just don’t necessarily realize that they are using improvisation in their daily lives.

To succeed in negotiations, we need to drop our agendas long enough to truly listen—and with respect for all

involved. It is true for formal negotiations around a conference table and is the way to success in the daily negotiations of life and career—during a chat with the boss or with one’s spouse, or with a child. This is the kind of straight talk we can cultivate that truly will make the biggest difference.

If you would like to learn more about negotiating using improv techniques, please contact me at peter@petermargaritis.com