News Release: Finance and Economics

Apr. 17,  2009

Can U.S. President Barack Obama Negotiate His Way to Success?

From Knowledge@Emory

According to Earl Hill, a senior lecturer in organization and management at Emory University's Goizueta Business School, there is no single best way to negotiate or resolve conflict. Hill, whose long career with IBM Corporation in sales and human resource strategy makes him a sought-after lecturer both domestically and internationally, says flexibility is the key when working to resolve conflict. In a recent Q&A with Knowledge@Emory, Hill discusses the challenges and opportunities faced by U.S. President Barack Obama as he navigates a road to bipartisan politics and foreign policy. Hill's advice is not only applicable to country leaders, but also to managers as they maneuver a difficult global economy
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Knowledge@Emory: What grade would you give U.S. President Barack Obama for his conflict resolution and negotiation skills?

Hill: At the very worst, an A-minus. The reason I qualify it is because of his inclination toward collaboration. He's looking for a way to get as many people involved and working toward a resolution as possible. He's not looking to win the argument, if you will. That means an awful lot, and it requires an individual with a more collaborative bent than a competitive one.

Knowledge@Emory: Obama has said that a president has to do more than one thing at a time. I imagine that is true with having different approaches to negotiating and resolving conflicts?

Hill: That's absolutely true. There is no one best way to negotiate. There is no one main way to resolve conflict. It requires flexibility to adapt your approach to fit the situation. In some instances, you may have to be more forceful and more competitive. In other situations, you can make concessions. You can be more accommodating. So, there is no one best approach. If anyone thinks that, they are only fooling themselves.

Knowledge@Emory: You mentioned being forceful at times in negotiation. At what point do you walk away from the negotiating table? What consequences must you consider, and can you give an example of when such a tactic was successful?

Hill: Whenever you negotiate, you should always establish your walk away point, and be committed to follow through on it. If your negotiating counterpart is not offering an outcome better than other alternatives available to you, then you have no motivation to accept his or her offer. No deal is better than a bad deal! An example is when buying a house. You should determine the maximum price you're willing to pay for a particular property (after doing their due diligence). If the seller insists on a price that exceeds your predetermined maximum then it would be prudent for you to move on. Someone once said, “Don’t search for your one dream house. Find three dream houses.”

Knowledge@Emory: President Obama didn't get much credit for winning bipartisan support in Congress on his economic stimulus plan. He did win ultimate approval, but were the three Republican votes a victory for a negotiator who wanted more buy-in from Republicans?

Hill: The interesting and unique thing about the subjects we're talking about, conflict resolution and negotiations, is that you can do all the right things and still not get the outcome you desired. Having said that, I think the president made the maximum effort to get a bipartisan vote for his stimulus package. He made the effort, but he didn't succeed for reasons we won't go into but were pretty obvious.

Knowledge@Emory: Yet, he took a different approach to health care. He laid out his objectives and told the principals in Congress to come back with the legislation. How does he keep control and get what he wants, yet still make people feel like they have a buy-in to the process?

Hill: First, he’s doing as much as he can to make his administration transparent. He held that electronic town hall on March 26, for example. Second, he's getting as many people involved as he possibly can because he can't be the expert in everything. He hires good capable people and allows them to do their jobs and because of that, he can keep all those different balls in the air.

Knowledge@Emory: You mention that the president seems to be surrounding himself with very capable people. How crucial is this in succeeding as a negotiator or in resolving conflicts?

Hill: It's critical. I consider good negotiating skills as necessary to being a good leader. However, to be a good leader, you have to be a good follower. By that I mean you can't be afraid of hiring people who are smarter than you in certain disciplines or expertise and following their recommendations. I think that's critical.

Knowledge@Emory: President Obama faces a lot of stiff challenges, domestically and abroad. Will those skills we talked about be pushed even further in dealing with foreign affairs?

Hill: It will be more of a challenge, largely due to the cultural differences. No question about that, but fortunately, Obama remains very popular around much of the world. If he goes to the table to resolve a conflict or negotiate an issue and is viewed as a partner rather than an adversary, it means everything.

Knowledge@Emory: Although Obama has a positive profile in many countries, other members of his administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, will be continuing talks while he's not around. What advice do you have for managing conflicts when a team approach is needed? How can this translate to managers when negotiating and resolving conflict in global business situations?

Hill: All team members must be very clear in the goals/primary interests of the team. Although the team members’ individual interests might clash, there must be an overarching driver of the decision-making process (i.e., values, beliefs, business strategy, etc.). It’s also important for the team leader (President Obama) to set the (collaborative) tone for how team members conduct their business.

Knowledge@Emory: What other president can Mr. Obama be compared to in terms of his skills in negotiation and conflict resolution?

Hill: The first one who comes to mind in my lifetime is John F. Kennedy. He was involved in some very tense situations, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, which was a massive failure. When President Kennedy later faced the Cuban Missile Crisis, he had learned from his previous experiences in the Bay. He then went about resolving the critical standoff by attacking that crisis very differently. He relied on his executive team and did not put himself in the situation where he overly-influenced the debate one way or another. The executive team decided by consensus rather than what they thought JFK wanted. Two critical situations with decisions reached in two very different ways.

Knowledge@Emory: How does one acquire skills in conflict resolution and negotiations, and did Obama cut his teeth in those places that typically produce the business school or law school student seen today?

Hill: I don't know how to answer that without attributing the success of conflict resolution and  negotiations to a broad set of experiences. Developing those skills requires experience. There's no other way. You can read books, you can look at videos, someone can teach you, but you just have to get out there and do it, and you're not always going to be successful. You'll have to take stock each and every time you go to the bargaining table and learn from those experiences.

Knowledge@Emory: You described one key ingredient, flexibility, in successful negotiation and conflict resolution. Did Obama suggest another one recently when he talked about persistence?

Hill: Yes, and self-confidence and preparation helps, too. During a recent news conference when one reporter pressed him about why it took his administration so long to express outrage about the AIG bonuses. Mr. Obama told him that he takes time to think before he speaks. That was critical from my perspective. All too often we speak before we think.

Knowledge@Emory: Another of your specialty areas is performance management. Recently, the Obama administration came under attack for pressuring GM to fire its CEO Rick Wagoner. To some, this move is another example of how Obama and his administration are overstepping their bounds where free enterprise is concerned. How did you view this move and what advice do you have for companies that are struggling to adapt in this new business environment?

Hill: Corporate America has been preaching “meritocracy” for decades. Should this doctrine not apply to CEOs as well? By that, I mean should not the success or failure of the company drive the CEO pay and retention decisions? If not, then the organization’s credibility should be seriously called into question.

Knowledge@Emory: Given what you said about the president's skills, and considering the massive problems that he faces, on what issues do you see him making significant inroads toward resolution?

Hill: I think he's hired some very sharp people to address the economic situation. They are on top of things. There may be some bumps in the road, but I think that is the area in which he will make an indelible impression upon the people of this country.

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