What a negotiator can learn from Bill Belichick

April 19, 2018

What negotiators could learn from this amazing coach, who graduated college with an economics degree.

It’s almost a month since the New England Patriots surprised the world by winning the NFL Super Bowl LI after a remarkable 25 points hunt. Under their head coach Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots set up a remarkable record of 188 wins and 69 losses for a .719 winning percentage during 16 seasons. That is the third-highest percentage in NFL history. Since Belichick took over, the team has won 5 Super Bowls, 7 AFC titles, and 14 divisional championships.

This raises the question, if negotiators could learn something from this amazing coach, who graduated college with an economics degree. Here are some key findings:

1. Know exactly what you want.

Belichick has a clear vision of what he wants to be done for every game. Just like negotiators should know exactly what they want to reach in every phase and in each and every single interaction with their counterpart.

2. Communicate effectively internally.

The coach is pretty clear on what he’s expecting from every player and staff member. He is able to translate his vision, his plan, into workable and motivating pieces for everyone involved in the game. Prof. Kester* assumes that „he also really enlists the key player-leaders, everyone from the quarterback Tom Brady to the team captains, people like Matthew Slater, who’s a special teams captain. He uses these people very, very effectively to communicate that vision“.

Every negotiator should include all directly or indirectly involved stakeholders in his preparation, he should set the expectations of all internally involved parties and be clear on how he plans the process and which part every player has to play. This includes a smart and detailed organizing of the own negotiation team.

3. Be as prepared as you can.

Even the most precious vision is not enough, if it’s not based on solid preparatory work and on extensive analysis. The coaching staff around Belichick do a lot of analysis to understand their opponent very well, based on the awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses. Then they rehearse their preparation over and over. Prof. Kester on this issue: „We may call that “practice,” but I mean literally setting up situations and doing a lot of scenario analysis about “if this, then what?” Not just “what does this formation signal to us,” but “when we see this particular package lined up in this way, what is the chess match that’s about to unfold in front of us, and how do we react there?” I think what he does with all that is he builds in his players, first of all, really detailed knowledge about what it is they should expect, but then he also gets them to understand what in the military they call the “commander’s intent.” It’s hard to map out exactly what everyone should do under every contingency, but if you know what the commander intends for you to do, you can then make judgments as an individual officer in the field as to what the right course of action is to achieve that intent. I think that’s what every single player does out there, blended with their detailed knowledge, and it gives them the confidence to act spontaneously“.

An extensive preparation prior to a negotiation will assure you the best chances of succeeding. We’ve already discussed the topic in this article.

4. Anticipate the risks.

Bill takes the problems as they come and tries to deal with them on a rational basis. If he sees something that’s not working, he will adapt right away. And he’s seeking to avoid the really big mistakes, those that might cost you the game or the season. On the other hand, he is also aware of the long-term implications of his decisions and actions.

As a negotiator you have to think about potential pitfalls ahead to be able to adjust your negotiation strategy if circumstances change, as well as to envision every interaction with your counterpart long before the first personal contact with your counterpart.

5. Be authentic.

Before he became head coach of the Patriots, Belichick was an assistant coach in Cleveland for the famous Bill Parcells. When he came to New England, he didn’t tried to copy his former head coach, but developed his own approach to the team.

The same action is recommendable to a negotiator. Don’t try to copy someone else. Be yourself. But on the other hand you should try out different strategies, approaches and instruments to see which suits you - and the situation - the best. With time you will gain more experience and self assurance. This does not mean that you shouldn’t always be aware of the game changing strategies your counterpart is using. Maybe you can learn something from him too.

6. Take, keep, and delegate responsibility.

Belichick is aware of his responsibility and it doesn’t seem to bother him. Even if he makes the impression of being the team’s absolute authority, the head coach delegates tasks, responsibilities, and management duties to a handful of trusted coordinators and assistants with specific expertise. Belichick creates trust and confidence in his assistants to do their work behind the scene and without the attention of the public. And his delegation strategy works so perfectly, because he’s got great people around him.

The more complex the negotiation, the more attention you should pay to building the right negotiation team around you. Be aware of all potential roles in a negotiation team, assign them to people who show strengths in these areas, delegate them responsibility and create trust. But don’t forget that you are the negotiator in charge, and that you’re the one calling the shots.

7. Keep good relations with your main stakeholders.

In 2005 Belichick said he realized that on an NFL team the most important relationship is between owner and coach. Robert Kraft, the owner of the Patriots, is an educated businessman who understands that he has to empower and support the talent, sometimes nudge them if there’s a need, or let people go. Brady as Quarterback is also a pillar in the team management: he contributes to creating the game plan, the vision of what’s going to happen, and he’s not only a ball throwing executer of play calls.

With regards to roles in a negotiation, this means that you have to keep a good and close contact to your Decision Maker, to the person who’s able to agree or disagree on every decision, as well as to your Captain, with whom you develop your negotiation strategy.

8. Don’t talk too much.

Belichick’s relationship with the press is a controversial one. He doesn’t understand himself as a kind of brand ambassador. Usually he’s got one or two things he wants to let people know. Once it’s said, that’s it. Prof. Kester: "He has a message, he’s going to stick to his message, and he’s going to say it as many times as he has to for the audience to get the picture“.

A negotiator should always interact with the public wisely. Be clear which messages you want to send to your counterpart via the media in a specific phase of a negotiation. And don’t communicate positions too early or too harshly, otherwise you will minimize your own room for maneuver and you won’t be able to enlarge the pie during the negotiation to the full extent - because it’s always hard to withdraw an apparently "non-negotiable“ position.


* Prof. W. Carl Kester, George Fisher Baker Jr. Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, gave an interview called „Doing his job -Bill Belichick’s endlessly efficient management style holds lessons for business“ to the Harvard Gazette on the 21st of January 2016, Source: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2016/01/doing-his-job/

ISMAN & Partner
ISMAN & Partner ist eine Unternehmensberatung, die nationale und internationale Konzerne, mittelständische Betriebe und Start-ups, Organisationen und Institutionen bei komplexen Verhandlungs- und Konfliktlösungsprozessen begleitet. 2015 von Calin-Mihai Isman gegründet, unterstützen die Experten für Negotiation & Mediation Manager und Mitarbeiter aus den Bereichen Sales, Einkauf, M&A, Contracting, HR oder IT.


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