How childhood experiences can undermine executive performance – how one boy fell victim to his mother

When negotiations between companies heat up, you need all the intelligence that you can muster. It’s easy to obtain financials and other data, but how do you get inside the psyche of your opponents?

Many managers, these days, rely on psychometric information to understand how their own teams work, but when horns are locked over the negotiating table we don’t have access to this kind of insight.

James is not one of my clients. Indeed, he is the Chairman and Chief Executive of one of my client’s competitors. The two companies had been struggling to find some common ground across which one would sell to the other some significant subsidiaries. It was during the course of one of my regular meetings with my client (the CEO) that he reflected; “You know, Graham, it’s a shame we can’t wheel you into the room and see what observations you might make.”

So, the next morning, I found myself listening to a recording of one of their earlier meetings. There was something about James’ style of interaction that struck me. It was hard to put a finger on it. I listened a couple more times and began to sense that this was a rebellious child arguing against his more powerful father. Interesting to me, but hardly useful to my clients. “If only I could have a proper conversation with him, maybe, just maybe, I could understand this a little better.”

For some of my clients, I work on a retainer – an arrangement that allows them to call me when they need to (within reason) so I wasn’t too surprised when they called at 11pm that evening, to ask if they could deliver another recording for me to listen to. What arrived was a copy of a programme broadcast by the BBC a couple of years earlier in which James sat ‘in the Psychiatrist’s Chair’. This series, begun by the late Anthony Clare and continued for a while by Raj Persaud, used a straightforward psychodynamic interviewing approach to allow the interviewee to describe their life as they experienced it. The programmes never sought to explain or interpret, simply to allow the individual to describe their perception of their story so far.

Now, James, it seemed had not been unusual among successful business leaders. For a variety of reasons he had struggled for the attention of his father as a child and grown up desperate to impress him. One of the younger members of his family, he had learnt to defend himself by being fiercly competitive with his siblings. There was quite a lot of evidence that he had been protected by his mother, and had entered the world of work still quite child-like in his interests and approach. It was a complex character – ruthless in many ways, attention seeking in others, childlike in some.

We didn’t have much time, the next meeting was to happen two days later. When I thought through the previous recording, I began to realise that the line taken by my client’s negotiators was slightly patronising. They were almost trying to bully James into submission. His response was to be stronger, more determined to get the best possible deal – not rebellious as I’d suspected before. It was a macho climate. All the parties were middle-aged men, and each was unlikely to show any weakness in their negotiation. After a little deliberation I spoke to my client and put forward a tentative idea…

The following day, one of the MDs from a far smaller wing of my clients’ business walked into the negotiating room – each party accompanied by their lawyers. Frankly this MD was terrified – she had never been in such a tough position. She was a good fifteen years James’ senior, and had a huge amount of experience but nothing compared to his own. Nevertheless the lawyers were stunned as she spelt out terms no different from those discussed many times before in the preceeding weeks only to have James concede almost every point.

When they finished the meeting James kissed her on the cheek. This was certainly the first time, and probably the only one, in which he had lost the upper hand in a negotiation.

The abstract above illustrates typical situations that arise in the course of my work with leaders – it should go without saying that permission to quote has been given, names have been changed, and a few details tweaked to preserve confidentiality.

Best wishes

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