Best Practices

Best Practices


The world was watching as President Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-un of North Korea in June, coming away with a joint statement agreeing on four basic principles and committing to continue the negotiation process. There has subsequently been both acclaim and criticism for all aspects of the process, including the preparation that Trump conducted for this historic meeting. We cannot know the degree nor the methods of preparation employed; however, this column is devoted to preparing for a significant negotiation and lessons we may draw from the recent high-profile example.

Determine the objectives on both sides. It is very likely that the president and his key cabinet members had a pretty clear idea of the United States overall objectives for the future of the Korean Peninsula, of which the primary one seems to be complete denuclearization. Of course, this is the long-term objective and was not likely to be agreed upon in the first meeting. Wisely, the president reset expectations in the weeks before the meeting and seemed to settle on the engagement being a getting-to-know-you-plus meeting.

Surely there was also clear analysis of the objectives of the other side, such as the earliest possible lifting of sanctions, the security of Kim Jong-uns leadership position and recognition on the world stage, as well as goals regarding North Koreas real position on denuclearization and what it means.

Understand the players. Clearly a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes work happened in advance of the meeting. The president needed to understand the positions of key allies such as South Korea and Japan and other concerned parties such as China. In prior meetings with Japan, its leaders were clear that they would settle for nothing less than complete denuclearization and expressed a strong desire for the return of Japanese abductees. South Korea is concerned about North Koreas weapons, but has been more obviously conciliatory and encouraging of progress despite the fact that it may fall short of the ultimate goal in the near term.

There was also significant preparation to understand the personalities involved. One can see this in the mini movie that the U.S. prepared for Kim Jong-un, speaking to his interests in cinema and basketball and his desire to be seen as a historic figure. We cant know how Kim did his research on Donald Trump, but the latter has been a visible public figure and has given much insight into his personal characteristics through his actions and tweets.

In your negotiations, carefully consider not only the needs of the other organization but the personal needs of your negotiating counterparts. Try to get to know them in advance of a critical negotiation. Gather information as to how they think and feel and how they are positioned in their organization.

Set the venue and the participants. There was obviously significant time spent determining the venue, as evidenced by the glimpses given in advance of the meeting and leading to the choice of Singapore. I believe this was a good choice, as Singapore is a neutral country that was excited to act as host and capable of dealing with security and publicity. The concepts of neutrality for the venue and ensuring its capabilities are important for any negotiation. If you dont want to use a neutral venue, you can alternate home locations for each round of negotiation. Also contemplate the proper level for employees conducting the negotiations, as too high a level may not be efficient and too low a level may struggle with the bigger picture.

Secure a negotiating mandate from the internal authorities. Sometimes this seems like the hardest part of the process! First, you need to determine those parties in your organization who have a stake in the outcome or who may have useful input to the process. However, in the end you need to assemble the preferred outcome and secure the negotiation mandate from the proper level in your organization. Be sure to get buy-in and commitment of resources from those in your organization who will need to be involved in the execution of the agreement.

President Trump didnt need a negotiating mandate from anyone in the U.S., but he may need to seek one at a later stage, depending on whether congressional approval is necessary. He may not have needed a negotiating mandate from our allies, but it is a good idea to get alignment on the ultimate goals as well as what gives may be offered to the other side. It wasnt clear in this case whether South Korea agreed to the suspension of certain military exercises or not; certainly it would have been preferable to get their agreement in advance.

Set your negotiation strategy and timetable. Here you consider your minimum acceptable outcomes, what you are willing to offer in exchange for what, and the timetable for the overall process. The timetable is particularly important and often underrated as a parameter in the negotiation. Time is often more important to one side or the other and should be used to your advantage. In the North Korea situation, time may be more important to them as they are suffering from the sanctions that are in place. On the other hand, if some of the suppliers to North Korea back off on the sanctions, it is possible that the advantage of time may shift. The impact of time on the participants in any negotiation should be carefully considered and monitored throughout.

Engage in negotiations. Now that all of the preparation has been done, go ahead and engage in the negotiations. After each session, document what has been agreed upon and what issues may have emerged, at least for your internal use. You may or may not want to share this with the other side, as things that seem agreed may come undone in a subsequent stage. If the negotiating session reveals that you have miscalculated in some way, be sure to go back and revisit the negotiation objectives, process and timetable as needed. Take note of any new negotiating parameters that you may not have considered in your planning work, especially those that may be of high value to the other side but easy to give from your side. Once there is agreement in principle to the key aspects of the deal, document it and get it acknowledged on both sides.

Complete details and execute the agreement. At this point, entrust the fleshing out of details to a lower level or more operational team. Set a timetable for the completion of the work and ensure both sides commit the necessary resources.

Do a look-back. Set up a process to periodically review the agreement and how it is working for both sides, especially if the agreement is long-term and strategic in nature. You may also want to do an internal review of the process and outcome within your organization and document lessons learned.

Proper preparation will help ensure you get the best possible outcome from your negotiations!

Sara Lefcourt of Lefcourt Consulting LLC specializes in helping companies to improve profits, reduce risk and step up their operations. Her experience includes many years in marketing, sales and procurement, first for Exxon and then at Infineum, where she was vice president, supply. Email her at or phone (908) 400-5210.

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