I don’t have a lot of respect for Dr Liam Fox, enthusiastic Brexiteer and the UK’s International Trade Secretary at the time of writing (the afternoon of Wednesday, 24 July… Boris is seeing the Queen about his new job and will shortly be telling Liam whether he’s still got his). The last time I wrote about him in Shaw Sheet was three years ago – Wrong-Diagnosis and-Wrong-Prescription, Dr Fox – just after he’d started trying to find countries prepared to negotiate trade deals with a post-Brexit Britain. He was criticizing British businesspeople for failing to sell more of their goods and services abroad. He called them “lazy” and said they had “become too fat on our successes in previous generations”, by which I think he meant they had become too complacent. I agreed with his sentiments but could find little in what else he said which showed he understood why a once mighty trading nation had become an also-ran in international business. I focused on two of the many reasons why: the failure of UK companies, first, to invest in the research and development needed to produce products and services which people outside the UK want to buy and, secondly, to employ people with the right skills and knowledge to sell successfully overseas.
Well, it may have taken Dr Fox three years to get around to doing something about the second reason but perhaps we should be glad that he and his civil servants have managed to do so at all. Ten days ago he announced that the Government was launching a two-year “international trade training scheme”. It will be open to people of all ages, although it is clear from Dr Fox’s repeated use of the word “youngsters” that young people will be preferred. How young? Well, he’d really like to get international business negotiating skills on to the school curriculum. So, maybe teenagers will be able to apply. And it matters not if they have no experience of government and don’t have a degree. “Candidates will spend time working with a sector team in the UK, for example in oil and gas, before taking up a placement abroad in locations such as New York, Beijing or Dubai.” The starting salary will be £30,561. You or your children have got until August 4 to apply. I reckon (and hope) the recruiters at the Dept of International Trade will have to cancel their summer holidays in order to cope with the rush of applications.
In his presentation of this new scheme Dr Fox said something that made me warm towards him for the first, and probably the last, time:
“My feeling is that because we haven’t done trade for over forty years, it may not be something that, in schools, youngsters are orientated toward.”
Five years ago I and a Danish colleague, Søren Hilligsøe, wrote the following in a book on international negotiation skills*:
“We would contend that many, perhaps most, people in the advanced economies of the West, who are now in their 30s or older, were not brought up to negotiate. In the developed world of the second half of the 20th Century, a world of stable careers, supermarkets and fixed prices, children did not observe much negotiating outside the home. Previous generations, like children in less economically-developed countries today, were used to the haggling of street market traders and door-to-door salesmen and entered the world of business much earlier in life. The result was that when young Westerners in the 1960’s and later were first faced with the opportunity to negotiate – buying a second-hand guitar or a car perhaps – they didn’t realise that they were in such a position. And if they did negotiate, they didn’t know how to do it. Many found it embarrassing, even frightening. This put them at a disadvantage when negotiating on behalf of their companies in the international arena with people who learned their bargaining skills much earlier in life. Perhaps this explains why we have seen the demand for negotiation skills training in the West grow so fast in the past 30 years.”
We gave an example of someone brought up in a culture where negotiating is the norm in daily life:
“There is the story of the Vietnamese refugee in the US in the early 1980s who, on reaching the checkout of a small Californian supermarket, insisted on negotiating the price of each item in his full shopping trolley. The bemused checkout staff told him that all prices were fixed. But he was deaf to their explanations and the angry shouts of shoppers queuing behind him. The manager was called and the impatient customers moved to another queue. The Vietnamese man possibly assumed that the boss had arrived because only he had the power to negotiate. So, he kept on demanding hefty discounts. Finally, the manager put all the goods in a bag, handed it to the Vietnamese and told him to take everything – for free – and never darken his store’s doors again.”
Søren’s Danish childhood had not prepared him for a life as a business negotiator. But mine had:
“When it comes to learning about negotiation early, Richard was luckier than Søren. Though British, he spent much of his childhood and early adulthood in South America, the Arabian Gulf, and eastern and southern Africa. He has good memories of watching the curio sellers of Lusaka, Livingstone, Nairobi, Mombasa and many a dusty rural African market deal with Western tourists. These salesmen were master negotiators. They were very happy, of course, when the crazy Wazungu accepted their vastly inflated ‘best prices’. But, as they confided to the teenage Richard, they were just as happy when they had to haggle, even if they got less money. It was a Zambian who taught Richard the importance of never accepting the other side’s first offer:‘If he says Yes to my first price, I feel bad. Maybe he would have paid me more. If he wants another thing, I will make an even higher price.’”
Søren and I (and our editor) did wonder whether we – two middle-aged European men – were out of date:
“Perhaps though ‘the times they are a’changing’. The arrival of the internet has enabled younger people in the West to learn how to negotiate earlier than their parents did. Price comparison sites and online trading abound. And the harsh economic climate has forced many Westerners – young and not so young – to learn the art of negotiation.”
But an online discussion I have been having with an Estonian over the past five months makes me think we should not have entered such a caveat.
Georg Merilo, calls himself The Negotiating Man. He teaches negotiation skills to businesspeople in the Baltic region, especially his fellow Estonians. Some of his clients were once mine before I retired from management training after 38 years at the end of 2017. Georg is in the process of writing a book on negotiation skills and asked for my thoughts on an impassioned article he had written on the subject in a magazine for school teachers in Estonia. This is how it started:
“I have a dream. One Great Dream. I’ve been dreaming about it for 10+ years. A dream that leads to a completely different level of quality of life for young people in Estonia and later for all adults and next generations. You think I’m bluffing. Provoking? Am I blue-eyed and not admitting the reality? The dream is: ‘From September 2020, in our schools – both in upper secondary schools and in vocational schools – negotiating as a discipline will be taught as a compulsory subject for all students aged 15-19.’”
He goes on to say:
“Negotiating skills alone are not a guarantee for success if other skills in the satellite system are missing. For example, you need also logic, speech, debate, game theory, chaos theory, (foreign) languages, breathing, psychology, risk, body language, sense of humour, conflict resolution and their prevention, specificities of different cultures and others.”
And he finishes with:
“Estonia would be a pioneer again. Making studying of negotiating compulsory would be very innovative and unexpected in its simplicity of implementation, and it will start to bear fruits very soon.”
Georg’s dream is becoming reality. He has already got several schools to try out his negotiation classes. He tells me that his pupils are enthusiastic even though they know that at this stage what they have learned will not be tested in an examination. Estonia has a well-deserved reputation for innovation in a number of fields, including education. I’m confident Georg’s dream will be realised.
Will Dr Fox’s legacy be similar in the UK? Will my grandsons learn how to negotiate across borders at school? I hope so. But there is one big problem: who will teach them? Perhaps something for any teacher who reads the Shaw Sheet to ponder over the next few weeks.
A similar question was put to me by a senior Latvian civil servant on the very last course I ran in December 2017. It was a Negotiation Skills course for the Latvian Prime Minister’s office in Riga. He wanted to know what I was going to do in my retirement. I said I might offer to run classes for school teachers in how to run presentation and negotiation skills courses for their pupils. He wished me luck, paused and then smiled before asking whether Britain’s Brexit negotiators weren’t more urgently in need of such training.
* Why doesn’t he use a spoon? A guide to international business negotiation, by Søren Hilligsøe and Richard Pooley, published by Hans Reitzels Forlag