I often say that if I'd done what I loved, I would have studied history. With a little luck I could be curled up right now in a book-lined office that overlooks a leafy college quad, opening the door a few times a week for office hours and to make raspy contributions at departmental meetings.
Instead I started a company, and I read history whenever I can. It's taught me a lot about doing business, especially about what I might call, in this election season, The Art of the (Fair) Deal. I thought it might be a good time to share a few lessons I've learned about negotiating. I considered presenting them as a "match the historic event to the lesson(s)," but hey, I'm not a professor.
The Munich Pact of 1938: This "deal," which permitted Adolf Hitler to annex a big chunk of Czechoslovakia, offers several valuable lessons about dealmaking. Widely viewed as one of the most egregious examples of appeasement in modern history, it's perhaps best known for the famous last words "peace for our time" uttered by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Less than a year later, poor Neville was declaring war. So what can we learn from the Munich Pact? Rule 1: Never negotiate with a megalomaniac, or any other kind of maniac, for that matter; which is related to the subrule: Know who you're dealing with. And Rule 2: Whatever you do, don't brag about the deal. Your boasts (or wishful thinking in Chamberlain's case) might end up being all you're remembered for.
The Treaty of Versailles, 1919: The Allied Powers had Germany over a barrel at the end of "The Great War," and the terms of this agreement, from reparations to territory loss to military restrictions, reflected that. It made lots of Germans very, very mad--one in particular (see Munich, above). The lesson from this? Don't treat the people you're dealing with like they're Germany and it's 1919. They'll hold a grudge the size of Western Europe.
The Purchase of Alaska, 1867: This U.S. deal to buy Russia's Alaskan territory--586,000 square miles for $7.2 million--was nicknamed Seward's Folly by its opponents, after Secretary of State William Seward. They thought the price exorbitant for mosquito-infested frozen swampland. Thirty years later, the Gold Rush was on and the rest is history. This just goes to prove that, in terms of dealmaking, it pays to take the long view. And don't listen to the naysayers when your instincts tell you otherwise.
The Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494: Many Americans have never heard of this, but it's how Spain and Portugal, with the help of the pope, divided up the New World that explorers like Christopher Columbus were actively "discovering" back in the day. They drew a straight, north-south line that ran through the Atlantic and sliced through Brazil; Spain got everything west of the line, Portugal everything to the east. The trouble is, nobody else was consulted, and neither conquering country knew exactly what or how much land existed in either direction. The lessons here: Know the territory. Have a clear idea of your own boundaries and interests and, especially, those of the other side. And don't exclude any interested parties.
The 3/5 Compromise, 1787: This deal, which declared each slave as 3/5th of a person for the purposes of congressional representation, serves as a sterling reminder to treat everyone in a negotiation--and at every other time--as 5/5ths human.
When it comes to a deal, whether it's to acquire another business or negotiate a contract with a supplier--or even an employee or customer--too many people view it through the distorted lens of winners and losers. But from my perspective, if both sides don't come away feeling they got most of what they wanted, then neither side can claim victory.
Simply put, if it's not a win-win, then it's not a win.