Henry Kissinger's Lessons for Business Negotiators

New Book: Much has been written about Henry Kissinger the diplomat and United States secretary of state, but surprisingly little about Kissinger the dealmaker. A trio of Harvard scholars remedies that with Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level. Co-author James Sebenius discusses what business negotiators can learn.
  • Author Interview

Kissinger and the Art of the Business Negotiation

Interview by Sean Silverthorne

Henry Kissinger's negotiations with world leaders helped shape the geography, public policy, and laws that mark the 21st century world. A new book, Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level, not only explains his negotiation craft, but also what we can apply from his experiences in our everyday dealmaking.

The book is co-authored by three experts who have studied the art and science of negotiation. James K. Sebenius is the Gordon Donaldson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. R. Nicholas Burns is the Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Robert H. Mnookin is the Samuel Williston Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and chairs that school's Program of Negotiation Research Project.

Harvard Business School Working Knowledge asked Sebenius about how Kissinger's skill at diplomacy and negotiation can be applied by business practicioners.

Sean Silverthorne: As an expert on negotiation, I wonder, in talking to Kissinger, whether you learned something about negotiation from him that you hadn’t considered before?

James Sebenius: My co-authors, Nick Burns and Bob Mnookin, and I learned much about negotiation from our lengthy discussions with Henry Kissinger. Yet one distinctive and valuable characteristic stands out. Before and during key negotiations, Kissinger would both "zoom out" to his broader strategy and "zoom in" to his individual counterpart, seeking to bring the strategic and interpersonal together to advance his core interests. These dual perspectives provided complementary insights and tactical guidance. For Kissinger, this was not a two-step approach—that is, first zoom out to a strategy, then zoom in to execute it—but an iterative process.

Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko sees off US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Moscow. (ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo)

In retrospect, I realized that many other outstanding negotiators with whom I’d worked or studied also zoom out and in, though rarely to the extent I observed in Kissinger’s dealmaking, and often placing greater emphasis on either the macro or the micro.

Many negotiators certainly zoom out to the bigger picture and the broader strategy within which a given deal is situated. Ensuring that a well-thought-through strategy guides one’s negotiations is a real strength. Kissinger is best known for this kind of strategic insight, and is viewed as a kind of geopolitical grandmaster moving pieces on a global chessboard. Yet some excellent big-picture negotiators lack interpersonal effectiveness. It might seem unimportant to them relative to strategy or they simply may not possess good people skills.

Other negotiators mainly zoom in to their counterparts, focusing on communication, trust, relationships, and culture. I was surprised at the extent to which Kissinger emphasized rapport with his counterparts—from Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai to Anatoly Dobrynin and Leonid Brezhnev and to Golda Meir and Anwar Sadat. This focus greatly added to his effectiveness. Some people-oriented negotiators, however, lack a strong strategic or analytic sense. It may seem unimportant to them, they may think of “negotiation” in purely interpersonal terms, or they may simply not possess good analytic and strategic skills.

Consistently zooming out and zooming in clearly underpinned Kissinger’s success. In writing this book, I have found this to be a valuable negotiating mindset that can be consciously developed in both MBA students and senior executives. (Note: I first encountered a version of the zooming in/out concept from my colleague Rosabeth Kanter in her writings on organizational leadership.)

Silverthorne: Could you explain how this zoom out/zoom in characteristic could play out in business negotiations?

Sebenius: I often see excellent business negotiators adopt these dual perspectives, while less successful dealmakers fail to do so effectively. For example, when investment banking firm Lazard dropped alarmingly in the league tables of M&A transactions in the early 2000s, its then chairman, Michel David-Weill, decided that Bruce Wasserstein should be brought as head to revive the firm. In what could have been viewed as simply an employment contract negotiation between Michel and Bruce, both men clearly “zoomed out” to understand the broader strategic stakes. Michel wanted Lazard, a private partnership since its 19th century inception, to be revitalized but kept private. By contrast, Bruce wanted to take Lazard public. Yet arguably, Michel failed to zoom in to understand Bruce’s real interests, believing that extremely lucrative annual compensation would induce Wasserstein to keep the firm private. Instead, building on the powers he consciously obtained in his original contract, Wasserstein undertook a series of negotiations with David-Weill over the next few years that progressively set the stage for Lazard’s successful 2005 public offering.

"Consistently zooming out and zooming in clearly underpinned Kissinger’s success"

In another example from the early internet era, a fledgling Netscape, which possessed clearly superior browser technology, vied with Microsoft in customer contract negotiations with AOL. At issue was which firm’s internet browser would be chosen by AOL for its five million online customers, then a huge number. Netscape, which had recently gone public, was widely favored to win the deal despite Microsoft’s size and market dominance. Yet the strategic stakes in these talks went well beyond whether Netscape or Microsoft would capture AOL as a customer. While Netscape missed the strategic significance of what it merely treated as a large sale, Bill Gates zoomed out to understand that if it lost the competition for AOL, its core assets were at risk. During the negotiations, Microsoft deployed what many saw as disproportionate resources toward winning the contract. Its success, many analysts believe was a key factor in dooming Netscape.

In my own advisory work, when a client persistently asks about the best tactics for, say, dealing with a particular Kuwaiti counterpart, it is often productive to gently press for the client to articulate its larger strategy to which this negotiation is intended to contribute. Or I may hear a lot about, say, the economic logic of a proposed roll-up strategy and why the negotiations would make economic sense to the smaller targets. Yet it is often imperative to move from the abstract analysis to the flesh-and-blood individuals with whom the negotiations will take place: to carefully assess their personalities, histories, families, idiosyncratic motivations, sources of information, hot buttons, and so on—along with the proposed deal economics.

Silverthorne: Is business negotiation fundamentally different from negotiating in a diplomatic or political setting?

Sebenius: Big differences stand out between business and diplomatic negotiations, but the actual process shares key characteristics. Many terrific negotiators easily inhabit both worlds. For example, not only was George Shultz Secretary of State, but he also served as dean of Chicago’s business school and was president of Bechtel for a number of years. Former Secretary of State, James Baker, III, was a Houston oil and gas deal lawyer until he was 40, when he moved into public life. And since he left office in 1977, Henry Kissinger’s living has mostly been made in the private sector, often advising on complex business negotiations.

One of our goals in writing Kissinger the Negotiator was drawing on his extraordinarily complex negotiations for lessons that would apply to both diplomacy and business. We were pleased at the extent to which executives such as Steve Schwarzman and John Chambers found our analysis highly useful for business negotiations.

Of course, differences abound: business negotiators normally focus on financial interests, though environmental, intellectual property, hiring, and other considerations often are at stake. But there tends to be a pretty clear metric by which results can be measured, at least over time. And while the public may carefully follow certain business negotiations in the press, most remain relatively private. By contrast, diplomatic negotiators often seek to advance a much wider set of public interests: preventing or stopping wars, controlling arms, establishing trade rules, working out base rights, and so on. Normally, public negotiations involve many more parties than private ones. Diplomatic success is often harder to measure, especially given incommensurable issues, the glare of partisan politics, and multiple constituencies.

As someone active in both business and diplomatic negotiations, however, I see the similarities as much more fundamental than the differences even given obvious dissimilarities in context. In both settings, effective negotiators share many characteristics: whether explicitly or implicitly, they carefully map the “internal” and “external” parties, evaluate their formal and informal relationships, assess the full set of the parties’ interests and no-deal/walkaway options, envision value-creating and sustainable agreements, evaluate the barriers to reaching their target deal, and then craft a process and set of moves both “away from the table” and “at the table” to maximize the chances of a “yes.” Public and private negotiators both need to think strategically, while remaining flexible to changes in the situation, new information, and moves by the other side.

In dealing with diplomatic negotiations, I often find it helpful to pull ideas from business dealings. And in tough private sector negotiations, I often get insight from asking, “How would Kissinger (or Shultz or Baker) approach this?”

Silverthorne: Today’s world of instant communications and social media presents a much different negotiating environment than in Kissinger’s time. Do you think the availability of all this “information” makes negotiations more difficult? How do you think Kissinger would have performed in today’s world?

Sebenius: It is perhaps remarkable that the 95-year-old Henry Kissinger just authored a widely praised Atlantic article on the implications of artificial intelligence for international relations. I suspect Kissinger would have readily adapted to the new factors you cite.

"I have found that reading through each of Kissinger’s major negotiations offers key insights into common business dealings"

In his 1970s diplomacy—opening relations with China, forging détente and arms control with the Soviets, working out disengagement agreements among Egypt, Israel, and Syria, and so on—Kissinger enjoyed rapid communication with Washington. Yet he was often quite secretive about his dealings. Such secrecy would be vastly harder today given the plethora of social media and global channels of communication. However, secrecy can be achieved on occasion: to start the Iran nuclear talks, President Obama confidentially and successfully sent key emissaries to the Sultan of Oman to send and receive messages from the Iranians. In contrast to the classic image of a few important leaders hashing things out in a small private room, the public side of diplomacy has assumed much greater importance in today’s negotiations. Yet Kissinger’s dealings over say, China, or the his dramatic Middle East shuttle diplomacy often led the nightly news and dominated front pages, with Kissinger carefully managing the public face of the process.

As our analysis took shape, we became persuaded that, taking these context changes into account, the dealmaking insights we were distilling would be genuinely helpful for addressing today’s challenges such as those posed by North Korea and Russia—as well as in business negotiations. By analogy, when adapted to his context, Kissinger found great practical value in his close study of Metternich and Bismarck, whose 18th and 19th century settings were devoid of air travel, radio and television, instantaneous global communications, nuclear weapons, and other core features of Kissinger’s world. Essential elements of negotiation endure.

Silverthorne: What do you think a negotiator in business—someone dealing with contracts, labor, suppliers, customers, and the like, can learn from Kissinger and your book?

Sebenius: Nick, Bob, and I have carried out, observed, studied, taught, and written books about negotiations in many domains beyond diplomacy. We consciously analyzed Kissinger’s record not only for its diplomatic implications but also for its insights into business and legal dealmaking. As we wrote this book, I came to see it almost as the “ultimate negotiation case study.” In my advisory work on more ordinary business and financial negotiations, I have found that reading through each of Kissinger’s major negotiations offers key insights into common business dealings, clarifying such challenges as:

  • How to realistically assess whether an agreement potentially exists
  • How a “wide-angle lens” and game-changing moves away from the negotiating table can create space for a deal and enable favorable outcomes at the table
  • How careful sequencing, coalition building, and handling those who would block a deal are keys to multiparty effectiveness
  • The importance and means for truly understanding, reading, and building rapport with your counterparts
  • How assertiveness and empathy can be productively combined
  • How to act opportunistically as circumstances shift while maintaining a strategic perspective
  • How dogged persistence rather than blinding insight is often the essential ingredient for success; as well as
  • Effective (and ineffective) ways to make proposals, frame concessions, build credibility, utilize “constructive ambiguity,” embark on separate dealings among the parties rather than deal with them together, and when to opt for an open versus a secret process.

Beyond these specifics, readers who do not envision themselves in diplomatic roles will find it valuable, as we described above, to consciously cultivate a powerful element of Kissinger’s approach: of iterating between zooming out to the strategic and zooming in to the interpersonal.

  • Book Excerpt

Strategic: Big-Picture Negotiating

from: Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level
by James K. Sebenius, R. Nicholas Burns, and Robert H. Mnookin

We use the term strategic as shorthand for the most distinctive aspect of Kissinger’s approach to negotiation. Looking across several cases, we highlight five factors that characterize this strategic orientation:

1. Setting clear, long-term objectives—not having a short- term focus; 2. Emphasizing the broader context and possible links among parties, issues, and regions over time—not treating each negotiation on its “independent” merits; 3. Devising a careful plan to achieve negotiating objectives by acting directly “at the table” and, often, indirectly “away from the table” to create incentives and penalties for max- imum influence—not primarily relying on an improvisational approach limited to verbal persuasion; 4. Adapting the plan to new information, moves by others, and changing circumstances, while firmly maintaining long-term objectives—not sticking to a fixed blueprint for action, to be methodically executed; and 5. Fostering a reputation for credibility across negotiations and over time—not neglecting the influence of actions in one negotiation on expectations elsewhere.

Loosely speaking, Kissinger the strategic negotiator “zooms out” to these factors to determine where and how to concentrate his efforts. We saw this clearly enacted in his negotiations for majority rule in Rhodesia, and we will shortly flesh out what this means in practice with his plans for peace in the Middle East and opening up China.

Strategic Negotiation to Enhance Regional Stability and Reduce Soviet Influence in the Middle East

Kissinger stressed how a strategic negotiation concept, articulated well in advance, could offer a useful framework for negotiating specific issues in relation to one another. Such issues could arise unpredictably. When a crisis hit, Kissinger stated that “it was not a question ever of saying ‘now, we deal with Russia, now, we deal with China.’ We tried to have a coherent policy.”

For example, of war in the Middle East in 1973, following attacks by a coalition of Arab states (led by Egypt and Syria), Kissinger notes: “[W]e hadn’t expected the Middle East war. But we had thought about it. What we had thought about was how do we solve—the dilemma we had on the Middle East was that the Soviets were pouring arms into Egypt and encouraging a number of other countries. How could we make progress towards a negotiation that does not look as if it had been produced by Soviet blackmail? And so we had a strategy. . . . when the [1973] war started, we had two problems. One was how to handle the day, the hour- by-hour crisis. And secondly, how do we put it into a bigger framework? But we had thought about it.” By a “bigger framework,” Kissinger meant an approach that would end the war and serve long-term U.S. objectives, namely, to create a more stable regional situation and dramatically reduce Soviet influence in the Middle East—a goal he articulated well before the 1973 war broke out. He explained: “If the United States played its cards carefully, either the Soviet Union would be obliged to contribute to a genuine solution or one of its Arab clients would break ranks and begin moving toward the United States. In either case, Soviet influence among the radical Arab states would be reduced. This was why, early in Nixon’s first term, I felt confident enough to tell a journalist that the new administration would seek to expel Soviet influence from the Middle East.

“Though that incautious remark created a furor, it accurately described the strategy the Nixon administration was about to implement . . . the best strategy was to demonstrate that the Soviet Union’s capacity to foment crises was not matched by its ability to resolve them.”

With respect to those “incautious” remarks, a sample (alarmed) headline from the Washington Post in July 1970, years before a version of Kissinger’s contemplated strategy would take effect in 1973 and 1974, read, “U.S. Seeking to Oust Soviet Units in Egypt: U.S. Seeks Soviet Pullback in Mideast,” followed by a skeptical editorial “On ‘Expelling’ the Russians from the Mideast.”

A less strategic perspective might have focused on the specific, nominally separate negotiations that then dominated the news. For example, following the 1973 war, Kissinger conducted dramatic disengagement negotiations with Egypt in 1974 and with Syria through 1975 with respect to Israel. Both sets of shuttle talks led to stabilizing agreements among these countries, agreements that have endured to the present (2018). In the same time frame as these shuttles, Kissinger undertook negotiations with the Soviets over Berlin and European security aimed at a general reduction in tensions (“détente”) and an opening to the Soviets of a range of trade and other possibilities. But observe how Kissinger framed these multiple negotiations with respect to the larger strategy of reducing Soviet influence in the Middle East and moderating Soviet behavior in the context of détente: “In pursuit of this goal, the United States . . . blocked every Arab move that resulted from Soviet military support or involved a Soviet military threat; and it took charge of the peace process once frustration with the stalemate had brought some key Arab leaders to dissociate from the Soviet Union and turn to the United States.

“American strategy was based on the proposition that the Soviet Union should be faced with the choice of either separating itself from its radical Arab clients or accepting a reduction of its influence. In the end, this strategy curtailed Soviet influence and placed the United States into the pivotal position in Middle East diplo- macy. The Nixon Administration pursued two courses to achieve this goal. During the Middle East War, it kept open an almost daily channel of communication with the Kremlin to avoid permitting decisions to be taken in the heat of the moment or on the basis of inadequate information. . . .

“. . . Simultaneously we conducted negotiations on a range of issues in order to give the Soviet leaders a stake they would be reluctant to jeopardize. The Berlin negotiations contributed to Soviet restraint in the Middle East until well into 1973. Afterward, the European Security Conference helped to moderate the Soviet reaction during the various diplomatic shuttles that moved the Soviet Union to the fringes of Mideast diplomacy. . . . Détente not only calmed the international situation, it created inhibitions which caused Soviet leaders to accept what amounted to a major geopolitical retreat.”

Other analysts have confirmed the significant economic effects on the Soviets of these nominally separate negotiations. Absent Moscow’s expectation of greatly enhanced trade with the West, these linked talks would not have played such a significant role in the diplomacy surrounding the Middle Eastern conflict.

Kissinger’s success in limiting Soviet and then Russian influence in the Middle East largely endured for more than forty years, until September 2015, when Russian president Vladimir Putin launched military actions in Syria following President Obama’s pullback of American engagement.

This example highlights the characteristics of Kissinger the strategic negotiator: clear long-term objectives (ensure regional stability, enhance détente, reduce Soviet influence in the Middle East), a focus on the broader context and possible connections among parties and issues rather than treating them as independent (forge linkages among negotiations over disengagement with those over détente involving Berlin and European security that included the Soviets, Europeans, Egyptians, Syrians, and Israelis), as well as a clear plan with direct and indirect elements, enhanced American credibility, and flexibility of means while firmly maintaining ends.

Excerpted from Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level by James K. Sebenius, R. Nicholas Burns, and Robert H. Mnookin. Courtesy of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2018.

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