Every few weeks we sit down with one studio resident or visitor for a five minute free-for-all on the topic du-jour. This week we have Austin Tech Council CEO and innovation economy expert Julie Huls on the art of compromise.
[CT]: We usually like to start off with something simple, just to get the ball rolling. So with that in mind, we’ll kick it to you and ask is there such a thing as a win-win solution?
[JH]: That’s a good question. So the answer is yes, I think there is such a thing as a win-win solution. I think everyone understands the theory that ideally you have to make sacrifices and compromises. The goal is that both parties feel as if the sacrifices are minimal and the wins they get out of the deal outweigh any minuses. So, yeah, I totally believe in win-win situations, but I don’t believe in one hundred percent wins for both sides.
[CT]: So in that situation, how do you manage disappointment? Is that a key to compromise?
[JH]: Yeah, I certainly think so. Disappointment is part of life and it’s certainly a part of doing business. It’s a significant part of being in a leadership position frankly. I think good leaders understand they’re not always going to get everything they want all the time. And that in order to advance any ball forward, you’re going to have to collaborate and partner. Sometimes that means that you’re not necessarily going to get everything that you had hoped for or even that you have to compromise certain aspects of your vision or certain aspects of the project’s vision.
If you can’t handle disappointment in business, you shouldn’t be in business. And if you can’t handle disappointment, you certainly should not be in a leadership position. I think you have to roll with the punches. But ideally, if your vision is really clear in the beginning, I think that makes a difference. And if you’re able to very clearly articulate your vision, then the hope would be the people that you partner with and people that come on board to help you push the vision are clear about what you’re all trying to achieve. I think that’s a key aspect of successful leadership, you have to be able to articulate a very clear vision and then slowly but surely get people to come on board.
[CT]: That brings us to the Austin Technology Council, which represents over 280 companies, 1,600 tech executives and 60,000 employees. Obviously that’s an enormous group, so the ability to find consensus – it seems like the odds are definitely stacked against you.
[JH]: Yeah. I think the thing you have to do even before you articulate a clear vision is to ask questions and that might also sound pretty trite but there is a very clear process involved in defining a vision, right? And it’s not the first step within any process in terms of engagement.
I spent 90 days when I was first at ATC literally meeting with anybody I could meet with to find out what was working about the organization and ATC’s approach and what wasn’t working. So I think I came into the vision setting process, vision setting chapter with a really clear definition of what was not important and what was not going to be effective. And that is a really important part of the process. The second part of the process once you listen and you understand more about what’s not going to work is to start to create different scenarios of visions that could work and then slowly but surely gather feedback. I would say for ATC, it took two years minimum for us to truly understand what was going on in tech in central Texas, to really understand what was not going to work, to clearly articulate a vision and to test it. And then our engagement process probably didn’t truly begin in earnest until after the first 18 months.
Once we got through that, we were able to articulate a very simple strategic imperative. That’s been another key, I think, to our success. We don’t have complicated objectives. They might be ambitious, but they’re simple and they’re tenants that everyone, not just tech, can truly understand. So I think in that way, it’s also easier for people to get on board if they can understand where we’re headed as a community and where we’re headed as a tech sector. It’s going to be easier for them to jump on board if there’s no confusion about the vision or fuzziness about why those different strategic imperatives are important.
[CT]: So then – whether it’s a negotiation or whether it’s rallying people to a specific solution – is the approach key to being successful?
[JH]: Yes, I think that’s right. I was lucky because I really didn’t know when I first started at ATC. I came in with genuine questions about what was going on and I think people sensed my genuine curiosity. The other question we laid out pretty directly was, we want this, right? ATC didn’t have to carry on. And so I really had the opportunity to very clearly challenge the tech community into either committing to this or to shutting it down and I was happy that everybody committed. But I think it also supports the approach idea. It’s going to be different if someone comes in and pretends to have all the answers or is just going to be spitballing a vision before testing or asking questions. I think the combination of having genuine curiosity and also this direct challenge to commit in building something together really was a lucky combination.
[CT]: Studies show people are most happy with negotiation outcomes when they’re bargaining partner has made concessions. It’s important to feel like the other person has some skin in the game with you.
[JH]: Yeah, I totally agree. That person is demonstrating goodwill, right? I mean, that’s really important. My favorite book, of all my favorite business books anyway, is called “The Speed of Trust” by Steven Covey. And it speaks to the importance of the human elements and the human element that is trust – about how much faster you can do business, how much more effective and, frankly, how much more profitable you can be when you trust the people that you’re partnered with or you trust your client or your clients trust you. You have to have that two-way street. And if you don’t have that, there’s friction. Things typically end up going south pretty quickly. So the trust factor and the goodwill and being able to make confessions, those human elements that really frankly aren’t talked about a lot in business are really important. They’re keys to every person’s or every company’s success.
[CT]: Which brings us to our end point. We started out talking about a win-win solution, – a lot of the time when people think of compromise and negotiations, they think hard ball and winners and losers. But, based on our conversation, that seems like a very short term perspective.
[JH]: Yeah. And I think it’s more prevalent in certain industries. Obviously finance – I’ll tell you, I experienced hardball negotiations in real estate. But, at the end of the day, those approaches are short-lived, and I don’t trust that the results are always the most beneficial for both parties, right? The game of hardball negotiation can be challenging and fun and give you some good adrenaline kicks but at the end of the day, if you’re looking to build something that’s really going to last, you have to have the trust. And you have to understand the human elements that really come into play within the discussions. It’s not always frankly about the larger cause. There are typically specific and very individual motivations that are driving the conversation too.
As companies continue to navigate this mysterious economy, everybody is looking for ways to be more competitive with their resources and I think the art of compromise and the art of negotiation certainly is a big factor within that lane.