Tuesday, August 23, 2005

More on Objectivity

At AT&T Wireless, all deals had to be approved by a group of senior managers made up of our CEO, COO, CFO and GC. Many other senior managers would also attend these meetings and chime in, particularly if the deal potentially impacted their function (and often even if it didn’t). We in corp dev would typically bring deals to this committee for approval once a term sheet had been finalized with the counterparty but before any discussions on definitive documents. With the committee’s blessing, we would then have full authority to complete the deal, including signing and closing. Only for deals over $100 million was the additional step of board of directors approval required. As one might imagine, these were critical meetings for getting our work done! Obviously I wanted my presentations to shine and my recommendations to be adopted.

The problem is, there can be a natural tendency toward salesmanship in such situations: Accentuate the positive; downplay (or ignore) the negative. Big mistake, as I was fortunate enough to learn – in the very first one of these meetings I attended - by watching someone else get savaged for not paying adequate attention to certain risks in their deal.

To avoid suffering a similar fate, I seized on a strategy that served me well as a lawyer and which, in a modified form, turns out to work even better when presenting to senior management: Disclose all major negatives up front. You can then go on to present the good aspects of your deal, illustrating how they outweigh the negatives, without fear of one of the cannibals in the room ripping in to you for bullshitting them. Sure, someone may press – hard – on some of the issues you’ve raised, but you can argue back even-handedly, without also having to defend your credibility.

If you’ve done your work with senior management before the meeting, you’ll know what the hot button issues are and who in the room you’re going to need to be concerned about. Some deals seem like such slam dunks this hardly seems necessary, but I’d recommend always pre-selling the critical decision makers and presenting the negatives. Meetings like this are blood sport for some senior managers, so you’ve got to be prepared.

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