Deal Killers and the Big Deal

St. Jude, patron saint of lost causesSeveral years ago, while Dimitri and I were still doing consulting, the dream gig came our way. A national organization with 50+ independent chapters in cities around the US wanted our help in designing a board education program from the ground up.

Bill had been put in charge of the group’s effort to train all those boards. Because his real position was regulatory compliance and NOT board work, he began searching the internet to learn all he could about governance training.

By the time Bill called me, he had read – and apparently memorized – pretty much everything I had ever written about boards. (I say “memorized” because he began quoting me back to me – a very odd feeling indeed!)

After just one phone conversation, Bill and a colleague flew to Tucson, where they spent a whole day with us, exploring what might be possible. They asked us to speak at an upcoming conference, where board members from all 50+ boards would be in attendance – and not only paid our speaking fee, but ordered a copy of our board workbook for every attendee. After the conference, we began speaking weekly, sending emails back and forth, to define what was quickly becoming the dream project.

We were about to create a nationwide demonstration project, using 50+ community-based boards PLUS their national board, to prove what Governing for What Matters could make possible in these communities.

Several weeks and emails and conference calls passed. The project kept growing in scope, as did the budget, which quickly grew well into 6 figures. Bill wanted results, and he was excited to create the conditions that would make those results a reality.

Slowly, though, things started to unravel. What began as a single “odd” conversation became more and more odd conversations. For every approach we discussed and created together, Bill would call several days later to say it wasn’t workable – despite his deep involvement in co-creating these approaches!

Where I had learned to look forward to our calls as the highlight of my week, I was now dreading the words, “Bill is on line 1.” And yet, this was the deal of a lifetime! It would put us on the map, give huge credibility to our work! We persisted.

And then one day, after yet another exasperating call, our intuitive and caring assistant, Erin, came out of her office. “Whenever Bill calls, I can’t help but hear your end of the call,” she said. “And it’s just getting frustrating. He is the one who pursued YOU. He is the one who flew all the way here to try to put this together. So why is it that every time he calls, all I hear is you guys getting defensive and trying to convince him? Aren’t we way far along in the process for that?”

Within 24 hours, a letter was sent to Bill, declining to pursue the project any further. And today, five years later, they still don’t have an education program for their boards.

What Was Really Going On
I cannot pretend to know what was really going on for Bill, although I have my suspicions. What I do know, though, is what was going on with Dimitri and me.

Because we wanted the project so badly – because it would be such a huge boost to our overall goals – we were willing to overlook one issue, then another issue, then another.

Those issues, though, were not tiny things, but core pieces of how the project could most effectively achieve both its own goals AND our own long-term goals.

One by one, we had been giving up what was important to us, all because we so badly wanted that job.

Since that time, we have come up with a process for making decisions and negotiating the sorts of major projects that come along every once in a while, usually seeming like they are WOW too good to be true. I’m not talking about the normal, ordinary client work. I’m talking about the dream jobs that will take at least 6 months (and often 2 years) of all-consuming time out of our lives.

The key to the thought process is that we aim at what we really want from our work – the end goals we are aiming for.

Step #1: Know Your Ultimate End Result Goals
Where do you want to be in 5 years? Be very clear about what that looks like – not nebulous “success” but a crystal clear image.  That could be, “Heads of State will call me to consult on world affairs,” or “Communities where I work will experience significant improvement to their quality of life,” or  “I’ll spend most of my time home with my kids, with enough passive income to make that possible,” or anything in between.  What will 100% success look like for you and your consulting practice in 5 years?

While this is not a critical step for day-to-day client work, if you are considering a deal that would consume you for 6 months or longer, it had better help you get closer to your dreams!

Step #2: Identify the Cause-and-Effect Conditions that will Create that Success
What conditions will create the path to your success? It could be “People in general need to know X is possible.” It could be “Organizational leaders in my market need to see me as a visionary thinker who can help them succeed.”  It could be “This particular organization’s decision-makers need to see me in action!” It could be cash flow at a certain level, or X kinds of clients, or ongoing education or etc. and etc. Name those pre-conditions to your own success, as specifically as you can.

Step #3: Understand the List in Step 2
When it comes to big deals, decision-making is often as much an emotional process as it is a logical one. Therefore, to ensure you are negotiating in a way that gets you closer to your 5 year goals, it is helpful to gain some insights into your own psyche. We have found we learn a lot by breaking down the list we created in Step 2, using two categories:

1) Must-Haves: The conditions that must be furthered in every single major effort we embark upon (the deal-killer decision points for every major effort, to ensure it moves us towards our goals). If a project is so big that it will consume almost every waking moment for a year or more (as the board training project would have), that project MUST move us closer to our goals in a dramatic way for it to be worth our time. So we list those “must have” conditions.

2) Wouldn’t It Be Nice: The conditions that don’t need to be present in every single major effort, but it would be nice if they were there. (Usually this is about cash flow. While the Must Have might be “It has to pay my salary” the Wouldn’t It Be Nice usually sounds more like winning the lottery.)

By noting which items in Step 2 fall into which category, we can be sure to emphasize those priorities that will ABSOLUTELY move us closer to our 5 year goals.

Step #4: Linking Our Goals to the Project At Hand
For the first time in this thought process, we will consider the actual project at hand. How will that project get us closer to our 5 year goals? How will the project create the conditions we noted in Step 2? We have found it helpful to create a simple fill-in-the-blank statement for this step:

This project will get us closer to our goal by providing us with _______________ and _____________ and ________________.

Once we’ve created the statement, we do everything short of framing it. We print it in 40 point type and tape it up in every planning session, for every phone call and email. We want to be sure to always be clear about why we are doing the project.  And we also want to see that those items must be present for this to really be worth our while.

Therefore, at every step in the proposal and negotiation process, we remind ourselves of the critical question, “Will this provide us with enough of the things on our list, to be worth the time this major effort will take?”

Step #5: Decision-Making Checklist
Assuming the deal is progressing along and is hitting all the buttons in Steps 1-4, we are now in negotiations for the agreement that will spell out who does what and who gets what. When a consultant really wants the gig, this is where “give and take” often becomes “give and give.”

To avoid the give-and-give trap, we create a checklist with two columns.

Column One: All the things in the “Must Have” list from Step 3.
Column Two: The OPPOSITE of all those conditions. The danger signs. The red flags. List those in detail.

As an example for Column Two, let’s consider the items we noted in Step 2, and then their opposites:

Future potential clients need to know X results are possible (success stories)
Opposite: Nondisclosure / gag order about the work we will have done together and its results.

Organizational leaders in my market need to see me as a visionary thinker who can help them succeed (positioning, branding)
Opposite: All co-created work will be owned by the client. After the gig, I will have no permission to use any portions of that work as my own.

Decision-makers need to see me in action! (visibility)
Opposite: I will be the invisible hand, working behind the scenes.
Opposite: I will have no access to the CEO or the board – only the mid-level staff.

Here is why it is critically important to list as many red flags as you can think of, and to have that list written down and set in front of you:

We humans have the tendency to ignore warning signs if we want something badly enough.

We give up deal-killer conditions because something in the “Wouldn’t it be nice” category is bright and shiny.

More important, though, we will often find that something makes us feel inexplicably uncomfortable – and because we can’t put our finger on why we feel uncomfortable, we acquiesce. Later we kick ourselves because it was our gut talking – and I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t kick him/herself when they fail to follow their gut.

What Step 5 does, then, is to quantify your gut. Your gut is the collective wisdom and experience of your lifetime – the stuff you know so deeply it is in your DNA and no longer in a place where you think about it in words (hence, why you can’t explain why you’re uncomfortable).

To trust your gut, you need to know your gut. And that is what Step 5 does. It stops us from making decisions based on what we want emotionally – often rooted in our fears – vs what will bring us closer to our long term goals.

Here is what we found as we began analyzing why this thought process is effective:

When we are negotiating for something to which we are emotionally attached, it would be one thing if all we did was give away the things that would move us closer to our goals.

In reality, though, we often also agree to do things that actually go directly counter to our goals. So we’re not only agreeing to delay our goals, but agreeing to do things that will directly sabotage our goals!

That is all because we have not quantified what is meaningful and significant. We instead keep it all in our head and our hearts and our “gut.”

If a project is going to take 6 months or more out of our lives, it had better bring us closer to our long term goals.

This thought process is the closest Dimitri and I have come to fool-proofing our creative and impulsive urges to pursue those bright and shiny long-term projects. It is the closest we have come to ensuring that when we first approach such a project, we know what we are getting into and what our deal-killers must be. And it is the closest we have come to heeding warning signs far earlier than we ever had before.

But the proof is in the time-wasting pudding: Using this framework, Bill’s Board Development project was the last time Dimitri and I spent weeks and months only to see it fall through. That was five years ago. Which either means the framework works, or it means we’re about due…

Photo: Everyone is a bit of a lost cause at some time or another… (taken at San Xavier mission, Tucson)

1 thought on “Deal Killers and the Big Deal”

  1. I think every consultant has been offered the “dream job” that doesn’t work out. You’ve put together such a great framework that really brings home the important point “what kind of project and client do you really want to work with?”

    I also think the “gut check” is such an important point. If you have butterflies in your stomach because you keep dreading meeting with the client, then that’s an important thing to notice…and all too often ignored!

    I’ll refer back to this often. Thanks so much for writing it all down.


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