As far as ginormous deals go, Emil Michael is a heavy hitter and a headline maker: He’s raised more than $25 billion in capital and famously negotiated Didi Chuxing’s $7 billion acquisition of Uber China, which he says has been his most challenging deal to date.
Prior to that, Michael spent nine years at Tellme Networks, where he was central to Microsoft and its CEO, Steve Ballmer, raising Tellme’s acquisition price from $300 million to $800 million in a single weekend.
Michael was recently asked by “20VC” podcast host Harry Stebbings to reveal some of the secrets behind the dynamics of his legendary business deals. Stebbings has referred to Michael as the OG of negotiations in dealmaking today, a title that comes with major Wall Street cred. The graduate of Harvard University and Stanford Law School shared that the first step is ditching traditional negotiation books and classes and taking a completely fresh approach.
Michael said, “I always tell people all those negotiation books and negotiation classes? Throw it out.”
Get To Know the Players Before Launching Negotiations
Michael’s first piece of advice is fundamental. “The No. 1 thing in negotiations is to outwork whoever you’re negotiating with,” said Michael, who is also an adviser at Gopuff, Brex, and Revolut. “That means when I know I’m negotiating with you, I try to know everything about you. Before I get to that meeting, [I know] everything about your company, your industry, if you’re having a rough quarter, your org chart, [and] what your financial outcomes are looking to be like. How do you get promoted? How do you get fired? And everything around that, because it brings the human dynamic and the real-world dynamic into a negotiation.”
Emil Michael says the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (aka BATNA) is a number or a level. “It doesn’t account for the ins and outs of how one defines their own BATNA, or even gets something done within their org, so that’s framework piece No. 1,” he says.
Give Less Info Than You Get
Framework No. 2, according to Michael, is: “The less information you give and the more you get, the better.” If they haven’t done the groundwork, Emil Michael said he’s not going to do it for them.
“If I’ve done the research, this is just trying to put a picture around someone. If you had to write a chapter on Harry’s life, I want to be able to write it before I get in the room with you,” Emil Michael told Stebbings. “Whether I told you I wrote that or not is my advantage to keep, if I can do that. Information is power, and people don’t realize that enough, that the more you learn the better you’re going to be at these things, even about your own company.”
Emil Michael added that it’s vital to pay attention to the small specifics — who stands up to shake his hand, who sits down, who offers him coffee, who pours it, who set up the meeting, and in which location. The devil is in the details. “All the signals show you who has leverage, and paying attention to those things is sort of like a CIA agent paying attention to a subject,” Michael illustrated. “If you do that over time, you do your 10,000 hours in negotiation. It becomes sort of innate.”
Maintain Power by Keeping Emotions in Check
When it comes to negotiating with someone who is highly emotional, Michael suggested his strategy for maintaining a stoic facade.
While he considers himself a “shock absorber” and admits he can easily absorb the impact of someone else’s emotions while understanding both his side and their side, Emil Michael said, depending on the context, he never reciprocates an emotional outlook — and that gives him power.
“They’re unregulated and uncentered, and that means they’ll make more mistakes than I would,” he explained. “And so if you can be a shock absorber to emotion in negotiations, that’s a winning strategy in general, in my view. The emotion thing is just a massive tell. This is why being a shock absorber is better.”
Acknowledging any level of leverage during negotiations is another art form Emil Michael said he has perfected.
“This is where sometimes it helps to use your network to whisper to this person, ‘Hey, this person might have some leverage here because they can go do this other thing, or that,’” Michael said. “You know, and this is part of the research — bringing every tool to bear.”
Emil Michael has indeed come a long way since using a merger process to pay down my student loans. The Egyptian-born businessman who says his parents arrived in America with nothing acknowledges his origin story is one that makes up the very foundational fabric of America — the classic immigrant achieving the American dream story. It taught the entrepreneur America is the land of opportunity and that reaching for the stars wasn’t impossible.
Take a Whole Approach
Michael, who was a student of Silicon Valley business coach Bill Campbell, revealed a “whole approach” is vital to understanding how a network is connected.
“I call it a whole of deal approach,” Emil Michael says. “It’s not just a negotiation, you can enter into a room and come out in three hours with a handshake. This is a whole approach of winning in negotiations.”
He advised that a deal isn’t always completed during one boardroom meeting. A whole approach can include delving for intel — and creating more time for yourself to get to the right answer.
“Your network, their network; how is it connected, to whom? How deeply?” he said. “How deep the ties are to this person and this company. If you can’t communicate that in the minute, because it would be awkward to do so, you communicate it after.”
Mentoring others on the art of negotiation is something Emil Michael said he’s passionate about and he engages with mentees as often as his demanding schedule allows. He says he hopes to one day leave behind a legacy of mentorship that could even have a fraction of the impact that Campbell had on his life.
“He probably mentored about 20 people and made such an impact on all of us,” Michael said of Bill Campbell. “If I could do the same after all the experience I’ve had, and have people go … ‘Wow, Emil helped me do this, and helped me grow in this company. I built this company, and I made my impression on the world,’ that would be something I’d be proud of.”
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