As Joe Biden tells it, he never wanted to be vice president.
When Barack Obama asked him to consider being vetted as his running mate, Biden declined. Traditionally, the vice presidency was a largely ceremonial position removed from the center of power. Though recent VPs, most notably Dick Cheney, had changed that, Biden, as a longtime U.S. senator and presidential aspirant, was uneasy about playing second fiddle. Biden’s wife, Jill, talked him into reconsidering, though she, too, was concerned about how her husband would react to being in a supporting role, as reported by Evan Osnos in a recent New Yorker profile of Joe Biden.
As it turns out, for the past six years, Biden says, he has relished being No. 2, in part because of his canny ability to stay, in his words, “in the deal”—as a close adviser to President Obama, a lead player in significant domestic and international negotiations, and an advocate for his own personal agenda. Assessments of Biden’s success as a negotiator vary widely, but few would deny that he has constructed an influential role for himself in the White House.
In negotiation, sometimes we operate solo, advocating exclusively on our own behalf. More often, however, we negotiate on behalf of others—our organization, our boss, our family.
We may not think of ourselves as agents per se, but it’s a function we engage in nonetheless.
In such situations, we face several challenges. Will we have the authority to explore options and opportunities? Can we keep our principal’s goals at the forefront without neglecting our own interests? How can we stay in the deal? Here we suggest what business negotiators can learn from Biden’s approach to these challenges.
What role will you play?
Agents can have many different assignments in negotiation. They can play the heavy, communicating bad news and standing firm to allow the principal to preserve a harmonious relationship. They can be peacemakers, extending an olive branch when talks between principals have broken down. They can bring specialized knowledge to the table, such as an understanding of relevant technology or industry practices.
Agents’ involvement and authority in a negotiation also vary. You might be little more than a messenger, or, at the other end of the spectrum, you could have significant decision-making authority, note professors Robert Mnookin of Harvard Law School and Lawrence Susskind of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a book they edited, Negotiating on Behalf of Others: Advice to Lawyers, Business Executives, Sports Agents, Diplomats, Politicians, and Everybody Else (Sage, 1999).
When you’re the one hiring an agent
What about when you need an agent to represent you in a negotiation? The following tips can help you set up an effective relationship:
Research potential agents’ reputations in your industry, including their past experiences, partnerships, and approach to negotiation.
Assess your agent’s full range of interests—both financial and otherwise—and look for ways to align them with your own.
Give your agent broad authority to explore options, but insist on retaining final decision-making power.
Consider meeting with the other side periodically to ensure that your agent is putting your interests at the forefront.
Rather than passively accepting the role your principal envisions for you, you can take action to shape it. Biden, for example, took several steps early on to ensure that he would be a lead decision maker and negotiator in the Obama White House.
Expand your scope
Biden had expected to be a vice president along the lines of Lyndon B. Johnson. But after reading that Johnson felt that President John F. Kennedy had shut him out of key decisions, Biden reconsidered. Johnson “just wasn’t in the deal,” Biden told Osnos.
So Biden instead sought to emulate another vice president, Walter Mondale, who positioned himself as President Jimmy Carter’s general adviser. Just as Mondale had moved his office from the Executive Office Building to the West Wing of the White House, Biden negotiated for a private weekly lunch with Obama, a tradition they adhere to faithfully. Biden also follows former vice president Dick Cheney’s practice of attending the president’s meetings with his top national security advisers.
Simply by being a regular presence in the room, Biden created the expectation that he would weigh in on key issues and be active in high-level negotiations. The strategy paid off: Obama assigned Biden to oversee key projects with a high degree of difficulty, like the reconstruction of Iraq and the allocation of economic stimulus funds. As a long-standing member of Congress, Biden also has been an important arm-twister on Capitol Hill, as when he helped secure the Republican votes needed to pass Obama’s stimulus plan.
In addition to positioning him as an indispensable team member, Biden’s “face time” with Obama helped him chip away at his reputation for gaffes and bluster. “You and I are becoming good friends!” Obama reportedly said to Biden during one of their lunches, adding, according to the New Yorker, “I find that very surprising.”
Negotiate your mandate
Capturing the attention and respect of your principal is one means of increasing your negotiating stature. Another is to secure a strong negotiating mandate—that is, the authority to act on your principal’s behalf, according to Tufts University professor Jeswald W. Salacuse.
You can and should discuss in advance with your principal the types of deals you may explore and perhaps tentatively agree to. A strong negotiating mandate will increase the odds that your counterpart across the table will take you seriously. It can also give you confidence that those you represent will sign off on your draft agreement, writes Salacuse in his book Leading Leaders: How to Manage Smart, Talented, Rich, and Powerful People (AMACOM, 2005).
Biden appears to have had broad leeway to brainstorm options and chart his own path. After Obama charged him with overseeing Iraq in 2009, for example, Biden took steps to elevate Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, writes Osnos in the New Yorker. When Maliki ultimately proved to be less of a friend to the United States than Biden expected, the vice president was criticized for backing him.
This example underscores the fact that agents who secure a strong negotiating mandate face a significant risk: Their decisions can backfire on both them and their principals. To minimize this risk, discuss the critical choices you face with your principal throughout the course of the negotiation. Present both your personal recommendations and opposing views thoroughly.
As an agent, your interests rarely, if ever, will be perfectly aligned with those of your principal. That is, your personal incentives—the desire to win a bonus, secure a promotion, or even get home in time for dinner—will sometimes compromise your ability to get your principal the deal that’s best for him. A real estate agent, for example, may encourage her clients to bid high on a house so that she can close the deal quickly and secure her commission. You can reduce such conflicts of interest by carefully designing your incentive structure with your principal.
Restraining the impulse to usurp your principal’s decision-making authority can be an even more difficult challenge. Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly wielded significant power in the early years of the George W. Bush administration, but when the perception arose that Cheney was pulling the strings, Bush took steps to marginalize him near the end of his presidency.
Biden has, at times, overstepped as well, as when he undercut Obama by expressing his support of gay marriage in advance of the president’s planned statement on the issue. But Biden has largely skirted the hazard of overreaching by conveying, through statements and actions, both his loyalty and his deference to Obama.
“My job’s about the president,” he told Osnos. When politicians have criticized Obama in his presence, Biden has lashed out at them. The stories of Biden’s defense of Obama reach the president, writes Osnos. That may be part of why Obama has called Biden “extraordinarily loyal.”
Biden’s attitude echoes that of James Baker during his tenure as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state. Bush and Baker had been friends for several decades before they entered the White House. Consequently, Bush gave Baker a broad negotiating mandate and trusted him implicitly. “When I went out somewhere and talked to a foreign leader, they knew I was speaking for him,” Baker said while receiving the 2012 Great Negotiator Award from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School and the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. “I was seamless with my president.”
5 guidelines for becoming an effective agent
1. Envision the ideal role you would like to play.
2. Build your reputation by securing ample face time with your principal.
3. Negotiate a strong mandate to explore options at the table.
4. Take steps to align your interests with those you represent.
5. Beware the temptation to overshadow your principal.