Choosing and Using a Negotiation Adviser

Before relying on others for advice, determine what role you want them to play.

By on / Negotiation Skills

As he approached the June 23 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft this year, top prospect Jaylen Brown, a student at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, made the unusual yet logical decision to participate in the draft process without the aid of a sports agent. Brown, the 2016 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, likely decided he didn’t need an agent for the draft because, under current NBA rules, prospects have little room to negotiate salary with teams. Brown might save at least $150,000 in agent fees by negotiating his first four-year deal on his own, estimated Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks of The Vertical podcast.

But that doesn’t mean Brown prepared for the draft unassisted. In fact, he assembled a broad and impressive roster of informal advisers. First, he recruited the National Basketball Players Association to help him negotiate his contract, a service that comes with his annual union dues. Next, Brown carefully built a trusted team of confidants, as reported by Marc J. Spears on the website The Undefeated. Hashim Ali, a UC Berkeley alumnus and former club basketball player who is currently earning his doctorate in education at the school, was in charge of managing Brown’s meetings with NBA teams. Ali also introduced Brown to NBA Hall of Famer Isaiah Thomas, who quickly became Brown’s mentor. Brown’s other advisers include an academic chairperson, a top-ranked basketball trainer, and a successful entrepreneur.

“I’ve got great resources, so I use them,” Brown told The Undefeated. “I’ve got people on the inside who are my eyes and ears. People who understand the NBA, who played in the league for 10 to 15 years, who understand what I need and what I don’t. . . . They help put me in place to orchestrate things the way I want them to be orchestrated.” The careful orchestration paid off: The Boston Celtics chose Brown as the third overall pick in the draft.

Negotiators often seek help from advisers—not just traditional agents but also more unorthodox experts and mentors. In an article in the April issue of the Negotiation Journal, Tufts University professor Jeswald W. Salacuse explores the range of roles that advisers can play in negotiation, based on his survey of European government policy advisers. Salacuse recommends that negotiators consider several elements when choosing and using advisers, five of which we overview here.

1. Type of adviser

Advisers can be formal (in the case of a lawyer or an agent) or informal (such as a relative or a coworker). Most commonly, like many of Brown’s informal advisers, they provide expertise based on their special knowledge about the process or substance of the negotiation. But negotiators can also use advisers to provide validation, notes Salacuse. For example, if you are leaning toward a particular position on an issue, you might consult with an adviser for validation of your plans.

2. Advisers’ interests

Keep in mind that your advisers’ interests won’t always be perfectly aligned with your own. Even an adviser who has your best interests at heart, such as a spouse, may have motivations that conflict with yours. Similarly, paid advisers may have financial or career incentives—such as a desire to maximize their earnings or to work for your counterpart down the road—that could color the advice they present. Advisers can inject new, useful ideas into a negotiation, but they can also engage in unjustified interference for self-serving purposes. Carefully examine your advisers’ motives before following their advice.

3. Adviser’s role

Your relationship with an adviser is likely to follow one of three basic structural models, according to Salacuse. First, in a structural model that Salacuse refers to as “the adviser as director,” the adviser takes control of the negotiation process, directing you on how to behave in order to succeed. Second, and polar opposite, in the “adviser as servant” model, you fully control the negotiation and may limit your adviser’s participation in responding to specific questions and issues. Third, and somewhere in between, according to the “adviser as partner” model, you may choose to conduct your negotiation jointly with your adviser or advising team, managing the process and solving problems together, while still retaining responsibility and decision-making authority over the negotiation. Turning to Brown, he seems to have wanted to structure the advising relationship so that he was the director and those he chose would play more of a servant role, notes Salacuse. The fact that he had several agents who served in an unofficial rather than official capacity underscores his director position. In the usual sports-agent situation, by contrast, the agent is more often the director of the process.

4. Signals sent to others

Your choice of advisers may send positive or negative signals to others. For instance, if you choose a legal team that assisted an adversary of your counterpart in the past, you may send the message that you plan to take a competitive approach in your negotiation. To take another example, U.S. presidents have sometimes deliberately included or excluded members of the rival political party from their cabinet. Choosing an adviser who can build bridges with your counterpart may communicate that you wish to take a collaborative approach. Brown may have achieved this goal with NBA teams by working with informal advisers instead of negotiating through a sports agent.

5. Other party’s advisers

It also can be useful to know who is advising your counterpart. Are those advisers likely to support or oppose your positions and interests regarding the issues at stake? How prominent a role will the other party’s advisers have in the negotiation? Might you be able to make inroads with the other party’s advisers, enlisting them to provide information or to make your case to their client? Your knowledge about the other party’s advisers can help you make wiser decisions in your negotiation.

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