Lessons learned from a great negotiation leader

Members of the Program on Negotiation reflect on the negotiation skills they’ve absorbed from PON managing director Susan Hackley on the eve of her retirement.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

Susan Hackley

Leadership in negotiation

In academia, there are often subtle conflicts between the executive staff who run programs and centers, and the academics connected to them. Only a talented leader can consistently weave together such groups and integrate very different views. Susan has been such a leader for many years. She provides a vision of doing all we can to create value in the world through our teaching, research, and mentoring. Susan is a role model to all of us.

—Max H. Bazerman
Professor, Harvard Business School

Back in the 1990s, I was a visiting scholar at PON and shared an office with Susan before she assumed her longtime leadership role. Even back then, it was clear Susan was driven by the PON mission. In the years since, she has advanced the mission with constancy of purpose, openness to new ideas, and a deep commitment to impact. Her legacy at PON is reflected in a vibrant community in which each individual impact adds up to a powerful collective whole.

—Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld
Editor, Negotiation Journal
Professor, Heller School for Social Policy and Management Brandeis University

Every time she saw me teach, Susan had excellent feedback on what I could consider doing differently in addition to telling me what I did effectively. I’ll miss her remarkable mind and humble approach to teaching, mentoring, and life more generally.

—Francesca Gino
Professor, Harvard Business School

Susan created within PON a generative space for students and nurtured a platform for next-generation scholars. Her gifts include the ability to speak to the specific story—the individual life—too often lost in the public story and the adroit teaching case.

—Kimberlyn Leary
Associate Professor, Harvard Medical School/McLean Hospital
Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

If PON were a body, Susan would be its living heart. She was the energy at the crossroads, bringing
together faculty, staff, students, and participants from all over the world. She supported each one of us with her quiet, responsible leadership. She knew how to nurture the best in us, and still she pushed us to innovate for even better. What I learned from Susan as a leader is that in negotiation, you can bring your heart to work.

—Alain Lempereur
Academic Editor, Negotiation Briefings
Alan B. Slifka Professor of Conflict Resolution and Coexistence, Brandeis University

Susan has taught me two critical negotiation lessons. One is how to truly be “soft on the person, hard on the problem.” Over the years, I’ve watched negotiators at all levels struggle to embody that maxim; they either give in on substance to preserve the relationship or “win” the deal but lose the connection. Susan epitomizes that unique leader who treats everyone with dignity while tackling tough issues with fairness and thoughtful problem solving. Second, Susan has taught me that negotiation is not an end in itself. It can be a means for bringing about a more peaceful planet. Her work to educate the world about issues of peace, justice, and the impact of war on children has inspired countless people around the world, myself included, and will have an impact for generations to come.

—Daniel Shapiro
Founder and Director
Harvard International Negotiation Program

Over two decades, there have been countless moments when I have marveled at Susan’s ability to balance multiple parties— often, a front table of cantankerous faculty and a back table of our exceptional PON staff. Ordinary negotiators would roll their eyes or cross their arms, but Susan always engaged with the problem and invariably solved it.

About five years ago, PON was contemplating how best to offer PON executive education overseas without senior faculty needing to travel, but without sacrificing quality. In a meeting, Susan presented her vision for PON Global, which immediately resonated with me as the “just right” balance of in-person education and videos—and in 2020, converted PON Global to an online course as a result of the pandemic. Susan made PON Global a successful reality with her exceptional execution skills.

—Guhan Subramanian
Faculty Chair, Program on Negotiation
Professor, Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School

Listening to understand

Anytime I have come to Susan with an idea—a syllabus design suggestion or a cockamamie scheme—she has been welcoming, interested, and open to new ideas, even as I knew she must be fielding opinions and advice from all sides. She would ask questions and express enthusiasm, nodding thoughtfully. And then she’d give her honest sense of whether the idea had potential. “I love that idea,” she’d say. “Why not?” And voilà, we would have wild animals on set. Or she’d say, “I love that idea. I’m not sure it’s . . . ” and give a clear-eyed view of the challenges or obstacles. I knew I could trust her to tell me what’s what, and I also learned to trust her judgment.

—Sheila Heen
Senior Lecturer on Law, Harvard Law School

One of the things I admire most about Susan is her ability to thoughtfully and carefully listen. She always seems to be asking, What am I not hearing? or What can I learn?

Sometimes when Susan and I were discussing an office issue, she’d stop to say, “I think that’s the third time you’ve mentioned that. What am I not getting?” Rather than chastising me for repeating my concern, she recognized that I thought it was important enough to repeat and was curious about the motivations behind it. Sometimes these conversations led her to change her mind, but even when they didn’t, I felt my concerns were acknowledged and appreciated.

Another anecdote stands out. Before a family Thanksgiving celebration, I mentioned to Susan that I was dreading an unfortunate dynamic—a family member always insulted the host’s taste and decor. Susan suggested that I challenge the family member to instead say three positive things within the first 10 minutes: “Make it a game.” She elaborated, “Let her know your concerns and how she might help make the time pleasant for everyone.” It worked like a charm and made for a pleasant holiday.

—James Kerwin
Assistant Director, Program on Negotiation

Curiosity, empathy, and tenacity

I’ve admired Susan’s ability to bring people together to support and build new initiatives, such as PON Global. She also has a keen sense of appreciation for suffering and sacrifice, and is a true artist. In her documentary, Veteran Children: When Parents Go to War, she shone a light on the experiences of children left behind while their parents are in service and reminded us of the enormity of the sacrifice made by members of the military.

—Kessely Hong
Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

Susan’s film about children and war shows that technical skills are insufficient to manage all the negotiations, relationships, and outreach to pull off a complex project: You also need a guiding vision and the belief that you can do it. If you have that, then the many negotiations required become manageable; without that mindset, all the negotiation skills in the world aren’t going to get you there. For me, that’s a crucial example of how important vision, grit, and belief in oneself are in negotiation and problem solving.

—Douglas Stone
Lecturer on Law, Harvard Law School

One of my favorite memories of Susan is the two-week journey we took in 2006 retracing the footsteps of Abraham from his legendary birthplace in Harran, Turkey, through Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel, ending up at his legendary burial spot in the West Bank. Susan was ready for any sudden change in plans, curious, unflappable, and positive-spirited. I will never forget our stay as guests of our beloved Father Paolo at a sixth-century Syrian monastery high in the desert hills, only reachable by walking. Susan absolutely loved it. The negotiating lesson? Be open and curious, ask a lot of questions, and bring not only your head but also your heart to the great human task of understanding others who may seem on the surface very different from us.

—William Ury
Cofounder, Program on Negotiation

Susan Hackley is smart, empathetic, and ever patient. She is also fierce. Just consider her documentary, Veteran Children. Producing a film is hard work—all the more so one that deals with politically sensitive and often-misunderstood issues. In the heart of the film, children describe their experience and feelings about having an absent parent. Some have soft voices, but they all speak powerfully about the often-unseen impact of sending others into battle. It took unwavering dedication for Susan to bring this project to fruition. I’m in awe of how she lives by her values.

—Michael Wheeler
Professor, Harvard Business School

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