I recently read 22 Days in May, the story of the 2010 UK coalition government negotiations between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, written by Lib Dem MP David Laws.
It’s a fascinating story. Here’s some lessons I took from it.
Plan Early: Months before the 2010 election, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg set up a small team to look into different scenarios the election might create. They did detailed planning on possible full coalitions or confidence and supply agreements with both Labour and the Conservatives. They even went so far as to create draft agreements they could use with either party. So when the election happened, they had road tested every potential outcome, and they knew how to negotiate to achieve their goals.
Delegate Responsibility: Both Nick Clegg and David Cameron empowered teams of four people to represent their parties in the coalition negotiations. Each team had full authority to debate and agree policy across all areas. By contrast, the team sent by Gordon Brown to negotiate for Labour didn’t have full authority to negotiate policy, and didn’t even have full agreement amongst themselves. They constantly had to refer back to people not in the room to make headway. And consequently, their negotiations didn’t make much headway.
Act Openly: The Conservatives and Lib Dems were open from the start about their policy differences. They recognised the challenges and compromises they had to make, and they worked to resolve them. Their openness built trust between them. The Labour party on the other hand made no attempt at compromise or bridging the gap to their potential partners. But they did one thing that destroyed trust. Part way through the negotiations Gordon Brown asked all his Labour cabinet members to call their Lib Dem counterparts and discuss policy. The problem was he didn’t check it with the Lib Dem negotiating team. By going behind their back he ended up destroying trust.
Personnel Decisions are for Leaders: Nick Clegg and David Cameron had their teams negotiate and agree the policy details for the coalition, but they reserved for themselves the personnel decisions. Even the negotiating teams didn’t know what their jobs would be within the new Cabinet. They dealt only with policy, and left their leaders to make the decisions on who took on what role. Personnel decisions are amongst the most important that a leader will make, and should rarely be delegated to others to make.
Maybe you won’t be involved in government negotiations, but as a leader you can still implement these lessons. Which do you need to implement first?
Mark Williamson works as a director of One Rock. He’s an experienced leadership trainer, author of biographies on John Wesley and William Wilberforce, and is also passionate about praying for London. He enjoys good films, good food, and going for long walks with his wife Joanna. You can follow him on Twitter @markonerock.