Albright on Communication, Information and Negotiation

Albright on Communication, Information and Negotiation

CIOS can learn a lot from diplomats and government leaders, both in terms of negotiating with and influencing people, and in regard to the way information is gathered, filtered and shared. As US Secretary of State and, before that, US Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright had dealings with some of the smartest - and some of the most notorious - leaders on the planet. CIO (US) editor in chief Abbie Lundberg and senior writer Meridith Levinson spoke with Albright late last year about what she had learned during her years at the apex of the US national information and policy pyramid.

CIO: What's the most important thing to keep in mind when you're in a critical negotiation with someone whose views and agenda are quite different from your own?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: There are really two things. You have to know what it is you want. You can't go into a negotiation without clarity about what your objective is. The other [critical piece] is almost the exact opposite, which is trying to get into the other person's shoes. If you don't understand what they have to get out of it, you can't figure out what steps they can take to give you what you want.

You've always done a tremendous amount of research before going into negotiating situations. How do you operate when you can't get the information you need?

Well, you really try to avoid that. Normally, I would have a lot of information before I went in. But when you don't have an embassy, it's hard to get the kind of information you need. When I was talking to Kim Jong Il of North Korea, we didn't have that much information about him. We knew that at that stage (in 2000), he had a nuclear potential. We were concerned about his missile technology. But our information on him was pretty sketchy, and our intelligence information basically said he was crazy. But once I talked to him and once Kim Dae-jung, the president of South Korea, had talked to him, it was evident he wasn't crazy. So you had to figure out what was going on in his mind. That probably was the hardest part, because we don't really have a functional relationship with them.

So how did you approach Kim Jong Il in that first meeting?

The thing you learn is that you have to listen. I would normally let the other party talk first and elicit things from them with simple questions. If you just go in and start talking first and lay down your position, you never really know where the other person is coming from.

CIOs sometimes have to deliver bad news to their bosses or boards of directors that could threaten their careers. What's the best way to deliver bad news effectively?

If you have a tough message to deliver, you have to deliver it straight. You have to make sure that the message, whatever it is, is clearly received. Otherwise, invariably, somebody will come back and say: "Well, that isn't what I got out of what you said". You need to make sure that there is no question about what it is you actually said.

How would you do that?

For the most part, you try to get the person in subsequent conversations to repeat what you said. Not by saying: "Repeat to me what I just told you", but you go back to the subject to see if they fully understood. If they start acting like the relationship still goes on as it was before, then you know they didn't understand.

It was standard practice for you to have one-on-one conversations with fellow Cabinet members or ambassadors before important meetings. What's the value of conducting these premeeting meetings?

You want to do as much as you can ahead of time. It's part of the preparation for a meeting. It helped me find out who was where, who would be my ally in something. Sometimes [the goal was to get someone else] to present an idea that we had so that it wasn't the United States saying this in a foreign negotiation.

You used this approach in the effort to replace Boutros-Ghali with Kofi Annan as Secretary General of the United Nations by urging various African nations to champion Annan as an alternative.

I call that "letting somebody else have your way". It's a very important thing. The other thing that is very important is that you can't take credit for everything. You have to let somebody else get the kudos sometimes, and ultimately it gets back to you.

In your book [Madam Secretary], you describe many personal things you did for people, whether you were dealing with colleagues in the US government or foreign leaders.

That may be a girl thing, but I do think that it helps because we're all human. If you try to show some interest in the person you're talking to, I think it helps in the long run. I have to say in all fairness that I used to switch signals. I'd be very nice, and then I'd let 'em have it.

You're vocal about women's issues and the challenges you faced working in predominantly male environments. Some women CIOs are reluctant to discuss such challenges. Why do you think this is?

I actually think I am too. I talk about it now, but I didn't exactly spend my entire time going around saying: "You're not treating me well as a woman". If you set yourself up as a victim, you become a victim. And mostly operating in a male world, you try not to be somebody who's always got everybody's teeth on edge. You want to blend in.

The thing that made all the difference for me (and I don't know exactly how to say this) is that I was representing the United States. That was a sign that the United States thought it was important that women should have an important role. A female CIO is just one of many. It's a good idea to work with other women so that you develop some kind of a support system. And sometimes, when a situation is egregious, then you have to step out. But for the most part, people don't like angry women, and you don't get ahead that way. But you can't be made a victim, and you can't allow things to pass. It's hard. My UN thing and what I did as secretary, it made a big difference that I was representing the United States.

What role do you see large corporations having on the world stage?

They can play an important role. Multinational corporations can help and be partners rather than adversaries with countries. And governments could be helpful to them in negotiating trade and intellectual property rights and the like. As secretary, I liked meeting with business leaders, because they have great information about what's happening on the ground. But it's essential that corporations be good citizens wherever they are in the world. They have to be seen as adding, not exploiting, in terms of human rights, the environment and other issues.

What are your thoughts about privacy rights versus national security?

The question is: What's a derogation of human rights, and what's just irritating? I get wanded every time I go through an airport. That's not a derogation of rights; it's just irritating. But I've run into a lot of booksellers and librarians, and they've made me see that the US Patriot Act is a misnomer. Tracking what people read is more a derogation of rights. My students, for example, who write papers on terrorism, wonder how much they're being checked up on. We've swung in the wrong direction.

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