Lesson #09 – “When there is no art in the deal”

by | Jul 15, 2022

I once read a story about a writer by the name of Tony Schwartz.

He authored Donald Trump’s autobiography “The Art of the Deal” in 1987.

I understand the sentence doesn’t really make sense, but it seems he did author another person’s autobiography, but understanding what we know about the protagonist, nothing surprises.

The decision to author the book has followed him ever since: a stench, a dead possum in his roof. I doubt a day has gone by when he hasn’t been reminded of this, directly or in hushed tones. When he introduces himself or picks up his dry-cleaning, someone asks, “Aren’t you the fellow…”.

He spoke of his unease from the outset, a nagging feeling he pretended not to notice but soon impossible to ignore. The subject wanted less and less to do with the project, losing patience, bored with it, and by showing less of himself, revealing more, the writer required to fill the gaps with something other than his experience of the man, creating a persona, a distortion, which is all that Trump wanted, given that it is all he is.

Writing a book is a serious undertaking – late nights, lonely hours of just you and your keyboard filling empty pages. Tony Schwartz was now concocting an image for a man whom he had increasingly little respect, putting down words this person would approve, if only he could get him to read them. In doing so, he was further glorifying an image already massively inflated beyond its reality and becoming a key player in this process and forever would be.

But he ploughed on, despite his misgivings. And he was not alone. He sensed the uneasiness of those around him, people he trusted and valued who protested his association and anticipated the potential ramifications of a lifetime confederation with someone whose character was there for all to see in the era of the larger-than-life, rockstar entrepreneur.

“If someone tells you who they are, believe them”, said Maya Angelou, and so it was with Donald Trump, and Tony Schwarz believed him.

How he justified it at the time was simple, compelling and defensible, at least to himself. Most deals are. He was a writer and wanted to earn a living being a writer. The promise of the biggest project and paycheck in his young writing life, and he needed the money, although it is uncertain whether he ever received the agreed stipend.

Yet, somehow, he got there. ‘TRUMP: The Art of the Deal’ was published. It was a best seller.

Tony Schwartz officially ‘confirmed’ to the world what it already suspected. The character he created confirmed Donald Trump as an all-knowing business genius. The ultimate deal-maker, possessing the power to negotiate improbable and spellbinding deals with any gormless person or organisation (read bank) who happened to come under his masterful spell. The book read like the ultimate ‘how to’ in the 1980s mantra of ‘Greed is Good’.

It is “an unguarded look at the mind of a brilliant entrepreneur and an unprecedented education in the art of the deal”, the book’s dust jacket proclaimed.

At the time of its publication, I was a young Recruiting Manager of the Melbourne Football Club, now negotiating player contracts and trades for the first time.

The high-profile and respected football leaders of this time were the deal-makers. Legendary figures of the game, and their folklore, were part of my growing up, as much as the players themselves.

One of the most famous stories related to Royce Hart, a champion Richmond player and my first childhood hero, who signed with the Tigers as a seventeen-year-old Tasmanian for the price of a suit and a few Pelaco shirts. It was a deal negotiated by the most legendary Richmond deal-makers, club Secretary Graeme Richmond.

The Trump book was given to me on my 23rd birthday by my father, Alan Schwab.

My dad and I shared birthdays, the 4th of December, which always made them special. Dad was then Executive Commissioner of the AFL but had likewise built a reputation as a shrewd deal-maker. He was also a key person in the great Richmond era as the club Secretary, managing to step out of the significant shadow of his predecessor, Graeme Richmond. They would do enough deals between them to win the club five Premierships.

I read the ‘TRUMP: Art of the Deal’ back to front that summer break. Being one of those football deal-makers had become an unspoken personal goal, something I saw as a key to my future in the game, and perhaps the opportunity to one day write myself into the next generation of deal-making folklore.

I now had the secret sauce in my hand. Again from the book’s dust cover. TRUMP ON TRUMP: “I don’t do it for the money. I’ve got enough, much more than I’ll ever need. I do it to do it. Deals are my art form.”

That sounded like my kind of art form.

I grew up with these football deal-maker stories and loved them. Dad would scour the country for the next great Richmond player, following up the tips and leads from his multi-layered network of contacts who would feed him information on likely prospects playing in country and interstate leagues.

I remember him embarking on these trips, leaving our Mt Waverley home, pointing his Holden Kingswood in the direction of a small Mallee town, arriving seven hours later and signing a young footballer, driving home with the paperwork feeling like a winner. And then, a few short years later, that same player was doing a lap of honour with his Tiger teammates on the MCG, carrying around Premiership silverware.

For this football love-struck, it was intoxicating stuff.

When he went recruiting in Tasmania, I remember asking, “Can you bring home another Royce Hart?” His response has stayed with me. “You only get one of them in a lifetime “, he said, but he did sign a great Tiger, Michael Roach, who would kick a century of goals in a Premiership four years later.

Our summer family holidays were organised around such trips, not that I understood at the time. I grew up thinking all families went to places like Pyramid Hill and Mildura for the summer break. There was one year, the first time I’d ever been on a plane, we went to Adelaide. It was a serious step up from our previous country jaunts. It was only recently my mum explained we were there because dad was trying to sign a red-headed Woodville ruckman by the name of Craig McKellar, who, a couple of years later, would get to do one of those laps of the MCG as a Tiger premiership player.

There is a famous trade deal my father landed, which might be considered the game’s greatest ever. It was so big that I have no idea how it started or finished.

The Tigers swapped their two-time Premiership player Billy Barrot, a dynamic centreman loved by the Tiger faithful, for St Kilda dual Brownlow Medalist Ian Stewart, the Brownlow Medal awarded to the competition’s best player. The following year, Ian Stewart won his third Brownlow, becoming one of only four players in the game’s history to achieve this. Bill Barrot played only two games for St Kilda.

When Richmond named its Team of the Century three decades later, both Stewart and Barrot were in the team.

There was great intrigue surrounding the deal, and it seems a fair amount of ‘skullduggery’ a term that brings some honour to the lying, cheating and ‘gamesmanship’ required to facilitate a deal of this nature, but also a celebrated part of the game, adding to the fame of the deal-maker.

During this era, Richmond wore its success, aggression and ruthlessness like a suit of armour. The supporters of all other clubs seemed united in their disdain for Richmond, and the Tigers promoted and thrived in this conspiratorial ‘us against them’ world of their creation.

Richmond single-mindedly, unrelentingly and unapologetically sought to shape the competition for its benefit and, in doing so, built a formidable club.

It was a Tiger era of success that paled all of the club’s historical achievements and the marker from which all future teams and efforts would be calibrated.

It was also a period in which the club built a reputation of letting nothing get in the way of its success.

A conversation with any Tiger supporter who experienced this era will not only focus on the fact that Richmond teams won, and often, but how they went about winning, and everyone went with it. No apologies needed or expected.

Pure intimidation was at the heart of the Richmond playbook, a psyche not restricted to the field of play; it permeated every aspect of the club.

Behaviours drive culture, and culture embeds behaviours, so it was at Richmond.

No one was immune. If you were a player considered not to have any value, or a use-by date was imminent, or the imperfect football market gave you a higher perceived value than your club, you were discarded, packaged, bundled off and traded. Few, if any, were protected from this potential or possibility, no matter your contribution, track record or team glory you shared.

Nothing got in the way, be it an opposition player who stood between a Richmond player and the ball, or the rules that governed the game, anything impeding the club and its ambitions to see a player in Richmond colours, or more particularly, not in the colours of teams who were most likely to rival the Tigers at the pointy end of the season.

The focus was not merely on making Richmond better but on diminishing and reducing their opposition.

A recruiting endeavour was an opportunity to hold power over clubs and competition, and there were lashings of ego in this process. It was arrogant, hairy-chested machismo. The stakes were high, and with this mindset, it was inevitable that deals would not always go to plan, the outcome disastrous and far-reaching, the protagonists blind to this possibility.

And so it was for Richmond.

The Tigers had just won back-to-back Premierships and became obsessed with signing a South Melbourne player, John Pitura, to replace the aging Ian Stewart.

Richmond’s keen interest in Pitura started when he was selected in the Victorian State team, a significant honour, but became an obsession when he performed well against Tiger champion Francis Bourke, a player who rarely lowered his colours.

Pitura’s team, South Melbourne, was a lowly club, winning just here and there, while Richmond was enjoying an era to rejoice. In the minds of the Tigers, a club like South Melbourne was just a road bump between them and their quarry.

But the Tigers’ fixation was there for everyone to see. There would be no art in this deal. They were at their bully-boy best, or worst, and they overcommitted on the deal as the club choked on its hubris.

Richmond massively overpaid for what turned out to be an overvalued asset. They traded three players, one loved veteran and Premiership ruckman Brian ‘The Whale’ Roberts and two youngsters who had played a dozen games between them, 19-year-old forward/ruckman Graham Teasdale and 20-year-old half-back Francis Jackson. There was also a significant amount of cash, undisclosed at the time.

Not only did the Tigers lose valuable young talent, players who were the product of their previous recruiting efforts, they also crushed their culture, the deal becoming a tipping point.

I am sure if John Pitura had starred and become the next Ian Stewart, as was the hope, the deal would have had different consequences. Pitura was beautifully talented, balanced in the way many left-footed athletes are, and with a thumping and pinpoint kick to match. A handsome athlete, who always seemed to be sporting a suntan, even in the depths of the Melbourne winter, somehow he just didn’t seem to fit, never making an impact, and left after three seasons of inconsistent football.

The former Swan was in the wrong pond. Meanwhile, the players traded by the Tigers thrived in their new environment. ‘The Whale’ Roberts starred in the ruck for the Swans, Graham Teasdale won the Brownlow Medal two years later, and Francis Jackson became a mainstay of the South Melbourne defence for the next decade.

Soon, even the Tiger supporters turned on Pitura, unfairly, as it was never his fault the trade played out the way it did. All he wanted was to play in a successful team, perfectly reasonable after slogging away at a lowly club for 100 games. He became a lightning rod of supporter wrath as the club began to decline. The deal was spoken of as the beginning of the near end when the club found itself on the brink of bankruptcy and last on the ladder only a decade later.

The irony, if that is the correct word, is I was now the CEO of the Tigers that decade later, trying to resurrect the great club.

There were countless occasions, in moments of reflection on how dramatic the club’s fall had been, where people would say of the demise, “It all started with the Pitura deal”, and it was hard to argue against their contention even understanding the role my father played.

With this lived experience, you’d think I’d know better. But no, I still wanted to be part of this action, and throughout my thirty-year career in the game, I was mostly an active player in the player trade market.

This process is now far more structured, known as “Trade Week”, which takes place a few weeks after the Premiership has been won and lost.

Trade Week has become an event in its own right. At a time of year when community sporting interests should have turned to cricket, tennis and horse racing, the speculation and intrigue of Trade Week dominates the sporting media, even more than any week in the season itself.

It perversely makes sense.

Football lives on hope, and Trade Week represents the ‘Season of Hope’. As the actual season plays out for clubs and their supporters, most experience the dissolution of hope as their teams fail to compete, unlikely to feature in that year. Then the season finishes, and Trade Week commences, hope renews. If your club is active, it talks to their ambition and efforts to improve its playing stocks, while providing the opportunity to judge the capability of those with their hands on the trading levers as deal-makers. Reputations are at stake.

Having participated in over twenty Trade Weeks, I’ve experienced some of the worst behaviours of otherwise decent and clear-headed people, and I was often in the middle of this mud heap. I have been part of shouting matches with usually sensible people, reduced to name calling, threatening, trying to hold power over each other, allowing it to get personal, but in doing so, creating a stalemate where the deal cannot go anywhere because our respective egos would not allow it.

The happenings of Trade Week are amplified by an obsessive media, hanging on any morsel of information to be first with the latest, even by minutes. Not content to follow the story, they fight each other to lead it, and when there is nothing left to talk about, they create it, make it up. It is not a passive process. The media are major players in this mess. Often used by player managers and club people, fed selective information to help position their player or club in a possible deal by putting public pressure on the parties to get the deal done, playing to their fears and insecurities of the deal-makers.

It is a petri dish of human behaviour, bringing out the worst in competitive, proud, ambitious people, who are generally used to getting their way but are now panicking and skittish as the clock ticks down with deals deadlocked.

While some of the footballers are active in this process to facilitate their aspirations, as they should, often they become fodder for the ambitions of clubs, who somehow justify setting aside every team-based value they have endeavoured to embed for the other fifty-one weeks of the year, and behave like arseholes.

Days have ended, some of the longest and most frustrating of my working life, and I am in the car driving home, and a voice in my head asks, “What the fuck were you thinking?”.

I know the answer.

I wasn’t thinking; I was feeling, mostly overwhelmed, allowing my emotional state to drive my behaviours, when the role I played, the leadership position I held, expected more.

I look back and shake my head.

Yes, some trades created good outcomes, others did not, and some followed me for the rest of my life. Every Trade Week, pundits judge the merits of deals past, all with the wisdom of hindsight and never with the context of time, place or circumstances. But, my reflections are not the success or failure of the deals I facilitated, perceived or otherwise, but my behaviours at the time.

As T.D. Jakes said, “Your words tell others what you think, your actions tell them what you believe.”

Was I showing my true colours in these moments, modelling something very different to the behaviours I espoused every other week? Perhaps Trade Week was not making who I was; it was revealing who I was, and I had work to do.

It was not about the art of the deal or my capacity to negotiate; it was much more profound, going to the heart of what I bring as a leader.

I needed to work on my inner leadership game to enable the outer leadership game, which I had worked so hard on for such a long time.

As leaders, we are measured by how we show up, the consistent application of an ethos and mindset aligned to an agreed vision and a set of values, with the skills and fortitude to execute individually and as teams. It is the ‘Leadership Promise’, a mostly unstated pledge or oath leaders take when they assume the role, not always understood, but a core expectation of leadership, and in my experience, the most common reason leaders fail.

The expectations are both explicit and understood, but mostly unspoken, reflected in how people experience you, remembering people do not experience your intentions, they experience your behaviours.

It is a promise that is relatively easy when it’s business as usual, but in my experience, leadership is rarely that. Leadership is only needed when the world gets complicated and messy, which is often, and the reason why leadership matters.

Trade Week is all the things that make leadership hard. It is cognitively challenging, given its many moving parts and complex rules. It is emotionally stressful as we are dealing with people’s careers and lives. There is the pressure of a high-risk and high-stakes endeavour with the capacity to heavily influence the short and long-term success of the club, amplified by the minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow scrutiny and judgement of a media beast with its agendas and expectations. But somehow, it seemed even more. It felt like your identity within the sport was on the line, at least that was the story I was telling myself, something I am more convinced of as I write this.

My first thought was, “I need to be more disciplined?” I tried that with some success, but my behaviour lapsed too often to claim any ingrained behavioural change, and I was soon dealing with that same inner voice.

I started thinking of leadership as a craft, particularly in challenging times and situations, including tough negotiations. Anyone seeking to master a craft needs a system. “We do not rise to the level of our goals”, James Clear says, “We fall to the level of our systems”.

I realised I needed a system. A circuit breaker between how I felt in the moment to enable clarity of thought to inform how I best behave, allowing an outcome to emerge and evolve, not some predetermined expectation.

As Dan Gregory says, “Design beats discipline”.

So I designed a system.

When I feel any form of emotion or uncertainty kick in, be it a testy meeting, a negotiation, or a difficult conversation, I pause and pick up a pen or pencil, preferably the fountain pen gifted many years ago that I have carried with me for most of my career. This pen requires a more deliberate process; it slows me down. I then open my Moleskine Journal to an entirely new page, and I write at the top of the page:

“As CEO of the [Insert Name] Football Club, what does this situation expect of me?”

I then write three words:

  1. Calm
  2. Brave
  3. Humble

Under each word, I would start writing down a sentence, which quickly becomes a short paragraph of now connected thoughts, a far more cohesive and trustworthy story to tell myself, linking back to the bigger picture of what I am there to do.

It might all seem a tad pretentious, a bit over the top, which is not an accident. There is symbolism in the pen and paper, as well as embedding the need to pause, slow down, and take a breath, as most likely, your first thought is unlikely to be your best thought.

Velocity is never the answer to complexity.

A core challenge of leadership is understanding what truly matters compared to what seems to matter. The seems to matter is often making a racket, demanding our attention, telling us it’s urgent, distracting us from what truly matters.

It is an exercise in sense-making in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty and conflict, not allowing momentum to influence your thinking.

In Trade Week, a response might read something like:

  • Calm: Am I clear-headed? Take a breath, listen and watch. What are they really saying here? Look for signs. Stop talking! Allow space in the conversation, and let them fill it. Ask ‘What?’ and ‘How?’ questions. What other deals are they trying to make happen? How can we help them? Something we might not value what might be valuable to them. Try to work out what they need from this deal.
  • Brave: Don’t let this deal compromise our values or our future. The courageous thing might be to walk away now, even though we have put months into this deal. That’s ok. We live and learn. There is no shame in that. There is no such thing as a sunk cost. Don’t over-commit, or kick the can down the road by overcommitting, otherwise, it will bite us. Don’t let public opinion create an expectation we feel bound by. We know what we are doing. Trust our insight. When a good deal becomes a bad deal. Adopting this position will help us determine how committed the other parties are and whether they have other options.
  • Humble: How are people experiencing me now? It is not about me. I don’t have the answers; drive an environment of creativity, making the best of our collective imaginations. It is never about me. Don’t personalise it. Keep that ego in the jar and the lid on tight! Be kind. Be decent. Stay true.

I like to say, “I don’t teach anything I haven’t fucked up”, and this is what I have learned. It does not guarantee a successful outcome but gives it a chance.

If you are wondering, you won’t find this system in “TRUMP: The art of the deal”.

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