Effective negotiation skills are essential for leaders today, particularly in the not-for-profit sector. For Stephen Brooker, General Manager at Mission Australia, supporting vulnerable people presents a number of challenges – further complicated by the onset of COVID-19.

“From new policies and procedures and training requirements, to essentially turning people’s homes into infectious disease units in aged care facilities – this year has been all about preparation,” Brooker says.

In operation for more than 160 years, Mission Australia is a national Christian charity, working to end homelessness and enable people and communities in need to thrive. Their clients are some of the most vulnerable people in Australia. Many are disconnected from their family and friends, often living on the streets with cognitive impairment or drug and alcohol addiction as well as mental health issues.

Developing the right solution for clients can often be difficult and complex – making negotiation a significant part of Brooker’s role.

“I’ve never studied negotiation, yet I realised I negotiate all the time. You negotiate on big things and little things, always trying to sort your way through,” he says.

So, when he heard about an opportunity to study these skills through AGSM @ UNSW Business School’s Virtual Learning Courses with the help of the AGSM Rob McLean Awards in Executive Education Scholarship, he was keen to find out more.

“The scholarship caught my interest because the AGSM Virtual Learning Courses were different from other courses I had been considering and sounded interesting. Working for a charity with limited resources, the opportunity to secure a scholarship with a reputable business school was also inviting. As a leader in a not-for-profit, it is rare to get this kind of opportunity and it was quite a powerful experience,” Brooker says.

Supporting those that support the community

AGSM introduced the suite of Virtual Learning Short Courses in April 2020 to support leaders to gain confidence quickly in critical skills required in today’s complex environments and help them deliver value for their organisations. The AGSM Rob McLean Awards in Executive Education, launched in July 2020, provided 20 leaders from the not-for-profit sector with scholarships to complete a virtual short course.

As a recipient of the award, Brooker went on to complete Negotiation Essentials course.

“I never really thought about the theory behind negotiation – I thought some people are either good at it or they’re not. But, as I learned, that’s not the case at all.”

The course helps students become more critical, strategic and successful negotiators by building key leadership skills including complex problem-solving skills, critical and creative thinking, emotional intelligence, and judgement and decision-making abilities based on an awareness of your biases.

Building confidence in new skills, fast

The AGSM Virtual Learning Courses each run for 14 hours over two weeks – a relatively short amount of time to master a skill like negotiation. But Brooker was surprised at how much he was able to learn so quickly.

“In a condensed period of time, we were able to integrate the theory into practice, and demonstrate that practice with the other people on the course.”

For Brooker, observing different negotiation styles was an eye opener.

“I didn’t realise how assertive some people are. I listen and take in other people's point of view, which is an essential part of negotiation. But part of what I learned is that you have to be upfront with what you want and lay your cards on the table from the start.”

By learning how to plan for a range of negotiation settings and exploring different strategies for a range of situations, Brooker now approaches more complex discussions with a new mindset.

“The course has helped me prepare for some quite difficult conversations, where I’ve had to achieve a certain goal. I think about the key concepts I learnt and how to frame my argument, what to put forward and how to bundle incentives together. I now have these tools and frameworks at the forefront of my mind, that weren’t there before.”

And Brooker’s new skills have already helped him put forward an issue he deemed essential during an important aged care strategic planning workshop.

“One of the talking points I felt passionately about as part of this workshop wasn't considered to be a central part of these discussions. But I was able to introduce the topic into the conversation, frame it to include other people’s perspectives and negotiate my way through confidently. In the end, my topic ended up being a stronger, and more central part of the strategy proposed. And it was because of the skills I had learned in the course.”

Broadening leadership perspectives

As a trained healthcare and mental health professional, Brooker already had a very strong set of skills in communication and leadership. But the course gave him a new area of interest.

“It suddenly opened up different ways of thinking and a skill base that I hadn't thought about before. I never knew about concepts such as Anchoring, Framing or Bundling, and yet being in a managerial position, I can clearly see how useful and effective they can be.”

Brooker also found the opportunity to learn from other course participants with different experiences and backgrounds to him highly beneficial.

“Usually, the courses I take are with other healthcare professionals. Hearing from people from other disciplines, professions, and areas of expertise gave me a different perspective on how to solve the same issue. One of the most valuable things I learnt was how other industries used negotiation within their day-to-day operation, and how I could apply similar techniques to Mission Australia...”

Putting theory into practice

Brooker was already juggling the additional challenges of COVID with the rollout of a new Electronic Medical Record, as well as a new payroll system, so the idea of committing to a course was a little daunting at first.

“But it was really manageable and at the end I really enjoyed it. After a tough work day the course allowed me to switch into study mode, which left me feeling refreshed.”

Brooker found the virtual sessions very smooth and professional, with just the right amount of digestible course content. He was also able to put theory into practice through a series of structured role plays that slowly got more challenging over time.

“I’m a trained mental health professional and although I am very used to communication styles, reflective feedback and dealing with complex and difficult behaviours, learning about the theory behind ‘negotiation’ and then putting that theory into practice via role-play with the other members of the group taught me a huge amount about myself and gave me a new perspective on how to conduct my conversations moving forward.

“You could see, through practical examples, how different people approach the same scenario so differently. It made me realise the areas where my skills were lacking and where they are stronger.”

Brooker says the course left him intrigued and curious, and with something to think about. “It was so good, I want to do more – and I’d highly recommend others to look at the suite of AGSM Virtual Learning Course to see what would be beneficial to them.”

Looking ahead

A clear takeaway from completing the course for Brooker is around constantly improving and looking to the future. That’s why he’s already in the process of enrolling in another AGSM Virtual Learning Course, Accelerating Innovation in your Organisation.

“If you’re wise, you never stop innovating. In healthcare you've got a number of areas of innovation – technological, communication, COVID. It’s constantly challenging, but we never talk about it or how to deal with it in the workplace.”

Brooker highly recommends the Negotiation Essentials course to other leaders to help them gain critical skills that they may not have been aware they needed.

“It opens up new thought processes to leaders and allows them to learn from not only great tutors, but from various other disciplines, background and industries at the same time. These experiences are invaluable to any leader.”

To learn more about AGSM’s Virtual Learning Courses, click here.

To find out more about AGSM @ UNSW Business School’s globally-ranked Executive Education programs, click here.