Self Taught MBA: Learning to Walk Again: Life Lessons From a Professional Negotiator
I heard Mike Walker deliver a riveting real-estate seminar in Denver. It was an accredited negotiation course through the Real Estate Negotiation Institute, a nationally accredited training and coaching company serving real-estate professionals nationwide. During the two-day seminar, it was clear to me that Mike not only had a solid grip the science of negotiation, but also communicated the subtle art with an intensity and nuance that only comes from personal experience. Being a young man, perhaps in his early 30s, I wondered how Mike acquired his impressive war chest of illustrative anecdotes, not only to make his point, but also often in response to barbed questions from his students.
A Colorado native, Mike became an entrepreneur early in life, setting up a neighborhood waste-management service while still in middle school. Before curbside recycling became common, Mike charged a small fee to collect recyclable trash, sorted paper from glass and plastic, and then took the material to a recycling facility where he exchanged it for money. He told he always loved working, not because of the effort, but the fun of learning skills, socializing, and “trying on different hats.” Mike’s urge to try his hand at everything became the impetus that lead him to have “more jobs than anyone I know.” From selling shoes to property management, Mike’s early career was illuminated by success upon success-until the lights went out.
By 2006, in his mid 20s, Mike had become a real-estate broker and developer, having fixed and flipped more than 70 properties, from large homes to condominiums. He says he managed to take home more than a million dollars one year. He had the house and a beautiful wife to prove it. But you know what follows: 2007. The house and everything else (except his wife) became a lesson in the transience of fast fortune and the overwhelming power of a real-estate recession. The details are painful. The usual litany of fear-driven mistakes and uncontrollable circumstances dragged Mike through a string of defeats entailing perilous negotiations with creditors and a period of excruciating self-doubt.
By 2008, Mike and his wife had gone full circle, now back living with parents, and not just starting over, but faced with an overwhelming tax debt. Perhaps this was the motivation Mike needed, as it gave rise to a new career and renewed faith in life and its abundance of opportunity.
Looking back a few years, Mike recalls his first job in real estate. He was smart and a quick study. He earned his real-estate license in one week, and then immediately went to work for friend whose company had firmly established itself in the business by running a highly organized, data-driven operation with clearly articulated policies and procedures. Mike said he thought the business was stodgy and boring. “That was then. I’ve learned a lot since then,” he clarified. Eventually, he switched jobs and becoming an independent Realtor with a firm much more to his disposition.
“This new company was a go-go operation, we had no systems, almost no policies, we played hard, we went to bars and restaurants and we did deals. At the time, it was easy. New homes were moving quickly. I learned the pizzas-and-jazz, street-smart mentality and flashy cars, all of which fit me at the time. I was awarded the Rookie of the Year award from the local real-estate board. I made quick money, and soon went from sales to investment, and I started to buy homes to flip. I learned to raise money and that was the biggest part-the fuel for my rise and downfall.”
As real estate collapsed, Mike found himself negotiating continually, not to close deals but rather to save what he could of a sinking ship, negotiating deeds in lieu, trying to avoid foreclosures, and in the end, negotiating with the toughest creditor of all, the IRS.
“It was during this period that I got deeper and deeper into psychology and the science of negotiation. I needed to know how things like this happen, how we get exuberant and overleveraged, and how to avoid the same mistakes again,” Mike said. This eventually lead him back to what he had unwittingly learned in that first job: the boring skills he learned at the stodgy, process and data-driven real-estate firm, which is still in business today.
Eventually, Mike regained entrepreneurial spirit. Three years ago, he raised the money to buy a small janitorial franchise, build it up, and then recently sold it at a profit. He started teaching real-estate classes for extra money, creating the “Rookie’s Clubs,” charging $40 for six weeks of real-estate education. Word got out that his classes were popular, and in time, a respected senior Realtor attended his class and told Mike, “This is your calling. Stick to it.” And he did.
Today, Mike teaches negotiation classes in 14 cities from Florida to California, and he has developed a huge contact database. He tracks every transaction and focuses on developing his business using sound policies and procedures. Given his success at renegotiating his own life and even the debt with the IRS, I asked him to tell us the three most important principles he’s learned about the skill of negotiation.
1. Start by analyzing your own preconceptions: “When you realize that the way you perceive situations is mainly a mirrored image of your experiences, you begin to wonder if anything you see is objectively real. When you finally get to a point of truth with your personal reality, you have no other choice than to ask questions….and asking questions is a key characteristic to being a great negotiator.”
2. Think like Detective Colombo: Keeping a negotiation journal can go a long way to help you decipher the clues in the give and take of negotiations. Write down your thoughts, and reconstruct your conversations. Study them, and see how they inform your strategy. This simple habit will allow you to see things that you would have otherwise overlooked.
3. Communicate the old fashioned way: Even the best-written communicators know that nothing beats the face-to-face exchange of information. Give yourself the opportunity to meet and interact with people. Hiding behind social fears, media, and technology, such as email, often leads to misinterpretations, lack of trust, or even worse. Pick up the phone, or meet in person.
Mike’s writing a book about his experiences of the collapse of the industry. “I’m interested in deconstructing ambition, why we upsize beyond a reasonable level of success, what we sacrifice in the process, and what we rediscover on the way back down,” he says. Mike wants to keep these lessons in mind, as he’s clearly on the way up again. When he finishes the book, we’ll have him back for a second installment.