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Q&A with Ron Shapiro

We talk to the sports agent and author about his new book, The Power of Nice.

An updated version of your bestseller The Power of Nice is out February 2. Why did you feel like the time was right to update it? I’ve been blessed with an array of experiences with people from all walks of life whether it be professors at major universities, a woman web designer from Milwaukee who was trying to break the glass ceiling, firefighters, people on the police force, and I came to realize that the applicability of The Power of Nice, the system and the philosophy that underlies the book, had great reach, and I wanted to make it clear in a new edition how people from all walks of life could improve themselves by embracing the system and the philosophy.

And, in a nutshell, what is that philosophy?
Simply put, niceness helps build relationships. When you do deals, you don’t want to look at the deal as being over when you come to an agreement. You look at the deal as a continuing experience, where you need each other in order to fulfill the terms of the agreement, and the opportunity to do future deals. So niceness is an essential piece in connecting you and the other party in a negotiation to a relationship, and you build niceness by, obviously, not being aggressive and being systematic. And that’s the key, that’s the secret sauce of the book: providing people with a system that allows them to take steps that don’t have them reverting to aggressiveness because they’re reacting rather than pro-acting. Ambassador Charlene Barshefsky wrote the forward to the book and she’s the person who negotiated all the trade agreements that we have with China for the Clinton administration and she underscores how important that was to her in dealing with what could have been an adversary but instead became a partner and allowed those agreements to go into effect.

You stress that it’s not niceness for the sake of manipulation; it’s genuine niceness.
Genuine niceness. There’s nothing better in life than having relationships, so when you have the opportunity to be on this earth as long as I have, and you can look to all those relationships that you build, it’s something that is so meaningful. It nourishes your existence. So the book is not called Be Nice. The book is called The Power of Nice, and maybe I should have called it Empower Yourself with a System So You Can Be Nice, because that’s really what the book is all about. It’s a book of empowerment.

The other central tenet to your ethos is the idea of “WIN-win.” What does that mean?
In the broadest sense it means that in order to get what you want in life, think about what the other side wants and help them get some of that. It also means that you don’t always get the biggest piece, but it means that if you put the power of nice to work for you, you maximize, and you get the best possible result you can without destroying the other side. And that’s where the myth of Hollywood is ultimately dissolved because beating up people is not what negotiation is all about. Embracing them and their ideas and achieving what you want in the final analysis is the power of nice.

You used to represent Cal Ripken Jr. and Brooks Robinson. Are you still involved in the Orioles organization? I am not. There was a time, when the Orioles won the World Series in 1983, when I represented over 20 of the members of the team. Edward Bennett Williams was the owner of the team, and I’ll never forget, one day, he looked at me and said, ‘You own my damn team!’ And the bottom line is I didn’t own it, but I negotiated for a lot of them. I am not deeply involved, but two of the leaders of that organization—Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter—are old friends in the game of baseball and you know, I am just so thrilled that they are there leading the baseball effort for the organization because it has taken us where a great organization should be. I’m now a cheerleader and, occasionally, I have a player that I call them about, but the bottom line is I’m nowhere nearly as involved as I was in the ’80s and ’90s.

As an objective bystander, were the departures of Nick Markakis, Andrew Miller, and Nelson Cruz negotiation failures?
No. You know, the game is structured, professional sports is structured in a way today where players move. And they move because of budgets and limitations and collective bargaining agreements. I’m sad to see Andrew Miller go. Pitching is so important, but the price that is paid, the mortgage that has to be given in order to keep some players is something that most franchises can’t sustain. And again, with Dan and Buck at the helm, I’ve got a feeling they’ll find a way to keep the franchise moving forward with the tremendous core of young players they have and a few well-placed trades again. Remember, Miller came over in a trade in the middle of last season. We need another trade like that this season. I’m confident that we can do that.

In your book you say that you “just like to help people.” Is that a liability or an asset in your line of work?
Well, to me, it’s a great asset because it allows me to listen more, which is an essential piece of negotiation, to understand what challenges the other side has, so I can help them solve those challenges while I achieve my goals. But more than that, they key to me in life is a quote that appears on the wall of my office attributed to Churchill and it’s: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” And having the tools of negotiation has allowed me to go into arenas well beyond the sports and corporate worlds, into the nonprofit world with kids who are challenged and organizations that are challenged, and to use those tools to make a difference, because everybody negotiates. I don’t care whether you’re raising money, doing an interview like this, or dealing with a family crisis, there’s a negotiation. And people can call on me for my skills and I can get the tremendous satisfaction of helping them solve problems, and frankly that’s what helping people is all about.

What are you focusing on these days?
Taking the power of nice and trying to change the paradigm of how people relate to each other. Right now, I’m working on an article addressing the challenges of the Middle East and whether we can find a way to achieve peace in the Middle East, which looks like the great intractable problem in the world. I’m a glass-half-full believer. That’s a philosophy I got from my father, so I’m trying to piece together ideas to find hope where right now there is hopelessness.

Are you on retainer at the State Department or something?
No, my clients are mostly corporate, some sports teams, some organizations. I do lecture, and I’m asked to speak to government types and academic types, but I’m not on retainer to the State Department. Frankly, if given the opportunity, they wouldn’t have to pay me, if I could get involved in a situation like that because again, you get to a point in life where it’s not what you earn, it is the impact you have. And to me there’s nothing more important than peaceful coexistence in the world, as well as in the boardroom and on the ball field.

That’s a very nice philosophy. How do you apply it in your own life?
You know, when you have a family as big as mine—and that’s seven children, six in-law children, and 11 grandchildren, and a wonderful wife—you know that there’s going to be a negotiation everyday. There are issues that come up and in order to solve those using this approach is certainly beneficial. This summer I had my two oldest granddaughters each spend a week with me in the office. They wanted to shadow me. One is 15 and the other is 13 but they’re mature for their years. And that was an unbelievable experience unto itself, but the most important thing was the feedback that I got from their mom after their summer was over. The collective response was, ‘Wow, we didn’t know Pops could help people they way he does with his negotiation.’ They all know I negotiate, but I don’t think they were quite sure what we did. They sat in the office and saw a variety of people come through from major sports organizations to nonprofits and they felt the power of nice and nothing could be more satisfying than that. And by the way, I’ve had another grandson say, ‘Pops, when can I come?’ Hopefully, it will be a continuum.

You can just start a grandchild internship program.
You got it. And that’s another thing, if I can just share that with you. Mentorship. If you come to our office, it’s not a big office, the Shapiro Negotiations Institute. They’re 10 of us here, but at any given time we’ll have three maybe four interns here—and they’re paid interns, I might add—but they could be from high-school kids to college kids to graduate school kids to people who’ve been out in the world. And I believe we all, particularly those of us who have been blessed with opportunities like I have, are charged with the responsibility to mentor and guide and open vistas for young people. That’s extremely satisfying. But I like your idea. We’ll add another bracket and that will be the grandchild program.

Well, it seems like your unpretentiousness has helped you. In The Power of Nice, Cal Ripken Jr. writes about being impressed at your un-flashy office.
Well, it helps to find who you are. For some people, the trappings are important and they have an impact, and I don’t deny them that, but when I said to Cal, ‘Hey, write a forward to the first edition of the book,’ and he wrote about how he decided on me that was feedback I never expected to get. He had been limousined, wined, dined, supper-clubbed all over the country when agents were after him. He came to my office and had a tuna fish sandwich on a paper plate and that seemed to clinch the deal in his mind. So I guess it says hold to your values and who knows what you’ll discover. In my case, it was Cal, and that has led to amazing things because, certainly, my involvement in sports gave me the bully pulpit that took me into the business and nonprofit and academic worlds in ways that I never expected.

It seems like it was natural fit.
It was just as today the natural fit is with a young man named Joe Mauer who is a modern day Cal Ripken in terms of his values and his achievements in the game. He’s a great baseball player for the Minnesota Twins. And was one of the most pursued in the country 10 years ago and I had a Coca-Cola with him in a corner drugstore in downtown Minneapolis, with him and his folks—and I had to get them to pay for it because of the rules. He does tell a cute story. To this day he says, ‘I just didn’t believe anybody could be that nice.’ But since, he’s discovered that we practice what we preach, just as a lot of people can’t believe that he or Cal are as nice as they are when in actuality they are.

Has there ever been a deal where you just felt like you didn’t get what you needed or wanted from it?
There has to have been. And let me explain. I write books not because I’m the smartest guy on the earth. I write books because I have had an array of experiences and some of them have involved mistakes. And what do we learn from more in life than our mistakes? So, have I made mistakes? I’ve made mistakes, particularly in the earlier years when I was impetuous and less systematic and more reactive and I left things on the table or maybe even damaged relationships. But just think of what I was able to learn from that and how I was able to take that learning and impart it to others so hopefully they wouldn’t make mistakes.

It sounds like the fact that you didn’t dwell too much on your mistakes is helpful. You learned from them and kept moving forward.
You are so right. One of the secrets in life to satisfaction and growth is don’t dwell. Learn and move forward.