Expert Negotiator #1: The culture creator

An interview with Bruce Jeffreys – Founder of Dresden Optics and Go Get.

I picked Bruce Jeffreys for this interview because he has a unique approach to negotiations. For Bruce, win-win solutions are not a strategy, but a principle. He views himself as an outsider to a system where smart and educated people revoke some of their values to join what their peers define as a successful career. They compromise on meaningful work for status and fancy rewards. Bruce seeks meaning and value for all parties in each negotiation – with service providers, with staff and with customers.


Noa: As an outsider to your business it feels like the people who work for you are very motivated and in sync with your vision for the company. Tell me about your expectations from your staff.


Bruce: You have a mission, you have all these things to do and you want to do them in a way that is really productive but fun at the same time. It is really important that a growing business is sustainable so that people don’t burn out too fast but are effective in what they are doing as well. It is a bit of a balancing act.

The core needs are they the team is flexible, open, and they are learners. Specifically around learning; we are a new business, and we are developing everything – processes, systems and how we actually help customers. We don’t have the answers, and we are coming to this business not as experts or specialists so…


Noa: so they need to be able to ask the right questions…


Bruce: …and want to learn with us. So we are all learning together. What is important about our learning is that it means that nobody is shutting anybody else down. That is the critical bit. If you have an open learning culture then everybody is growing, and to me growth of the individual person within the business is as important as the growth of the business. They go side by side; you can’t have one without the other. The traditional model is that you grow a business and you chew through people, and 1) that is not very fun 2) not sustainable and 3) it doesn’t create a good working environment.


Noa: when you try to get these qualities out of your staff (you want them to be adaptive, you want them to be learners, you want them to be flexible), how do you do it?


Bruce: I don’t try to get it out of my staff. That is really not how I approach it. People want to do meaningful work. They want to be open, they want to learn, they want to grow. There is just a basic assumption that if people are in an environment that is supportive and open where they are able to do meaningful work, they thrive, they exel. It’s the same for a child as it is for an adult. It is a basic human need and people are at their best when they are supported and when it is an open environment.


Noa: Do you see your role as a fulfiller of your staff’s needs?


Bruce: No. I feel like Dresden has a particular culture and environment which is not found widely and people who are working within it are attracted to it and hopefully they value it enough to make it self-sustaining. I am very keen on self-regulated culture in the workplace. To me that is they key – that it is self-regulated and not top-down.


Noa: so tell me what is unique about your culture?


Bruce: Effectively the culture is like a family environment. We are replicating German businesses out there that have been going for 500 years. One of the federal government growth centres is called the manufacturing growth centre, and it is run by a German. He says that German companies are basically 500 year old start-ups, and it is true, they are 500 years old and they are just starting. You have to ask yourself how on earth does someone like Faber Castell, who make pencils since 1576, how are they still one of the world’s biggest pencil makers, through multiple generations of family ownership?


Noa: What is the answer?


Bruce: The answer is their culture. They have incredibly strong culture, so strong that it survives wars, famine, plagues. Australian companies have zero culture and I have very specific theories around why that is so, and this is where I start sounding a bit crazy: If you look at German companies, they draw a lot on the culture of the country, and in Australia we have this incredible opportunity which is our indigenous people, and that is our culture, but we reject it and we are poor for it.

You see very little examples of private companies that last more than a few generations in Australia. I don’t see it as being that hard, we are just trying to create a place where people can thrive.


Noa: so your model is a German company, like these family lead companies that have been around for hundreds of years?


Bruce: Yes. If you look across Germany you find what they call Mittelstand companies (medium sized companies). An example is a company in Hamburg which makes the retractable dog leashes and controls 95% of the world’s market. Nobody would ever guess that is is German made. The Chinese haven’t been able to compete, because Germany exports to China more than they import. Most German consumers don’t really want what China is producing. Australia is the other way around – it is about 14% export and 86% import. We love it. If you look across the German economy you see these small to medium sized businesses that dominate a particular area. And they dominate it because they manage to keep reinventing themselves. I find it really humbling. I can only imagine passing my business onto my children, but in the German context that might have been five generations. Embedded in that, in German businesses, people who run and own them are not very flashy, they dont go for the big yachts and fast cars. They clearly generate a lot of meaning out of following the tradition of what they have been doing.

With Dresden we have spent a lot of time looking for alternatives to the normal American-Australian business model.


Noa: If you had to give advice to people who are running a company and negotiating with their staff on culture, what would you say?


Bruce: If you are having to negotiate with your staff on culture then you have failed, you are too late, the ship has sailed.


Noa: Is culture created in the hiring process?


Bruce: When someone joins a business they should get a very clear understanding of what the culture of the place is; how people communicate, how they are treated, what people expect of you. You shouldn’t have to negotiate with them because it should be obvious what the culture is. I am sure that if I walked into Faber Castell in Germany I’d pick up the culture in three seconds. I’d say “shit! amazing!”

I have worked in government and lots of corporates and they think that culture can be taught, broadcast, put on the wall like a bunch of sticky notes. It is completely bankrupt. It’s what smart people think culture is. It’s meaningless. Your value shouldn’t be on the wall, but in your everyday behaviour.

What I am describing is really hard, and I don’t think we are there. It’s what we are working on. We don’t know much, and we are struggling. And the reason why we are struggling is that there are very little templates for us to follow.


Noa: It doesn’t look like you are struggling, it looks like you are doing very well!


Bruce: But internally, within Dresden, it is a challenge for us to come up with an alternative narrative to the norm. The corporate default hangs over everybody.


Noa: What is Dresden doing that is different from other eyewear companies?


Bruce: 4 fundamental things:

1) We treat everybody equally.


Noa: your customers? So a homeless man can walk into your store?


Bruce: Yes. And in Potts Point we actually have many, because there are a lot of homeless shelters there, and that happens.


2) We are keen to give the customer exactly what they need in terms of vision.

The current glasses model doesn’t do that. Effectively if you are a museum curator and you need both reading glasses for reading a book, but also reading glasses for looking at a museum exhibit which is about a meter away, the current industry will make you lenses for somewhere in between, where we will make you two pairs – one for the book and one for the exhibit, for even cheaper than the price of buying the one pair. It comes back to the core question “what do you need?” do like reading books in the sun? We can give you tinted reading glasses. These things are not possible for people to know because glasses usually cost so much and take so long to come, so people just don’t bother.

Giving people what they need is incredibly exciting and fun. It’s rewarding because it is a really massive part of people’s sensory perception and how we observe and engage with the world, so if you can make a difference to someone’s sight, you are really making a quality difference.


3) We involve our customers in the manufacture.

That includes making glasses on the spot in the store, so they can see the process. It is not black box – they can understand it. Eventually they will bring in recycled plastics from which to make the frame.


Noa: I’m waiting for that.



4) The last thing, which is bigger than everything else, is the health factor.

They eyes is an incredible window into people’s health issues, beyond eye-related issues, from diabetes to blood pressure to a whole range of health indicators. By being an open platform we enable a sharing of data with other health professionals which will radically change they way people live.

India has the highest rate of type 2 diabetes in the world, it’s off the scale – roughly 40% of adults are likely to develop type 2 diabetes. It is easily detectable through a retinal camera.


Noa: If you go to a normal optometrist they wouldn’t talk to you about diabetes.


Bruce: They would if you had diabetes, they wouldn’t if you are likely to get diabetes. We want people to get this information: Not to alarm them, but say that “given your retinal scan we recommend that you see a GP”. That holistic health information is extremely exciting. People look at us and think we are a glasses business, and we are not.


Noa: What are you?


Bruce: We are eye health. Glasses are a part of that.


Noa: Tell me about your approach to formal negotiations, for example negotiation of contracts.


Bruce: I have had countless negotiations that have come to an agreement and then meant nothing. Particularly with Go Get it has happened so many times. When you are negotiating with a property developer for example; he has invested so much in the negotiation because developers love negotiating. But when you actually get to the project – either it doesn’t go ahead or it is not successful, because all the emphasis was on the contract, the deal. The deal is not where the value is created. The fundamental thing I have learned is that value is not created in the deal, it is created in the relationship.


Noa: you could view that as part of the negotiation – you build rapport and then you discuss the details.


Bruce: If you think of a marriage, (the deal) is like the prenuptial. If you start with a prenuptial everybody knows that it is not the best relationship.


Noa: hmm..a lot of people start their marriage with a prenup…


Bruce: It’s not my view of a (good) relationship. That is how business is done, it starts with prenuptials. So what I am trying to say is the way the deal is done kills the relationship and actually kills the value of working together, because the legal people come in, it becomes tortured, bogged down, loses its momentum, everyone becomes tired from it, and by the time it’s done everyone just says “get on with what you’re supposed to do”. My experience with agreements is that they are really unenforceable. You might contract with someone to deliver something, but if they don’t do it nobody goes to court in Australia, it is too expensive. So what is the point of that agreement?


Noa: So what is the alternative?


Bruce: The alternative is very simple, you actually build the relationship through experience and through time – just like a marriage. It’s not like you have to look far for other templates for how to do things. So you do small things with that person; you don’t say “let’s get married” immediately, you say “let’s take a holiday together”.


Noa: that makes sense, it’s just that people don’t have time to invest in building a relationship with every provider of service.


Bruce: Yes, which is fine. You can have a generic agreement. But if the service is actually important to the business then invest the time, otherwise it comes back to bite you.


Bruce’s approach is certainly not the norm. He is the epitome of a critical thinker, and has a very clear understanding of his principles and how they apply to day-to-day negotiations.


This was the first interview published from theBehaviours of the Expert Negotiator Project. Found this interview interesting? subscribe to continue following the project.

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