The late 20th Century seems a very long time ago when I successfully applied for my first job as a Cadet Engineer with the NSW State Rail Authority (actually it was in 1985). I think back with quite some fondness about the varied experiences I had, initially working at Eveleigh Foundry, Pattern Shop and Locomotive Workshop. The facility I worked in was not that much different to the image from the 1880s accompanying this article – you can visit the South Eveleigh heritage site at Redfern today and see for yourself!

Upon graduation I was appointed as a Depot Mechanical Engineer at Flemington Maintenance Centre, the facility supporting the Intercity trainsets servicing the outer reaches of Sydney’s suburban passenger rail network. I spent nearly four years at Flemington, moving on just three months shy of 10 years with the Authority.

Over the course of my Public Sector journey, it’s fair to say I learnt quite a bit about people from all walks of life – as well as observing what would be regarded these days as some rather questionable work practices. In amongst all of this, the following lesson is one that resonates with me today.

Roy Judson was Flemington’s Centre Manager. To his credit, Roy recognised my aspiration to move from a technical to a managerial career and offered me an opportunity to oversee the facility whilst he took extended leave.

Roy was typical of Flemington’ management, having worked his up from the bottom of State Rail. I on the other hand, as a newly minted professional mechanical engineer had spent 6 years at university learning about the importance of being correct (in essence you pass or fail Engineering degrees depending on how many answers you get right). Accordingly, I was blissfully unaware of how little I knew about managing a railway facility and the people from all walks of life such as train drivers, shunters, maintainers and labourers from all walks of life who inhabited the depot. I’m sure this concern was at the top of Roy’s mind when he sat me down to give final instructions prior to his departure.

Here’s what I recall he said:

“There’s a meeting scheduled every Tuesday with the local Rail, Tram & Bus Union (RTBU) representative. The Standing Agenda is on my desk, and you’ll see item No. 1 on the Agenda concerns the supply of a Coke machine to the Drivers’ Crib Room (an area set aside for train drivers to eat and wait prior to their shift). Whatever you do, under no circumstances are you to agree to the supply of said Coke machine.”

It was a brutal process, but despite all manner of tactics employed by the RTBU representative I managed to hold the line on the coke machine. Roy explained himself when he returned:

“I understand the Coke machine is a ‘nice to have’ for the troops and would earn the RTBU quite a few brownie points. Had you given up that Coke machine though, you would have made the long list of ‘nasty’ Agenda items following that much harder for me to negotiate.”

The negotiating lesson here of course, is to avoid haggling over one issue at a time. Putting more than one item on the table and encouraging your counterpart to reciprocate increases the opportunity for trade-offs, which are key in achieving an equitable outcome from a crucial negotiation.

So next time you’re preparing for an important negotiation, ask yourself “What’s on my ‘nasty’ and ‘nice’ list?”

Peter Wilkinson – Director, Sam Wilko Advisory

Author of “The Steel Ceiling: Achieving Sustainable Growth in Engineering and Construction” Wiley, 2023