In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that
have shaped their business philosophy.

President, Explore St. Louis


The St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, which does business as Explore St. Louis, is a nonprofit civic organization charged with promoting St. Louis and St. Louis County as a destination for leisure and business. Prior to joining Explore St. Louis as president, Ratcliffe served as executive vice president for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Mistake:

Taking a position that leaves you no room for negotiation.

I was an 18-year-old senior in high school. I was an honor student and a pretty high-performing overachiever. I’d been accepted by the only two colleges I’d applied to. I was also very headstrong and fearless. One night, I was out too late for my dad’s liking and we got into a row. His opinion was that, if I lived under his roof, I was going to have to follow his rules. I agreed with that opinion, so I announced I was moving out.

As one of six kids, I had worked all through school to save money for college. I took that money, bought a car and got a full-time job. For years afterward, my dad would try to get me to change my mind, but I put myself in such an intractable position that I never did. It was not very smart. I’ve probably done all right anyway, but it was a pretty bad mistake very early in my adult life that I learned from.

Don’t let things come out of your mouth if you haven’t thought them through.

The Lesson:

That lesson was, if you take a position that leaves you no room to negotiate, it isn’t very intelligent and it doesn’t matter how smart you are or what your SAT score was. When you put yourself in a spot and can’t get yourself back from it, then you’ve potentially done a lot of damage.

I’m actually a pretty fair negotiator because I’m not easily intimidated in negotiations and, if I’m aware of an issue in advance, I’ll spend the time necessary to prepare and think about all the possible ways things can go. But the real test is when a situation arises that you can’t plan for. That’s when that lesson from so long ago is very critical. Don’t let things come out of your mouth if you haven’t thought them through. If you put yourself in a position where you put something out on the table that you can’t take back, you can end up a big loser in a negotiation. In the decades since that day with my dad, that lesson has really been essential many more times than I can count.

Examples of really taking that lesson to heart came into play numerous times with clients post-Hurricane Katrina when I was in New Orleans. I could only do so much preparation for the phone calls I was having with the clients who booked their conventions with us for the years ahead. We never really knew when we got on the phone with them whether they were going to try to keep their booking or cancel it. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they came into the conference call with the absolute intention of canceling it, but we didn’t always understand the reasons.

Using that lesson, going into negotiations where it’s really hard to prepare and you’re not face-to-face, it really helps to sit back, calmly take in what they are saying without getting emotional about it and use the information you gather to make your best case. We had conference calls all day, every day following Katrina as we worked our way through the convention calendar. I can’t tell you how many times I used that lesson to not react too emotionally or strongly to a comment that bothered me from someone on the other end of a call before letting it sink in and thinking through. I didn’t put something out there too quickly that I couldn’t back off from, and it helped tremendously.

Explore St. Louis is on Twitter at @explorestlouis.

Photo courtesy of Explore St. Louis.

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