When explorers found nearly $500 million in sunken treasure, they thought they had struck it rich. But not clearing the deal path first with Spain gave them that sinking feeling.

In the spring of 2007 Odyssey Marine Exploration, an American-deep-sea treasure hunting company based in Tampa, recovered 594,000 silver coins from a Spanish shipwreck. The previous year the company had approached Spain’s Ministry of Culture to gauge their interest in making a deal about recovering cargo from any Spanish shipwrecks. But that deal never got done.

After a legal battle, a Tampa judge ruled that the entire shipwreck was indeed the property of Spain. Typically the rule of the sea is that the finders get to keep 80 percent of the treasure. That would have been $100 million in this case, a true bonanza for the company. The president of Odyssey said they will never be so cavalier to take the risk of recovering a shipwreck where there is no deal in place.

After the debacle with the Spanish treasure, Odyssey announced three deals with the British government to recover sunken treasure on shipwrecks in the Atlantic. Together the trio of ships is estimated to be worth more than $200 million. The oldest is the HMS Victory, which sank in a storm in 1744, and went to the bottom of the sea with as much as 100,000 ounces of gold.

Her Majesty’s Government gets 20 percent of the proceeds after the treasure hunters cover their costs. If the deal pans out, Odyssey will get back its investment of $7.5 million and earn a tidy profit of $22.5 million. Odyssey can hand over cultural artifacts and much needed revenue to governments, while making nice profits for shareholders. Sounds like it could be a lucrative deal for all involved.

But is There An Eel in this Deal?

In every deal there is an eel. A person who is against the deal—maybe on principle, maybe because they’re your competitor’s champion or they fear they will be made to look bad if a new vendor is brought on. In many cases, they may just be a curmudgeon who doesn’t want to see change. Regardless of the reason, you need to find the eel in the deal.

Here’s the problem: the eel is the one who has the power to kill you. Worse yet, eels have a tendency to hang out in the shadows. They’re hard to get to and they usually talk you down when you’re not around.

The bottom line is that eels try to get you out of the deal.

There’s an old saying in poker: If you play 3 hands of poker and you haven’t figured out who the pigeon is, LEAVE! You’re the pigeon. You have to find out who the eel is before you can take any action. Use good questions as a way to find out who has the least to gain or the most to lose inside of the whale, and there is a good chance he or she is your eel.

  1. You have to find the eel first. When discovering politics, power or poison people, ask process questions. “Walk me through how these decisions get made in your organization…” is the kind of question that will reveal eels.
  2. Look for the breadcrumbs. Past failed deals will leave tracks. As you work through the discovery process, ask “When you have worked on initiatives like this in the past, where and how have they gotten hung up?”
  3. Seek instruction – Ask this follow up question – “When initiatives have been held up in the past, how have they been overcome?”

For Odyssey, they must find the eel in the deal with the British government and directly address any issues that person(s) might bring up in negotiations. This tactic can and should be applied to any deal, no matter the size and complexity. Eels are the quiet dissenters in the corner you never notice until they have poisoned your deal – do what you can to neutralize them before they push you out.

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