Anh Nguyen is used to negotiating in her job as development director for the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, encouraging wealthy philanthropists to donate six-figure sums towards the upkeep of its collection.
But in the queue at a south London branch of Starbucks, Ms Nguyen is caught up in a different dialogue, trying to persuade the girlfriend of a man who was grabbed from his car and taken hostage the previous night to come in for police questioning.
The scene is a set-up. The girlfriend is played by an actress, performing this part as a filler between appearances in West End theatre shows. The exercise is part of the next generation leadership course run by the London Business School, a seven-day course for senior executives in management roles.
It is staged in a gritty inner-city neighbourhood, far from leafy Regent’s Park, home to the LBS campus. The negotiation team are working from a serviced office off a busy main road.
Throwing corporate executives into unconventional situations will, it is hoped, force them to trust the support of others and to delegate control of a complicated situation. Because the tasks and situations are unfamiliar, participants cannot hope to try to do everything themselves — as they might in their daily office jobs.
Though the training is staged and parts are played by actors, the situation is designed to feel authentic by its organisers. They are a group of former detectives who previously worked at Scotland Yard in London, and with the New York Police Department. Most of these ex-policemen ask not to be photographed by the Financial Times because they are still involved in corporate surveillance work.
Jim Alvarez, who guides the negotiation team, is one of the few willing to talk. He spent 20 years in kidnap and ransom cases, first for the NYPD and then for London’s Metropolitan Police.
“Our primary function is to teach leadership in the context of a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity,” he says.
Attention to detail includes running a CCTV recording of the kidnapping taking place in a central London car park the previous night. The hostage is seen on screen being beaten and shoved into the kidnappers’ vehicle.
Next up is a shot of a burnt-out car, which the head of the police team explains was found abandoned that morning. The participants are given the name of the hostage, Wilson Olutundé, and a mobile phone number for his girlfriend, who they are told had called the police. Then the case is up to them to resolve.
“One of the best ways to tell what people are really like is to put them in an unfamiliar situation with stress,” Mr Alvarez says. “People surprise themselves at how engaged they get.”
Ms Nguyen is the only participant from the charitable sector. Others are accountants, software engineers, lawyers and consultants. Her partner in the negotiation team is Marco D’Angelo, business development and marketing director at Bonelli Erede, an Italian law firm.
His job is to make contact with the girlfriend from the negotiation room and persuade her to talk to Ms Nguyen.
Both Mr D’Angelo and Ms Nguyen are caught up in the drama. When the girlfriend arrives at the negotiation room for questioning, she starts sobbing and Ms Nguyen reaches over to put an arm around her. “We just want to find your boyfriend,” she says.
Richard Jolly, the LBS course leader, says he introduced the hostage negotiation element because he wanted his students to be “shocked” into learning.
Prof Jolly has divided his 20 students into those interviewing witnesses, those assessing the facts and a team of surveillance operatives, whose job is to follow suspects around the backstreets of south London, taking photographs on smartphones and relaying them back to the incident room using WhatsApp.
Meanwhile, another participant, Mark Brangam, a trained accountant, is trailing a bald man (another actor) through Waterloo Station. For today he is a member of the surveillance team. Usually, he is head of a risk management team at KPMG Ireland’s office in Dublin.
Mr Brangam creeps around the concourse with what, to those passers-by who bother to look, is a quite obvious earpiece. He is clearly enjoying his role, as he confesses when he returns to base for lunch. “I would pay to do this as a job,” he says.
At the end of the day, the girlfriend gives good evidence, the hostage is released and the case closed.
Back at Sir John Soane’s Museum, Ms Nguyen puts her new skills to work. “The whole point is learning how to trust, to rely on each other,” she says. “At work, it is clear now that no one particular team is superior to the other. All departments are reliant on each other.”