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Q&A: Dr Karl Mackie CBE

3 February 2017

You're talking to a friend of a friend at a party. How do you describe what you do?

I help people who get stuck in a tough negotiation to unblock the impasses preventing them moving on. It’s a sort of legal negotiation drain unblocking service, a Dynorod for anyone in deadlocked negotiations who would otherwise be heading to court! And it works most of the time I am pleased to say.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have had several NHS budget procurement cases recently, as well as a major contract interpretation dispute. There is also a potential business and human rights case I am told may be coming my way. Much of what I do is confidential so I don’t get to talk about it, including team breakdowns or inquiries in major organisations. In terms of thought leadership projects, I am chairing a committee that is convening the final conference in a global series (‘the Global Pound conferences’) which are considering the future for ADR.

What was your first job?

I was a bell-ringer in my neighbour’s mobile fish-and-chip shop, announcing our arrival at new locations before I served the up the nutritious Scottish delicacies! My first ‘serious’ job was researching people’s attitudes to pay for a behavioural economics project in the University of Edinburgh’s Business Studies Department. From there, I used my qualifications in business, law and psychology to specialise in negotiation and management for in-house lawyers before becoming CEDR’s first CEO. And after over 25 years as CEO, I am about to revert to full-time disputes practice and thought leadership work for CEDR while the Board searches for a new CEO, so a new career phase begins!

Career highlight?

I suppose it has to be receiving a CBE for services to mediation, which was a real testament to the achievements of CEDR and its supporters in helping change a very traditional legal system to use ADR in a relatively short space of time. In terms of individual case hightlights, there have been many - from helping resolve the Robert Maxwell pension plundering cases, to working on the Alder Hey retained organs scandal, and of course it has been a privilege to assist many celebrities and business leaders in the middle of a major crisis. 

Share some great advice you've been given.

Our first CEDR Chairman, Sir Alex Jarratt who had had an illustrious business as well as public service career, had a favourite expression  – 'Don’t let best be the enemy of good'.  He was a great mentor for me but this particular phrase helped make it much easier to speed up decision-making and recognise the proportionality required for most business decisions.

What's in your desk drawers?

The path to enlightenment! I should open them more often!

Can you recommend a local lunch or coffee spot?

I enjoy Leon’s fare at Blackfriars Circus for healthy, hot and fast food.

How do you relax?

I ski in winter, and otherwise relaxation is keeping fit, reading or watching films.

Sum up working as a mediator in one word.

‘Turbo-charged-dialogue’ (Okay, I cheated a little - but it’s a complex and intense process!)

Favourite city?

London is still amazingly varied when you have the time to stop and enjoy.  But Edinburgh, Sydney, Rome and New York are also up there for me.

What book is on your bedside table?

In fiction, it is Philip Kerr’s The Shot, a reworking of the Kennedy assassination.  My non-fiction read of the moment is the latest book by the author of The Big Short Michael Lewis. The Undoing Project is the story of the two Israeli psychologists Tversky and Kahnemann, who became the fathers of behavioural economics and revealed not only the deep biases of the human mind but our assured lack of insight into our own biases.

If you hadn't become a mediator, what would you have done?

I was brought up in the Glasgow tenements, and my joy was Saturday film matinees as a world of escape. I should really have ended up in Hollywood!