Remember That It's Business and It's Personal

It's not personal, just business for product management

Do you ever lose sleep over what happens at work or have arguments that you replay over and over again in your head? You might call me sensitive, but I think one of the greatest lies told about business is that “it’s not personal.” Of course, it is personal if people are involved because they speak and write and listen and see. If people are an organization’s most important asset, why do we try to convince them that they are just a bunch of wires and stuff?

A number of companies ago, our investors decided to replace the first CEO with someone “experienced.” (This is a pattern that seems to repeat itself over and over again in technology companies — typically to the detriment of the company and ultimately the investors themselves.) The new CEO came in and repeated over and over again for a few weeks that “it’s just business and not personal.”

The CEO then whacked most of the management team that was performing reasonably well. Once that was done, he spent the majority of his time getting his pilot’s license, learning to fly, and talking about building a “lifestyle company.”

I knew it was personal when my colleagues explained to their spouses and kids that they had been fired, and what could be more selfish than canning folks to build a lifestyle company?

He made it a year before the board fired him. You can guess what happened next. He sent out a rant email to the surviving management team that he had been wronged. I guess it was not just business — it was personal. I learned a lot that year.

Of course he felt the effects of being fired. It hurt. This is why it is ludicrous that when things go well we celebrate the people who showed “great personal sacrifice” or “put the business ahead of themselves.” But when something bad happens we are told it is not personal. Managers typically reach for this line when they want to share bad news like:

  • You are not getting that promotion
  • Your project is being canceled
  • You failed to meet your MBOs
  • You are being forced to do something you do not agree with

The reality is that every organization is in the business of people. And every job is personal for every employee for a few key reasons.

We work for a higher purpose
Working is not the end game. We all toil to achieve goals that are beyond the act of effort. Supporting our family, helping people be well, solving a science challenge, or teaching young people math are all meaningful outcomes that we might strive for. The time and energy that we put in on a day-to-day basis is what we must do to realize our aspirations. It is our aspirations that move us forward and make work personal.

To create is human
Our aspirations come from within and the actions we take to chase them make us human. One of our greatest gifts as humans is that we have the capacity to dream of a better world and build our way to it. The thoughts we have lead to words we speak and sentences we write. The greatest advancements in every industry have been driven by those with unique talent and the willingness to work tirelessly to solve problems differently.

We build relationships
Most of us spend more time working than doing anything else. And we spend that time with others who we interact with, depend on, and develop connections with. Workplace relationships are unique interpersonal connections with important implications for individuals and the organizations that employ them. Studies show that workplace relationships directly affect our ability to succeed and our likelihood of staying at our current company. The relationships we develop are inherently personal.

If you have ever watched the classic movie “The Godfather” you will remember a famous quote from Michael Corleone (Al Pacino): “It’s not personal Sonny, it’s strictly business.” And you will remember that it definitely was more than just about the work. The same is true in every company and for everyone person who earns a paycheck — our aspirations, efforts, and interactions mean something to us and others.

Work is the act of the body and mind moving towards a goal. And at its best, it is a creative pursuit which is often characterized by seeing the world and problems in new ways. It is fundamentally a human endeavor which makes it utterly personal. Thinking and producing are what humans do and it is impossible to completely separate that from the connections we make and the emotions we feel.

We will all be happier if we remember that it is business AND it is personal.

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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