It’s not personal, it’s just business—or is it?

Leaders who seek and embrace ways to manage inherent personal aspects of business will create great companies.


Quick trivia question: With what famous movie do we associate “it’s not personal, it’s just business”? If you guessed “The Godfather,” then I need you on my trivia team. Would you be surprised to know this saying really does have mob origins? Otto Berman, a mob accountant, is credited with its use and, as the story goes, Lucky Luciano’s guys might have muttered it to Berman right before they shot him dead.

Leaders often use this saying as a verbal bulletproof jacket to justify making decisions that will likely have an emotional impact on their teams. Take, for example, a friend who was recently asked to take over the leadership of a company that was struggling to meet its business goals. In an effort to improve the business, my friend was faced with cutting bonuses, changing management assignments, and reducing staff—all decisions he made with limited input from his staff. He was surprised at the anxiety among his staff at his decisions and asked me, “Don’t they know it isn’t personal? I am just trying to improve the business.” Yet when one of his leaders turned in his resignation, which disrupted my friend’s implementation plan, he said, “What a jerk!” It’s not personal, right?

The reality is that business today is very personal. Whenever you have situations that involve money, reputation, or ego and relationships, it is personal. As business leaders, we want the personal dedication and commitment from our teams to fuel our company success. If I were to survey the companies in our industry, I would probably find that these values are embedded in the firms’ brand positioning in the market. The consulting business, by its nature, is built on personal reputation and dedication to good business practices. These good business practices are what fuel the referrals and the repeat business on which we pride ourselves.

So, as leaders, how do we embrace the personal aspects of business? It begins with understanding that we do business with individuals within a business setting. These individuals—whether employees, clients, or partners—need to feel that they have a personal connection based on a common set of values. Our businesses are relationship-based, not transaction-based.

Consider the following:

  • Prioritize relationship building in your individual goals. Use the one of the following opportunities to get to know your colleagues on a more personal level:
  • Take time to understand the non-work life. Schedule a breakfast or lunch with individual team members to get to know them on a personal level. Minimize the work talk.
  • Encourage the strengthening of relationships both within the team and across the organization. Discourage isolationism and bashing of other teams within the company. If there is conflict with another part of the organization, get them together outside the office to improve personal relationships.
  • Manage your emotions. Set the example among your team on how to react to difficult interpersonal relationships and manage emotionally charged situations. Limit emotional responses such as outbursts, retaliation, and running individuals down in public. Depending on your personality, this could be hard. If so, consider engaging an executive coach to be your outlet and to help you come up with methods to manage your own reactions. Be the example to your teams on how to manage emotionally-charged situations.
  • Provide the best environment for learning. A recent article in Fortune magazine (“How to build the perfect workplace”) talks about how “employees who excel at human relationships are emerging as the new ‘it’ men and women.” Your team will learn through your own behavior, but consider bringing in experts to help your team develop and strengthen the cultural sensitivity, collaboration, and interpersonal skills necessary to be successful.
  • Make the collection and internalization of client feedback a priority. Our business success is intimately tied to our clients’ success. Consequently, the professionalism we demonstrate sets the tone for the relationship. Develop an action plan with metrics to improve problem aspects—then sit down with the client and share the results.

Jane Sidebottom, AMK LLC

Begin today by removing the sentiment of “it’s not personal, it’s just business” from your vocabulary. Good business leaders who seek and embrace ways to manage inherent personal aspects of business will create great companies. After all, don’t you want to be the employer of choice for the “it” men and women?

Jane Sidebottom is the owner of AMK LLC, a management and marketing consulting firm that provides market development and growth expertise to small and medium-size firms. She has more than 20 years of management and leadership experience in consulting engineering and Fortune 100 organizations. Sidebottom is a graduate of the University of Maryland. 

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