“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business”
– Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972)
We have heard these words (or a variant thereof) countless times since they were first uttered on screen in Francis Ford Coppola’s Academy Award winning classic The Godfather.
It gets repeated so often in American culture that it feels like it’s an Unimpeachable, Infallible Law of Capitalism that is Beyond Reproach.
But is it really a good business philosophy?
Ever since I started my first business, I have had an allergic reaction to this particular phrase.
I remember telling my first business partners, when I was 16 years old – “Business….Personal…what’s the difference…..this is OUR WORK! It’s ALL PERSONAL!”
And that has been my viewpoint ever since.
But the early implementation of this viewpoint was awful.
I was immature. When I was younger, I took everything personally.
I acted emotionally with my Lizard Brain dictating all of my actions and – more importantly – reactions.
If a competitor beat me out of a deal, I hated them.
If a business partner betrayed me, I would fill my heart with revenge.
If a customer was late paying their bill, I would take it as a statement of my own self-worth.
If a candidate declined to accept a job offer, I would view it as a personal insult.
If an employee left for another company, I would mope for weeks.
If we received a scathing support ticket, I wouldn’t be able to sleep.
On the other end of the spectrum, if I won a large client, my self-confidence and self-esteem would inflate accordingly.
If an amazing candidate accepted my offer, I would feel validated.
If we beat a competitor out of a deal, I would revel in the victory.
If we had an immensely profitable year, I would celebrate with outrageous vacations and gifts for my friends, which served to boost my own self-esteem.
If I gave my phone number to a girl at a bar, I would give them my BLACK business card, with my phone number and fancy title in GOLD.
All of my personal self-esteem was propped up and propelled by business success.
I was utterly and completely consumed by my business.
There was no distinction between business and personal identity for me during the years 1996 to 2009.
As you can imagine, it was an emotional roller coaster.
It was hard for me but impossibly hard on friends, family members and significant others.
To these people, Bart was not a real person. Bart was a business robot that worked too much.
By adopting the ‘It’s ALL PERSONAL’ philosophy, I had allowed my work to become my life.
My company’s identity became my identity.
In short, I had completely disappeared into the fire.
And then things changed for me.
I met my wife, Sarah, in grad school in late 2009. Sarah has a high degree of emotional intelligence and is simply awesome with people. She still teaches me something every day about how to interact with other people.
Soon thereafter, after starting FullContact, I started meeting incredible business leaders and seeking out mentors.
I met Chris Marks. I met Scott Beck. I met Brad Feld. I met David Cohen. I met Jim Franklin. I met Tim Miller. I met Jerry Colonna. I met countless other successful business people in the tech community.
I soon discovered that the common thread to their success was – in their words – “all about the people.”
It’s the people they surrounded themselves with that mattered most.
The secret for them wasn’t to disappear into the fire. The secret was in developing close, honest, trusting personal relationships with other people.
Especially the people they worked closely with.
It dawned on me: I had been doing it completely wrong.
Previously, I had let the business consume my personal self.
Now, I am simply bringing my personal self into the business.
In bringing my personal self, I am able to develop deep, emotionally intimate relationships with the people I spend time with every day.
At first, I was afraid of being vulnerable with people at my company.
Conventional wisdom says that as the leader, I’m supposed to have all the answers.
I’m never supposed to show vulnerability.
I’m never supposed to be uncertain about the path forward.
I’m never supposed to cry.
I’m never supposed to have a bad day.
I’m never supposed to doubt myself.
I’m never supposed to feel insecure.
Well, I started to do all of those things about nine months ago when Sarah and I had our first child.
I started to shed my armor.
And what happened next astounded me.
By shedding my armor and leading from a place of vulnerability, the people on my team started to reveal their own vulnerabilities.
One by one, people on my team started shedding their own armor.
People started revealing their deepest fears and anxieties.
People started openly talking about depression.
People started talking about their inner demons and struggles.
And most importantly, I was able to develop meaningful emotional connections with these people.
As a result, our relationships have deepened, and the mutual trust has increased exponentially.
We are now able to cut through all the bullshit and have genuine, honest, conversations.
In doing so, the work environment has become a safe container for us to be our true selves.
Instead of spending energy pretending to be a different version of ourselves, we have refocused that energy on the work at hand.
We move quickly and at the speed of trust.
We empathize with each other instead of judging one another.
We genuinely care for one another.
That has translated into improved business results and a happier working environment.
So, next time you hear someone say “It’s not personal. It’s business” – just show them this clip:
Meg Ryan: she’s not wrong.