On business being personal

Last time I explained how Vito Corleone was a great executive. Now I feel like I need to follow up with a movie that quotes The Godfather a lot: You’ve Got Mail.

In You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan play…well, let’s be fair. They’re playing Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in a romantic comedy. It worked in Sleepless in Seattle, and it works again in You’ve Got Mail. (Side thought: is You’ve Got Mail similar to The Expendables for romantic comedy? Discuss in comments!)

Okay, Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox, an executive in a bookstore chain that looks a lot like Barnes & Noble, and Meg Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly, the owner of a small local bookstore. Essentially, they are business rivals who also know each other online anonymously as friends and pen pals. Thus, their relationship proceeds on two fronts: online, they continue to grow closer while, on the business front, Joe works to force Kathleen out of business. Of course, they don’t know that they are friends online, which leads to all kinds of interesting events, especially once Joe finds out….

It’s a cute movie and worth the time to watch.

But here’s a scene that comes soon after Joe has successfully forced Kathleen out of business. She has to close her little community bookstore and, on top of that, she’s sick. Around this point, I think Joe is starting to figure out what’s going on (it’s been a while since I’ve watched this), so he goes to Kathleen to try to apologize. He offers the idea that it wasn’t personal. You know, it’s business.

And Kathleen reacts strongly to this idea, as you can see in this clip.

What is that supposed to mean? I’m so sick of that! All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. And what is so wrong with being personal, anyway? […] Because whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.

As we work in organizations, it’s personal. It always is. The people working in the organization, the people being served by the organization, the people harmed by the organization…they’re all people. And we are not given the right to segment out our business life and do wicked deeds and then justify it by saying, “It wasn’t personal; it was business.”

This can be applied in a number of directions. Here’s just one. If you are a manager, you are a manager of people. That fundamental identity takes precedence over all other identities, including manager/report. So how are you doing at treating your people like people, human beings with lives that are deeper and richer and more complicated than merely existing to work for you? How are you doing at offering these amazing, wonderful beings the respect and joy that they are owed?

Because it’s personal to them. It’s personal to all of us.

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