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Review: Taking business personally

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"It's Not Business, It's Personal"
By Ronna Lichtenberg
Hyperion, 228 pages, January

(CNN) -- Like the smile of someone you know as a friend, the best thing about Ronna Lichtenberg's "It's Not Business, It's Personal" makes you smile right back: her sense of irony.

The old rules of business, she tells us, dictated that you "Kick the competition's butt." The new rules, she writes, require you to "Kiss the competition's butt, because they may also be a client." The old rules said, "The boss is in charge." The new rules: "The boss is in trouble." The old rules insisted, "The needs of your department are paramount." The new rules ask, "What's a department?"

graphic Do you approach business as a matter of relationships?

Yes. Ronna Lichtenberg is preaching to the converted with me.
I understand the relationship issue but I'm not sure Lichtenberg's "personal" concept of them makes sense for me.
No, the whole concept is off-base. Business is about the work and the deals, not about the people -- they're interchangeable.
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So many career how-to books are earnestly remedial that this one may surprise you. Then again, maybe not, coming as it does from the author of "Work Would Be Great if it Weren't for the People" (Hyperion, 1998).

But what Lichtenberg -- president of Clear Peak Communications -- brings to her work again in this new outing is the kind of bold-but-not-bitter honesty about a facet of the workplace that makes you want to shake her hand.

Her title, of course, is the first step. Don't ever let somebody tell you that business -- at least the successful kind -- isn't personal. Lichtenberg is here with a forceful argument that it most certainly is personal and you'd better get with the program, particularly with the "new rules" that include, she reminds us, "Your work life never stops."

You're going to be disappointed, though, if you think Lichtenberg is trying to usher in the age of touchy-feely fellowship in the workplace. Her goal is exactly the opposite.

In fact, consultant Billi Lee beat Lichtenberg to it by several years in her slim volume, "Savvy: Thirty Days to a different Perspective." There, in a chapter called, "Work Isn't Family," Lee laid it out: "A family's mission is to take care of people. The company's mission is to take care of itself."

So covered-dish-supper enthusiasts aren't going to find much comfort in what Lichtenberg and Lee are saying. But if you like the kind of intelligent, lively reality that "Lifetime Live" and NBC's "Weekend Today" viewers enjoy in Lichtenberg, you probably can understand and use what she's saying.


"We think of the marketplace," writes Lichtenberg, "as impersonal, but in fact it is intensely personal. And the smallest element of the marketplace is the one-to-one relationship. It can't get any more personal than that. "

If you've spent your life so far hearing such phrases as "It's all who you know," you'll grok Lichtenberg easily. But she goes beyond that to get you past the idea that you're supposed to get married and have a family with who you know. The business relationship, she writes, is the one that can in any way influence your or the other person's livelihood.

Lichtenberg has nine principles for you, in approaching your own marketplace as the arena of relationships it is. As she discusses each principle, her work is sprinkled with comments of some widely recognized "successfuls" on the topic of work relationships. These quotes turn up in little gray boxes all over the place in that curious curse-of-USA-Today format that so many book publishers these days seem to think readers want. But some of the comments Lichtenberg has interviewed on her subject are pretty good.

•   Always remember it pays to be personal. Lichtenberg probably goes a little too far in suggesting you need a "personal board of directors." But the concept of making sure you've got some strong business relationships with people who can coach you and help you develop is perfectly sound.

•   Observe the rules of the role. This is one of Lichtenberg's best chapters. She's talking about knowing where you stand. One of your best relationships in your career, for example, may be the one she describes as "You Don't Like 'Em, but You Trust 'Em." This is someone with whom you have nothing in common but can always count on for consistency in the business setting.

•   Be fluent in both pink and blue. Right, you get that one. If not from Venus and Mars, they're at least shopping on different sides of Brooks Brothers and Lichtenberg suggests you might want to at least scan both halves of the catalog because the other customer is never far away in today's work setting.

"While a talented user is good at drawing people in, there are clues that might give him away. Does his conversation always revolve around him and his needs, and does he only turn to you and yours after it's clear you're getting annoyed?"
— Ronna Lichtenberg on spotting a user, from "It's Not Business, It's Personal"

Among her list of 10 contrasts: For men, "first meetings start with a mutual recitation of accomplishments," while for women, "in meetings, it's good to talk about personal stuff before you get down to business."

•   Choose your people like you choose your stocks. Humor shows up in this one as a plus. Somebody pass that on to the Wall Street babies, please.

•   Diversify your holdings. Lichtenberg here takes the portfolio analogy farther than she really has to, but it works: She's telling you to avoid putting all your eggs into one basket. Have your business relationships include a "high risk" person -- "the strange-looking soul down the hall could have a great idea for the project you couldn't crack."

•   Don't waste time on the wrong people. Here's one of Lichtenberg's best principles and chapters. She talks about avoiding "energy vampires" who drain you, primarily because in some way they're needy. One of the book's successfuls drops in here, Liz Smith, rightly laying it out: "If it's someone who constantly needs something from me, it just takes up too much of my energy."

Author's name
Ronna Lichtenberg  

Of more importance here, however, is Lichtenberg's description of the "user" -- often someone who "really knows how to manipulate your emotions and get you to believe you're the weak one, the one at fault."

•   Do it every day. Figure out how to regularly tend to everybody in your group of business relationships.

•   Give yourself time to win. "When you believe you're playing with another winner, the extra time you spend staying at the table usually turns out to be a small investment compared to the potential gains."

•   Do deals based on relationships. Lichtenberg's directive is the action part of her premise.

By the time she issues this instruction, Lichtenberg probably has used too many analogies and metaphors -- the worst of these is a "relationship diet plan" she gets into for a bit in the last quarter of the book. But the trip is worth the travel.

"Put this book down, pick yourself up, find someone in your business life worth relating to, and go do it. Make it personal."


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