It's Not Business, It's Personal

The 9 Relationship Principles That Power Your Career


By Ronna Lichtenberg

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Some people are simply more successful than others are, and we all know that this often has a lot to do with their personal connections. But how do we forge those relationships? In this incisive, entertaining book, Ronna Lichtenberg reveals all. This book will give anyone who wants to be successful in business a concrete edge — the personal advantage.



It’s Not


Ronna Lichtenberg

For my mom, Bess Glaser,
the best teacher I ever had about relationships;
and my dad, the late “Judy” Glaser,
whose voice still lovingly demands performance.


I BET YOU’VE HEARD THE PHRASE “BUSINESS IS BUSINESS,” OR “IT WASN’T personal,” or “you shouldn’t take it personally.” You hear phrases like this all the time, which is why you may be surprised to find that you’ve just opened a book that argues for an entirely different perspective.

Not only do I believe that much of business is personal, but I promise you that if you accept this premise and commit to managing your worklife with this in mind, you’ll have a much better chance of addressing the burning need you have in your worklife right this minute.

  • You’re working 24/7 for a start-up and your burning need is for the company’s valuations to hold up just a little longer.

  • You’re working for yourself, at home, and still scared about how you are going to make this plan of yours work. Your burning need is to somehow get clients and to get them to send you checks.

  • You hate your job. Your burning need is to figure out how to make a living doing something else, once you decide what you would like that to be.

  • You’re done with school. Your burning need is to find a job that isn’t one you’ll regret for the rest of your life.

  • Your burning need is to drive the company’s revenue line up, because unless that happens, they won’t pay you enough to cover the kid’s braces, let alone another car.

  • Your burning need is to figure out the answer to the question that wakes you up at 3 A.M.: “Why, if I am so smart, aren’t I more successful?”

  • Your burning need is to figure out how to do your job well and still have a life that includes more time for family and friends.

If you see yourself in the above, this book can help you. It will teach you the nine principles you need to practice every day to build trust-based business relationships. People are what lie at the heart of your needs. That’s why building better relationships can get your burning needs fulfilled—money, success, time.

If you practice the nine principles, you will enjoy work more, you will get your work done faster, your days will be less draining, you will find more opportunities, you will have people you can really turn to for support when you need it, and you will get the true feedback you need to be successful in business.


There are a lot of gurus running around and even more management consultants. On top of that there are highly competent psychologists and psychiatrists, sociologists, anthropologists, lawyers, media mavens, business school professors, and big names from every arena who talk about related subjects. You should listen to them, try out their advice, and believe it if it works.

You should listen to me in the same way. Here’s why these principles are worth a try:

1. The principles are based on discussions with people you’ve dreamed of talking to.

I spent almost two years talking with the best in every business about their business relationships—from the banking community to restaurants to spa owners to dot-com marquis. Where else can you hear from Edgar Bronfman, Esther Dyson, Hollywood producers and directors Richard Donner and Lauren Shuler Donner, high-profile CEOs like Bill Pollard of ServiceMaster and Bernie Marcus of Home Depot, and phenomenal entrepreneurs like Nancy Evans and Barbara Corcoran?

Take a look at the cast of characters at the end of this book. These are the people who most inspired me.

I talked with people who were unquestionably successful. The interviews were with practitioners who are masters at relationship issues.

I wanted to go beyond business category ghettos. Since the topic goes beyond CEOs, or large companies, or women, or start-ups, or entrepreneurs, or either coast, I wanted to do the same. My goal was to be as wide-ranging as possible, to sample, to see if what I was learning in one interview held true in another.

What I eventually discovered was that the process itself— selecting interviewees, getting them to agree to the interview, talking with them, following up—was a hologram of the relationship-building process I was trying to find. That learning, too, is reflected in the following pages. I can safely say that through these individuals, I’ve learned from the best, and, with this book, you can, too.

2. My experience is front line, profit-and-loss oriented and current.

My career has ranged from operating the equipment that seals the ends of plastic dry-cleaning bags together to running the strategic planning and marketing functions of corporate giants.

Whatever hat you’re wearing now, I’ve probably worn it, too: I’ve been a temp, an employee, a free agent, a middle manager in a large bureaucracy, a senior line executive and a CEO. I’ve hired, managed, and fired others; launched new businesses; met payroll; and helped others do the same.

Not only do I know that business is about making a profit, but I’m involved in helping my clients and myself run more profitable businesses virtually every day of my life.

As I mined the interviews for insights that led to the principles, it was from this practical perspective: What am I learning that other people can use?

3. I know a lot about what doesn’t work.

Lord knows I’m not holding myself out as an expert in relationships in the sense that I always get it right. In fact, it is because I have seen business relationships—including my own—handled so badly that I developed a passion for learning how to do it better.

Those of you who read my first book, Work Would Be Great If It Weren’t for the People, know that I had a complete education about how complicated business relationships can be.

Once the book was published, though, the floodgates opened. As a result, I hear from people around the world, around the clock, about what a tough time they are having with other people when all they want to do is make a living. Their questions have taught me a great deal. Most important, it became clear to me that those people who focused solely on the defensive posture necessary for dealing with office politics were missing something big. Business relationships are about much more than office politics, they are about cultivating something very powerful.


  1. An interaction at work that other people gossip about

  2. An oxymoron

  3. The only possible explanation for why that creep who plays golf with the boss is more successful than you are

  4. An ongoing set of interactions between two people with the potential to influence at least one of their livelihoods

  5. All of the above

The cynical answer is E, but cynicism isn’t helpful here. So we are going to focus on D, because it offers the most opportunity.

Let’s start with a couple of definitions. Any initial business interaction is actually a transaction.

A transaction happens when two people complete an exchange of goods and/or services for money.

When one of those two people expects or hopes there will be future transactions and that those transactions have significance for his or her livelihood, that’s the beginning of a business relationship. A relationship goes beyond transaction because of the time horizon—it always includes some thought about the future. And it differs from transactions because the interaction isn’t complete—someone is thinking, maybe in a small way, in the back of his mind, that maybe the other person could be interesting or helpful some day.

In some business relationships, you influence someone else’s livelihood: when you are a consumer, for example, or a passive investor. That’s an interesting topic, but this book only speaks to it indirectly.

The focus of this book is about the most important kind of business relationship, the one you have with people who buy what you have to offer and influence your future livelihood.

Let’s take the definitions of transaction and relationship for a test drive, just to see how they play out in the real world.

I’m in my red Ferrari convertible (hey, it’s my fantasy, I can do what I want). I see your lemonade stand. You offer to sell me a glass of lemonade. The sun has made me thirsty. I take the lemonade, give you money, drink it, drive away, and never see you again. That’s a transaction.

Now let’s go on to a business relationship.

It turns out that I start stopping at your lemonade stand every day around lunchtime. You remember my name; I learn yours. One day you offer me a cookie from your lunch because I’m grumpy about being hungry. The next week you sell me a sandwich. Around Labor Day, I start thinking that as the weather gets cooler you will need something else to do, and you’d be a great person to add to my team.

We’ve never been in each other’s homes. We don’t know each other’s family or friends. But we each have expectations of the other and the potential to have a real impact on the other’s success. We are at the beginning of a business relationship.

I first learned about the power of relationships when I was in grade school. My family owned and operated a bar and restaurant in the small town of St. Joseph, Missouri, called the D & G—a neighborhood place that attracted an incongruent mix of customers: Families with children frequented the simple-fare restaurant in the back, and serious drinkers congregated in the tavern in front.

The D & G was a blue-collar bar in the 1960s, and my dad was a Jew. It was not always a comfortable combination. Dad needed to keep a blackjack behind the bar for when customers got out of hand.

There was one customer whom everyone called Toughie. Mean little bastard. I don’t to this day know if he really had a name. It was just Toughie. He looked a little bit like Ernest Borgnine, and when he had too much to drink, which was often, he got bitter, then rowdy, then downright mean. And I mean mean.

One night, after several hours of throwing back Irish whiskey with beer chasers at a bowling team meeting, Toughie’s vicious side came out, and he picked a fight with my dad by making some sort of anti-Semitic slur. Dad came at him, and Toughie threw a punch. Dad slipped and fell to the ground, hitting the back of his head, hard. Toughie was on top of Dad in a second, pummeling him with both fists. People who were there said that they were sure Toughie was going to kill him. If he didn’t, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.

Then another customer, Gil—who was one of the regulars and a part-time bartender, one of Dad’s favorites, and one of the sweetest men I have ever met—stood up. Gil and my father went back a long way.

Gil was himself a big man: He was a telephone linesman, so he was big, strong, and wiry from climbing all those poles. He was one of the few people who had the guts, let alone the physical strength, to take on Toughie.

Gil said: “If you pick up your foot to stomp him, you’ll have to deal with me.” By this time, not satisfied with pummeling my dad, who was completely out of it from hitting his head, Toughie was obviously considering upping the ante to kicking, or what we called “stomping” in those days. Like most working men, Toughie wore big iron-toed boots. Toughie considered Gil’s statement and raised his foot anyway. Gil stepped forward.

Toughie said, “This is none of your affair.”

Gil replied, “I’m making it my affair.”

Toughie thought it over. He backed off.

Ultimately, it led to this: Gil’s sister died in an automobile accident, leaving two children whom Gil and his wife, Zell, adopted. One of them is a charming, well-spoken and hardworking young man named Pete—and Dad went on to take Pete into the business as a bartender and teach him the ropes.

And when it was time for Dad to retire, he sold Pete the business. So now, if you come visit the D & G in St. Joseph, Missouri, you’ll see behind the bar not only Pete, who still owns and runs the business, but pictures of my dad, of Gil, and of Mom, holding out plates of food to a group at the annual picnic. There’s even a picture of Toughie.

Pete says that, when faced with a difficult business decision, he still thinks of my dad and asks, “What would old Julius have done?” My dad is gone, but the business lives because of business relationships that worked forty years ago.

The investment that Gil and Dad made in each other still creates value.

A business relationship differs from a personal relationship in that what we do for a living—or what we might do—provides the connection. This doesn’t mean that business relationships can’t morph into personal relationships, or that the reverse can’t or doesn’t happen all the time. But in friendships, what the other person does for a living is not the basis of the connection. The connection is shared experiences and passions: fanaticism about a team, or porcelain King Charles spaniels, or kids in the same grade at school, or admitting to a clandestine fondness for Howard Stern. There will be more, much more on friendships in Principle Two! So for now, let’s just leave it with the point that business relationships are those connections that revolve around how you make money.

More Today than Yesterday

Is there room in our new millennium, world for relationships? Some folks would tell you there isn’t, that all that matters is performance and speed. There are even people who will tell you that being polite in an e-mail takes too long and is therefore unbusinesslike and unprofitable. And it is quite true that building relationships not only takes place over time, but takes time.

So let’s look at the speed issue. Americans are on the move. According to a recent article in The New York Times by Economist writer Adrian Wooldridge, the average thirty-two-year-old employee has already worked for nine different companies in his or her career. In 1999, an astonishing seventeen million Americans quit their jobs to pursue other ventures. That’s eleven million more than the number who quit their jobs a mere six years before.

It’s no surprise, then, that as I write this, one of the hottest management issues around is retention. Thirty percent turnover rates are the norm in e-commerce. Law firms, management consultancies, and businesses of all stripes are trying to figure out how to get people to stay.

For the twentysomethings coming into the workplace, this is business as usual. It seems somehow quaint that their parents ever believed that devoting their lives to a one-track, one-employer career was the way to go. The workplace rules have changed.

As technologies have freed us to work whenever and wherever we choose, the terms of employment have followed suit. The old-time pension plan, which was explicit about the reward for sticking it out, has been replaced by the 401K, which makes it possible to roll on and still collect your just reward later. Offices? How about a laptop, a Palm Pilot, a cell phone, and a physical space to call your own if you happen to be in the neighborhood.

This constant motion contributes to the attitude that we’re all in this alone. We can’t trust a company; we can’t tie ourselves down. We need to be flexible, portable, fungible, and able to redefine ourselves at the drop of a byte.

As my contribution to speed, on the next page is a quick summary of the changes in the unspoken rules of the career game over the past twenty years.

The only problem is that all this speed has made us, to use a high-tech word, kludgy, which is how computer folks describe mismatched systems. As we whiz by one another, we don’t really connect. Which means that every decision is more complicated, takes longer, and is less intelligent because you can’t get real information about business problems from people you don’t trust. Or, as the immortal saying goes, “The faster I go, the behinder I get.”

What’s also fascinating about much of this activity is that it is designed to reach an old-fashioned goal: more productive relationships with customers, because relationships are often what justifies the difference between generic and premium-label pricing.

A few years ago, my husband and I took a hiking trip in the South of France. We planned and piloted the trip with the help of a guidebook that I started to refer to as “the book of tortures.” It was a British book, and very charmingly written, but perhaps not as helpful to American novices as I would have liked, with instructions like “Turn left at the cairn.” Until that trip, I thought the cairn was something that belonged in the loo. So, what under normal circumstances should have been a two-hour hike, usually ended up taking us all day. We knew that once we set out, we wouldn’t see anyone else until nightfall.

Don’t make waves. Make change.
Play your part on the team. Who’s on the team today?
Kick the competition’s butt. Kiss the competition’s butt, because they may also be a client.
Don’t question your boss. Make sure your boss knows as much as you do. At least in public.
In the long run, it will all work out if you play by the rules. What long run?
Your work life and your personal life are separate. Your work life never stops.
You need to be at an office to communicate. You need to be awake to communicate.
The boss is in charge. The boss is in trouble.
The needs of your department are paramount. What’s a department?

This led to our beginning a ritualistic activity for each day: Right after having a luxurious French breakfast, we would begin preparations for lunch. My husband’s job was to carry lunch in his backpack—so our enthusiasm for French food and for planning sumptuous meals in the French wilderness was tempered only by my husband’s concern for the muscles of his lower back.

One morning we were in a town called Gourdes, and it just so happened that we were there on market day. We arrived early in the small town square as the market was being set up in order to buy our groceries for lunch.

It was everybody’s best stuff. There was the cheese man, the butcher, the lady with the fresh honey, the lavender merchant. There were flowers, and homemade wine, and fresh sausages, and fabrics, and pottery, and freshly baked breads and rolls.

I was just overwhelmed by the beauty of the marketplace.

Yes, it’s true, it was France, it was romantic, it had all the smells and energy and flavors of life itself. But it also embodied for me, so clearly, the spirit of free exchange and the open marketplace. It was all there: everybody bringing forth the best that they had to offer; and then the interplay of who they were, and what they had to sell, and who their customers were, and how the other merchants helped or hindered their efforts.

I was truly moved by what an amazing human construction the marketplace is, and what an amazing thing it is to see the relationships in the market coming to the surface and affecting the business.

I watched the interchanges: Would one cheese man, sold out of Camembert, send a customer to one of his competitors? Or would he run over and get the cheese himself? Who was able to go to whom to get change? I watched one butcher who would not talk to any of the other butchers, but would talk to the baker. I watched the negotiations as the stalls were set up: Allied businesses—cheese and bread, meat and wine—tried to set up near one another for their customers’ convenience; and certain merchants tried very hard to be near certain other merchants. I watched as customers very deliberately chose the merchants with whom they would deal, based on what seemed to be a complex internal calculation that included the quality of the merchandise, the prices at which they were offered, and the welcoming attitude of the merchant.

We think of the marketplace 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. Many of us like to fool ourselves into believing that our incredibly complex digital, global marketplace has nothing to do with what goes on in the little square in Gourdes, France. We can be deceived into believing that our world is now too efficient for relationships, that when every bit of information, and virtually any product or service, can be bought with a click of a mouse, the need for relationships has disappeared.

But in fact, it has become even more important.

Think about this: I heard an ad on the radio yesterday that said, “Had a bad day at work? We have four hundred thousand jobs listed on our website …” And, yes, while that ad has a humorous tone, it represents a phenomenon that’s massively significant. Employees now know what their options are and can easily determine whether or not they are getting what they deserve in every way. Many of these job-search websites don’t just give you listings, they give you search criteria, postings, and chat rooms with which you can discuss any one of those four hundred thousand jobs and the quality of life issues surrounding them. In other words, you can find out in advance if your prospective boss is a jerk, what the people are like, and whether or not the place sounds right for you. You can find out with ease what the company’s record is in advancing people at your level, whether or not people who have left the company have nice things to say, and, of course, what the company’s policies are concerning things that may be of importance to you. And that level of information and qualitative analysis is now available for virtually every service and product for sale in the world.

In the marketplace at Gourdes, if one butcher treats another unethically, their options are limited, and they probably will still continue to do business together or, if not, one can move on and open shop in another town. But in the global marketplace, if you’re a jerk, there’s no reason for other people to continue to want to do business with you. Their options are endless. Plus, if you do something truly unethical, chances are the details will be posted on websites and circulated to people in your field within moments.

Today we just use different words to describe classic business relationships like the ones I witnessed in Gourdes. We want customers who are sticky, who aren’t clicking through too fast. We want a greater share of their wallets and their minds. We want top-of-mind brand positioning. We want intimacy, to keep clients longer by proving that we know their likes and dislikes. We want to own their awareness during the time they spend in their car, or on-line, or in line. In other words, much of what we are all paid to do today is to try to create relationships.

What all of this means is that going fast in and of itself is not the answer. The answer is to go fast only when going fast improves performance, to know when to go fast and when you need to slow down just a little.

As in the old days, results count, and among the most effective tools in business are relationships. In order to win at the game of business, you need to play by your own rules, but never all by yourself. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, keep in your mind a picture of that little marketplace. Even if you’re sitting alone at a computer terminal and feel as if you have as much in common with a cheese man in France as you do with an astronaut on the moon, remember that your business relationships are as personal, as vital, and as crucial as those taking place in a village market—whether it’s obvious or not. Which brings us to the nine key principles for every business relationship.

The Nine Principles

This book is organized around nine principles that emerged from my interviews with successful people. The principles are operating guidelines. They are there to help you decide what to do, and with whom, as you go through your business day.


On Sale
Jan 1, 2002
Page Count
228 pages
Hachette Books

Ronna Lichtenberg

About the Author

Ronna Lichtenberg is a consultant, lecturer, and author of Work Would Be Great If It Weren’t for the People. A contributing editor to O The Oprah Magazine, she is president of Clear Peak Communications, a management consulting firm is a frequent contributor to NBC’s Weekend Today and Lifetime Live and has been featured on Bloomberg, CNBC, Fox, and ABC, as well as in the pages of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Learn more about this author