Lichtenberg, Ronna

Ronna Lichtenberg is a consultant, lecturer, and author of Work Would Be Great If It Weren't for the People. President of Clear Peak Communications, a management consulting firm, Ms. Lichtenberg has written for magazines and websites including O, Redbook,, and She 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.

Her current book is It's Not Business, It's Personal: The 9 Relationship Principles That Power Your Career. asks …

How did you come to the title of your book, It’s Not Business, It’s Personal?

RL: Someone said to me once too often, “It’s not personal.” I started thinking about the inanity of that phrase, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not personal,” because it was always in situations where the person to whom it was said got hurt or felt hurt. And maybe I’ve heard that more often because my first book was on office politics, and it was called Work Would Be Great If It Weren’t for the People.

I hear from people who get hurt in the work place, and who feel they’re unsuccessful. Their stories are about bad things happening to them, and someone was always saying to them, “Oh, don’t take it personally. This isn’t about you.” And, of course, when that stuff happens, it is about you and how you’re handling your relationships.

So I processed that information and input and thought, well, it is personal.

Okay. So I look at that title and I think Godfather.

RL: People have said that, because Godfather was the American business movie for a couple of decades, especially Godfather I. Right before they killed the fat guy, they said, “Michael wants you to know, it isn’t personal.” (Laughs.) How crazy is that? Someone’s about to kill you, and they say, “It isn’t personal.”

Well, it’s business.

RL: No one ever says “it isn’t personal” when it’s good news. Did anyone ever say to you, “Great job getting that new client. Don’t take it personally.” Did anyone ever say, “Erik, you’re getting promoted two rungs. Don’t take it personally.”

No. No one has ever said that to me.

RL: No. They only say that to you when it’s something that they suspect is going to make you so unhappy they’ll have to deal with you. And the truth is that of course it’s personal in business, because all we have to work with in business is ourselves.

My dad went to work and then he came home, and the two things were separate. Now, we’re out here in the world and working, and there’s no longer that break in the day. I tried for awhile. I thought, I want to walk away from my desk at a certain point of the day. But what’s different from then till now? And then you have to write a book like yours to help clarify what’s happening?

RL: Well let me start with your point, which I think is terrific. And that is, there is no end of the day, in part, because of technology. So that you’re at work, and the phone rings, and it’s your kids, or it’s an e-mail from your wife. And you’re at home, and there’s e-mail and voice mail and beepers and cell phones in restaurants. So that the parts of the day that are devoted to work and non-work are smack up against each other.

Actually, it’s often simultaneous, where I’m on the phone with my mother and she’s talking about something that’s not really of burning import. I sit there and read my e-mail. Don’t you?

I hate to admit that, but I have done stuff like that, and I felt guilty as hell for doing it, too.

RL: Right. But you do, because we’re all driven by the pressure of this onslaught of communication that comes toward us. So that’s one of the reasons. Technology is changing.

The other is the inherent business context. Your dad went to work thinking that that was where he was going to have his career, and he stayed there for 30 years, or believed he was going to stay there for 30 years. So that a lot of the education about how you treat other people in order to have influence over them—whether you had formal authority or not—was something that could be handed down informally during the course of the day.

You didn’t really need how-to books and separate mentoring programs because there was Old John sitting in the corner who had been there 27 years, who had some time to take someone aside and say “If you do it this way, they’re probably not going to want to play with you.”

What’s wrong with networking?

RL: I don’t like networking when it’s only about what someone does and how that might be useful to you, and not about who they are. That was networking in the ’80s, collecting cards because it was like collecting titles. “Erik works for Therefore, I want to have his card in my Rolodex so we can trade transactions.”

You know it when people are doing that.

RL: And there was a lot of that. And we encouraged people to do that. The theory was: “It doesn’t really matter if you’re close to anyone, because the next job opportunity you’re going to have is from someone you don’t know very well.” Remember that theory? The implicit notion being that what you really wanted was quantity. You just wanted to know as many people as possible because then something might happen.

Of course you should be out there meeting people and also remembering people that you’ve met along the way, but try to have some judgment about that—people that you can bring something to, and they can bring something to you, because you feel some connection to them.

You write a lot about paying attention to face-to-face contacts.

RL: It’s because we’re too often technologically connected, but not truly connected. I was talking to a group of hi-tech people about this issue of face-to-face. They’ll start a number of their vendor relationships online, but when the point comes to do serious business together, they have to actually see somebody.

There’s a limit to how much true connection you can have without face-to-face contact. I remember when people thought that video tele-conferencing was going to be a substitute for business meetings; that there weren’t going to be business hotels anymore and people having to travel to meetings, because we could just all watch each other on TV. Have you ever experienced anything worse than those video tele-conferences where there’s this slight delay?

I’ve only done that once, and it was with some group in London. I was in Boston, in a conference room all by myself. And it just about drove me nuts. I was having a bad media experience; I wasn’t having a meeting. I couldn’t concentrate on what was going on because of these weird motions that weren’t connected with the voice.

RL: That strobe-like effect. It’s awful. Just think how much more you could have gotten done if you just talked to one of those guys who you had met over some lunch before, and had some feel for. Then you could say, “Look Basil, here’s the deal.”

Tom Peters quotes Mark McCormack, who said, “Sometimes it’s worth making that 3,000-mile flight for a 10-minute meeting, just to see the person.”

RL: Absolutely. Because then you can have something that’s faster than technology, which is emotional shorthand, trust-based shorthand. If you’ve met Basil, and you have a sense of what kind of guy he is, then you can ask him a question and it can be done in a second. Then you don’t have to go through lists and agendas and complicated agreements. You know if you think it’s worth taking a shot at trusting Basil or not.

You mention at one point a group that you spoke to, and you started off by saying “Friends are what you have outside the office.”

RL: Worst engagement of my life.

What happened there?

RL: They hated me. They absolutely hated me. It’s disguised in the book. I think I put it in Boston, but it was in another large city. And I’d written this office politics book, and I was talking to them about all of the things in the workplace that get in the way of friendship. You can end up competing with friends; you can get promoted over friends.

There’s a performance requirement. You can end up having to fire a friend, which I’ve had to do, where there’s a performance value and your primary role obligation is to the company. They’re not making it; they’ve got to go. That’s pretty tough stuff.

And people have asked me, “Is it smart to have romantic relationships with people you work with?”


RL: Right. And then this woman called me up and said, “Look, Ronna, I’m 27 years old. I work all the damn time. I’m never going to meet anybody, and I am not going out with people at work. You want me to end up never getting married and never having children, you bitch?” So I had to step back from that and say, “All right, if you are going to go out with people from the office, here’s how to do it.”

So I got to the notion of working on safer sex at work, trying to find a way to handle relationships to decrease the chance that people will get badly hurt. And that’s the same thing with trying to have friendships at work or in a business or in a partnership—look at some of the spectacular blow-ups there have been between partners—it’s more complicated than if you’re not trying to do business together.

So that’s why I spent so much time in my interviews and a whole chapter in this book on trying to sort out the issues of roles, because more of us today are in situations where we’re working on a project with friends or family, particularly in the dot-com world, where a lot of the start-ups were people who were working together because they already knew each other.

So I was wrong when I told that audience that they couldn’t have friends at work. They were right. And the way I knew I was wrong was that it was the first time I’d done a speaking engagement where I went to a cocktail party and nobody wanted to talk to me. I’ve been doing this for a while. You get done with a speaking engagement—every other time in my life—and the people come up and they want to talk to you. And they want to be with you and they want advice and they want to connect. This time, they didn’t. So I asked somebody, “What is it? Where did I go wrong?” And he said, “Well, you said we can’t have friends at work.”

Of course people want to have relationships, but they don’t know what can go wrong. And I think you can sit here and read about the dangers in your book, but until you go out and try to have a relationship with somebody you work with, and then you have sex, and then the thing breaks up, and then you’ve got to spend the rest of your working days there trying to avoid—

RL: If you get to stay there.

There’s that, too.

RL: I knew one guy went out with a subordinate, which is already a mistake. And she broke up with him. He was in love with her. He pursued her. She started going out with his boss, and he ended up being fired and there’s a sexual harassment suit that they’re still trying to work out.


RL: Right. Because he sent a few, “Oh, I love you. I can’t live without you. You can’t do this to me” notes.

And probably as email, right?

RL: Email. You got it.

I love that point you make about how email gets in the way of being very personal, just because of the fact that somebody can then send it off to anybody and everybody in the world. And my great anxiety is not that they would even consciously do that, but that people are so ditsy they would do it by mistake.

RL: Or they do it because they don’t read the whole email. There’s a paragraph that’s salient to you and you read that and then send it on to someone else in the office who needs to read it. But what you don’t know is that the person sending the email then goes on to make some disparaging remark about the person you’re forwarding it to. Oops!

I talked to a woman who works for a public service agency, who didn’t get promoted for years. For years, every promotion that she came up for, she got blocked. And finally, somebody just took pity on her, and said, “Well, you probably should know about this,” and opened up a desk drawer and there was a print-out of an email she’d sent in an ill-tempered moment about somebody at a senior level. That was that.

I’m being much more stringent now about my own rules for email. When you most want to send an email that’s negative because you don’t want to talk to them, you’re so worked up that what you want to do is send a nasty email? That is exactly the email not to send.

Right. But should you send a note, or just write the note and then never send it?

RL: What you ought to do is pick up the phone and call them. You need to give people a chance to respond. If it’s someone that you want to continue to work with, then you’re going to have to work it out with them. And the only way to work it out with them is to let them tell you their side of the story. Just to go through the pain of saying, “Gee, I’m having difficulty with this,” and letting them respond by saying, “Well, of course you are, you idiot.” You know? (Laughter.) “Maybe it has something to do with that lobotomy that you had.” (Laughter.)

You have a section about dealing with “users.” I thought it was wonderful that you even use the phrase. Because we all talk about them at work, but it’s not a subject that is ever dealt with seriously.

RL: Right. There’s always one user that you’re worked up about, that you complain about.

So now why are you writing about them and how do you avoid them?

RL: I actually put users and energy vampires together, because they do the same thing: they take more energy away from you than they give back. Do you know what I mean?

Very much so.

RL: The reason I wrote about users is this: I’ve been in business now for five years, on my own, and I’ve worked with a lot of business owners. And one of the things that becomes clear as you start thinking of yourself as a business owner, a CEO of Me, Inc.—

Brand You, Brand You—

RL: is where is my time going? Am I using my time effectively? You should have noticed patterns of where your time’s going and who you’re spending it on. And it’s hard. A couple of people have called me and said, “I really love your book and I hate you for doing it.” It was always on the same issue. “Because I have a user in my life, and I didn’t want to admit it.”

They wanted to think that it was someone who was charming, powerful, glamorous. They wanted to think it was a real relationship. But this person has never called them, starting the conversation with what they could do for them, or ever in the conversation focused on them. Then they realize, “Oh my God. This isn’t someone who really cares about me. This is someone who cares about the energy I can provide to them.”

It’s a really sad thing. And in a way, it’s easier not to look at those things and to just make excuses for yourself—not for them. “Oh, they’re not really so bad.” “Oh, it’s really not a problem to help this person out one more time.” “Oh, I’m happy to do it.”

I was going to ask about self-awareness, because it seems to be underlying a lot of your principles, particularly in this case. But if everybody knows a user, and they find them charming, these users must perform some function in the business world, right?

RL: Users often do well, because they attract a disproportionate share of resources.

Ah ha! That’s interesting.

RL: They’re like big fancy engines; they use a lot of gasoline. That’s what makes them bigger than life.

You were interviewing people about who they’d hire for their own personal board of directors, who they would work with, and you were surprised by the number of people who said they were looking for someone with a sense of humor.

RL: Yes, I was.

Why did that surprise you?

RL: I had this old fashioned stereotype about business as being serious. And when it gets to the most important decisions about business, we all have to be very serious. And so the first time I heard it was from Dick Cavanagh at The Conference Board, a wonderful guy, and in some ways a very corporate person. When I said, “What do you look for,” I was expecting him to say, “I want a seasoned executive who’s had this many years in business and this academic background.”

And when he said, ” I look for people who have a sense of humor, because they have a sensitivity to what’s going on. To know what’s funny means you have to have a sense of irony about situations. Jerks don’t laugh at themselves. Jerks laugh at the misfortune of others,” I thought, “Oh, that’s right.” It’s such common sense and it’s so true. Ever since then I’ve thought about people that I tend not to want to have close to me.

Often they’re people who just don’t get a joke, and they absolutely can’t laugh at themselves. One of the toughest things in business is to resolve different points of view, so that if nobody can laugh, then it means that resolving differences is going to be long, drawn out, and complicated.

If somebody can just laugh about it and say, “Oh, I’m being ridiculous,” or break the tension with a joke, then you can save four hours, four days, four months. Because you can slice through it very quickly. And it means they have some flexibility about how they can see an issue.

Humor is absolutely the most important trait for me. It’s a sign of intelligence and it’s also a self-awareness. If you can laugh, and laugh at yourself, then you’re obviously thinking.

RL: I think it’s a certain type of intelligence. It’s a flexibility of point of view. Which is obviously hugely valuable in a business situation. Because then you don’t get stuck.

But I think so many people still suffer from that notion that business can’t be fun and there can’t be humor in business.

RL: One of the things I like the most about Tom’s work is that he helps make it okay to have a broader emotional range in a business setting. He could do it because of his McKinsey background, because it was like Nixon going to China. Tom could do it because he was one of them. Here’s a guy who’s not out of place in a boardroom, who’s able to say, “You know what? I have an emotional life and will communicate with you on a level that reaches you emotionally.”

We don’t have to segregate the emotional part of a business out, especially in meetings. Oftentimes what happens in that environment is that there’s the “real business,” portion where somebody shows slides that have numbers on them. “Here’s what’s happening to these lines on the P&L.” Then there’s the non-business part, where they listen to a motivational speaker from some other field. Like someone who survived some crippling disease and went on to play hockey with his teeth. And that is separate from the work of the organization. And then there’s the part that’s considered really not business, which is “Let’s go knock back a few beers and get to know each other.” Except that all of that’s business.

During my talks now, people love it when I say, “It is your job, between the sessions, to get to know other people. You aren’t playing hooky. It isn’t bad. What you’re supposed to be doing when you’re here is to find people that you connect with whose judgment you trust, who you can learn from, and who can help you find opportunities. And that’s as much your job as sitting in that horrible, hard chair, taking notes so that you won’t fall over into a coma.”

That’s probably more important.

RL: More important, yes.

What’s your tag line? You tell your readers to develop a tag line, what we in Tom-world would call our personal brand statements. What’s your line?

RL: I teach people and business how to build relationships that maximize success.

Thank you.