Business Is Personal: A Lens On Value Over Time

Most of us take stock this time of year. At minimum, we generally look straight down the path ahead based on where we feel we are -- and reset our footing. As we do so, the confluence of history, tradition, family life, logistics, commerce and all kinds of forces in the world at large certainly test our personal thresholds for stress.

For a number of reasons, the entire extended period between October and end of January is intensely reflective for me. It always has been, but this state has deepened over the years. I have always focused on New Year's as a personal pivot. My birthday is in January. As an adopted child given an amazing head start by my parents, I am inclined to reflect on my life as it has developed. Typically, as I check in, I focus on trying to get a beat on the year, its tone and essence -- what it essentially was.

And, what interesting timing this year, as I met one of my most essential congregations of media peers a couple weeks ago. At a large national gathering of agency executives out West, I found myself tying the intensified annual reflection that I've already got going on, to the heightening of dialogue that went down at the conference. I am not talking about the larger conference -- but a group of about 100 of us who meet privately on the weekend before the conference. I mentioned before that I was warmed intellectually, professionally, and personally,  by a certain progression of the conversation there: the raising of the bar on the business dialogue as it relates to client work, but also a real personalization of it.

As Time Will Tell, Business is Personal

The invaluable interplay of business and personal utterly resonates with me. My business network is highly personal, with collaboration and connection among people who get the interplay. Because we all roll this way, the bonds are tight.

People often talk of the separation of the professional and the personal as though they must divide. Or they say, of course business is personal -- and leave it at that. But, there are fine lines; it is not so black and white. Personalization is not simply emotionalizing or socializing the business sphere; it factors in intellectual connectivity, accountability, ethics, moral compass, and all kinds of very real personal currencies. As a professional, you must personalize -- again, not emotionalize, but embody and convey very personal values -- in order to contribute meaningfully, learn and sustain.

During these meetings, I was thinking about what feeds such an enriching exchange. One, I appreciate the array of standpoint: agency principals, founders, media supervisors, practice or discipline leaders, and respected thought leaders. Second, the number of, shall we say, rings around the tree spans a great range. There are old-guard, people I respect from the earliest days of my media career back in the Bay Area; new vitality from the country's best agencies; up and coming mavens of emerging media; executives who've lived the brand and agency side with equal heft and contribution. The room sings with this mix.

And right now, with the difficult economy to deal with, there is something so fortifying about these very personalized business relationships and gatherings. If we didn't treat our professional lives and pursuits so personally, we might be experiencing a whole other level of impact, as support systems fall away when the going gets tough.

Understanding Value Over Time

We all have had our eras of trial, tribulation, celebration, rise and fall, comebacks, and so on. Years ago in the Bay Area, I remember a certain embattled client turning me on to "The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times" by Pema Chodron. Regardless of our spiritual beliefs, we can all benefit from the book's suggestion: casting aside the poor habit of relying on trite affirmations of our own value to get us through. Looking in the mirror and reciting all the reasons you can and will succeed is not necessarily the best or most honest way to go. A mantra on your value can only get you so far. I have tried to keep true to this non-practice practice over the years that followed.

This year I read "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" by Marshall Goldsmith. This book encourages us to reconsider what we have long considered our strengths, as we think about our own success.

Taking Stock In a Very Personal Way

Goldsmith does something else that touches directly on the theme of personalizing your professional life -- really understanding the heart and soul of how you got to where you are, within a fabric greater than you. Can you think of 25 people who have somehow benefited your career? Yes, 25.

It is not that they were all "mentors," but maybe some of them were. It's not that they created values, but perhaps they served to amplify those that were latent or only just emerging. What about you? Through your interactions with others, you tuned your moral compass; took lessons both small and mortifying; were given chances; had ethics to consider and emulate; were delivered challenges; were provoked; gleaned expertise; were in the presences of gravitas, spark or game-changing communication and action. The scope is humbling.

My list is practically endless and covers a huge range, from profound impact to consequential touch, but here are a few of the most important:

1. Dale and Miki Allen. My parents. As the oldest daughter of a principled, intellectually feisty editor and his tirelessly creative artist wife, my inner duality has been fed over four decades of life with them.

2. Mike. This was my high school swimming coach, who drew out my nascent competitive spirit by creating completely daunting but doable challenges of great mental and physical gruel. No, it is not normal to be in a cold pool at 5:15 or to have to think about Gladiator Wars breaking out during practice.

3. Doc Williams, professor of black history, for whom I wrote speeches in college. The first time I let her down was the last time. Her speech on accountability shook me to the bone. Be the person who does what you say you are going to do. End of story. She passed away while I was in grad school, but I can still see her face. It is the face of the real deal looking over all of my client work.

4. The company president who turned his back on me, very early in my career, when I surprised him with bad news. Yes, not the most mature management style, when managing young people. But the lesson was indelible: never blindside the higher-ups. This explains my comfort standing next to the ugly and talking calmly, to clients, to teams, to my chiefs.

5. Charlie T. -- passionate leadership style married with the most deeply seeded, integrated marketing expertise I have ever seen. He lives it -- inspiring the highest level of spirited accountability.

6. K.M. Ryan -- He is singlehandedly responsible for introducing me to more intellectual firepower and creative spirit through new business friends, in record time. Sparked my world, as they say.

The list above is absurdly inconclusive; the full one is etched only on my minds-eye. But, hopefully the excerpt evokes your own interpretation of Goldsmith's 25.

Finally, for all the reflection one can do as life develops, when it comes to business, especially in ours, there is one conclusive point: Your integrity is everything. So the way you journey, the interplay of business and personal means so very much.

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7 comments about "Business Is Personal: A Lens On Value Over Time ".
  1. Kathy Broniecki from Envoy, Inc. , December 15, 2008 at 12:16 p.m.

    Kendall, thank you for your very thoughtful post. The lines between business and personal have blurred so much since I began my career 25 years ago. There are definitely no dos and don'ts anymore. I love your suggestion and am signing off to take stock right now. Happy holidays.

  2. Jim Dugan from PipPops LLC , December 15, 2008 at 12:18 p.m.

    Kendall, I always enjoy reading your writing and today was no different. A very very lovely article. Enjoy!

  3. Dennis Warren from Jyve.com , December 15, 2008 at 12:44 p.m.

    Thanks Made me think long and hard, reflect and get positive.

  4. Lena West from xynoMedia , December 16, 2008 at 1:21 a.m.

    What struck me most about this article was this line:

    "If we didn't treat our professional lives and pursuits so personally, we might be experiencing a whole other level of impact, as support systems fall away when the going gets tough."

    As someone who - for various reasons - finds herself working without an assistant during this holiday season, that line hit a nerve. And, it's the personal underpinning of my business relationships that's making it all do-able.

    As for me, I'll always remember:

    - Mom: who always warned me "you never know how you might have to come home"
    -Tex: who showed me how to negotiate fairly
    - Karen Wilson: who taught me to ask for what I want
    - J.O.: who helped me focus on the business of business
    - Mark Silver: who helped me save my life
    - PBH: who taught me that everything you want isn't always good for you
    - Barbara Deller, my social studies teacher: who helped me to see that it's cool to be smart and it's dumb to act dumb.

  5. Sarah Robinson from Future Foundation , December 16, 2008 at 9:26 a.m.

    Reading well expressed, positive thoughts such as these (which sadly happens all too rarely) makes me embrace my job that little bit more. Thank you!

  6. Doug Spak from Northlich , December 17, 2008 at 4:36 p.m.

    Are we soul mates? I have a January birthday. I have an adopted son. And I've read a bunch of Pema.

    Thanks. This was a very nice piece, especially in the midst of all of the craziness that surrounds our business these days. I particularly liked the idea of listing all those who have had an impact on your life...not just your work.

    Happy holidays,

  7. Doug Poretz from Qorvis Communications , December 22, 2008 at 1:49 p.m.

    If values are more important than time, why do communications businesses manage and bill and remunerate by time, not value? You are right. The model is wrong. -- Doug Poretz, www.deathoftime.com