Is it business or is it personal?

This week I am in the process of writing a number of proposals and issuing contracts to be reviewed in what appears to be a set-up for a very busy 3rd quarter. What is interesting from a work perspective is that the majority of this busy-ness is coming from new and unexpected sources. My traditional clients, who have been fairly quiet this year, represent a smaller portion of the workload than at this time last year. So what is driving this sudden boom? Apparently personal referrals from folks I would describe as friends.

I recently sat down for a day of training on the Cartus model for cross cultural training for relocating expatriates. I will be representing Cartus in South China (a part of the new business parade) and had a chance to go over their material with super-star cross cultural trainer Dana Breitenstein. Dana made an interesting metaphor that I had heard before from Chris Barclay (who also cites Dana as source material) that compares our western (especially US) cultural model to the Asian model is like comparing an orange and a coconut. Using this metaphor Dana points out that in western culture we find it easy to compartmentalize our lives into different segments, like portions of an orange, a model that is often used in things like western time management. The coconut of course has a tough outer layer to crack through and inside everything runs together.

Orange slices and coconut juice...

I find this model somewhat challenging. Coming from an Italian-American family background (another potential hybrid orange/ coconut culture) I found the business model in Italy fascinating with the emphasis on small family run businesses that operate in an ongoing guild culture. Work is so integrated into the family mindset that there is an Italian expression that roughly translates into “The first generation builds, the second generation thrives, and the third generation wastes.” An interesting way to think of a business cycle and that most small businesses are family run for about three generations before they tank. The Italian mindset seems to have blurred the size of the orange chunks, but there seems to be a clear division in social roles and responsibilities. So maybe it is a coconut flavored orange hybrid?

Working as a largely independent contractor (building a small business that helps other people be independent contractors) I have to wonder how much of my life operates from an orange perspective or coconut perspective. In the past couple of years my ability to make money has largely been tied to my ability to create and leverage positive word of mouth. I recently went through the process of being vetted to work with the corporate education arm of Duke University and found the process to be an interesting study in how we divide up our personal and private lives.

As I collected referral letters and asked various past clients to keep an eye out for a letter from inquiring administrators I began to look at how I classified these people. By and large I have sat down and had dinner and talked about family with virtually all of them. In some cases I have met their family and they have met mine. The fact that I work with my wife somewhat accelerates this process. While I drew great reviews none of these letters and referrals made reference to these human connections, a fact I accepted as part of the business world. In other words a neat orange slice known as my professional background and professional relationships.

When Michael tells Sonny it's strictly business we assume it's the orange model...

What surprises me is that at the same time I was going through the very American process of being vetted based on referrals I was also being promoted by a friend internally at another company. I didn’t ask to be promoted internally but on his own steam my friend asked for an outline to my cross-cultural program, took it to their management institute, and proceeded to tell them that I was next best thing since sliced bread in someone else’s kitchen. I now have a busy calendar of work with them in the coming months. I am pretty sure he didn’t sell me based on the merits of our friendship but rather on the quality of my work from past projects. Which asks the question, “at what point do we begin to translate our coconut qualities into orange slice context?”

What this makes me wonder then is “When I begin to blend the nicely compartmentalized sections of my life like work, family, and friends is it because I am doing business in a coconut world or is the world of small business inherently more coconut like?” The reality for me at this point is that a coconut world is better in the start up phase (again from my point of view other people may experience something else), but is there a point where it becomes a liability? I would argue that the entrepreneurial model espoused by web 2.0 thinkers is that the new business world is about inherently blending those lines. Working in your passion, creating a loyal tribe, focusing on the 20,000 people needed to grow a highly personalized brand versus marketing to everyone and hoping to be the next big thing. By being accessible all the time and making us the brand we are beginning to erase the idea of our work persona and our private persona being overly different. It will be interesting to see where this trend takes us in the coming years.

Any ideas of this trend? Sound off in the comments…

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3 thoughts on “Is it business or is it personal?

  1. I think my life is definitely moving in a coconut pattern. I would love to be able to separate everything, to have that switch that turns off the business side of my life so I could really relax with the personal, but in Ecuador and especially Cuenca there is a lot of blurring of lines. Locals accept this as a matter of course, while foreigners struggle against the “unprofessionalism” of mixing family with business. As I get more local, I find more of my personal life seeping into the general business mix, even with my US clients, and so far it seems to be okay with everyone. It is certainly much less stressful for me to let things bleed over than to try to keep the skins on all my little slices of orange.

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