I received a referral for a new client a few months ago. The person who sent it was certain this business owner could benefit from working with me. Given the strength of the referral, I worked especially hard to make contact with the prospective client/business owner. I just did a quick count of the text messages we exchanged – 55, plus phone calls and two in-person meetings. For the last meeting, at his request, I spent the morning in two of his team meetings. Over lunch, as I reviewed what I heard and saw that morning, I made a couple of initial observations that I thought were pretty insightful. Apparently he agreed since he stopped me in mid-sentence and used his iPhone to email my recommendations to his staff. This happened twice during our meal.
I prepared a proposal and sent it within a day or two. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty good about landing this one. I had already provided a ton of value and completing the items in the proposal would have added additional top line revenue and improved customer retention.
A couple of days later, my proposal was rejected. I’m not sure why, but this one was particularly gut wrenching. I had worked really hard to prove my worth to the organization by providing value from the beginning of the relationship (This was typical of the way I work with a prospective client. I don’t sell. I just start consulting.) But since my initial recommendations were so enthusiastically embraced, I figured this was a done deal. FYI, in the time since this happened, I’ve seen one of my initial recommendations implemented via content in a customer email blast that I’m now subscribed to.
In the midst of all this, I thought about a well-worn quote from the Godfather. As the Corleone family discussed killing the person who attempted to murder their father, son Michael assured the rest of family the motive behind the planned kill was “not personal, but strictly business.” I’m not attempting to draw any equivalency between a rejected business proposal and planning a murder, but hear me out. Even though my rejected proposal was just business, it felt personal. There was an extra sting to this one because of the effort I had poured into it.
In reality, in the daily press of work, it’s business AND it’s personal. When we pour our passion, care and best effort into our work and it’s unappreciated, ignored or rejected, it feels like a punch to the gut. When our best proposal, painting, computer program or chicken parmesan isn’t good enough, it stings. It makes you want to gather up your stuff and go home. But would you want it any other way? I can’t imagine many things more miserable than work without passion. We long to leave a large piece of ourselves in every work product. We couldn’t live with just “mailing it in.” I’ve found the sting to be especially acute for business owners. Since everything about the organization is “them” – the product or service, the marketing, the sales, the delivery – when rejection comes, it feels especially personal.
So how do you navigate through when business feels personal?
I’ve told clients more times than I can count that your worth is NOT what you do at work. That is solid advice. If our worth is tied up in what we do or who we make happy on any given day, life will be a roller coaster – riding high today and in the depths of despair tomorrow. Work is fleeting. Find your worth in something that cannot be taken away. I find mine in my Christian faith. Find yours.
Divorcing our worth from our work is the foundation, but here are three practical things to do when business feels very personal.
- Remember why you do your work the way you do it – You do it, because that’s the right way. Your training and experience inform the methodology and the result. Your work is your autograph. You’d do it that way again even if there were no audience, because that’s the way it ought to be executed. Take satisfaction in a job well done. If you knew a better way, you would have done it that way. If, by chance, you produced a sub-standard product this time, own it and fix it next time.
- Commit to deeper learning and improvement – On the heels of doing the job the best you can do it, realize that all of us can improve our craft. We can all learn and grow. Use being rebuffed to motivate you to dig deeper and get smarter.
- Use the rejection to narrow your focus – Simon Sinek would tell you to find people who share your “why”. Seth Godin would tell you to find your “tribe” – your smallest viable audience. When your work is rejected, understand that it wasn’t for them and use the feedback or in the absence of feedback, use the experience to close the circle a little more and produce work for people who are aligned with your values, share your taste and appreciate your approach to work.
The next time business feels personal – and it surely will – own it. Be glad you have a job you care that deeply about. And instead of buckling under the disappointment, harness it for your benefit.