I love a Nora Ephron film.  Not only the sparkling scripts, the chance to soak up New York in all its vitality, but also the inevitable and irresistible pairing of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. One of Ephron’s classics is ‘You’ve Got Mail’, and I have watched it over and over. It’s a film that makes me wonder: ‘What if businesses took the Kathleen Kelly approach?’

For those who haven’t seen this particular Romcom, it’s the story of a small bookshop owner (Kathleen) and her rally against a large bookshop chain that moves into her district. Against this backdrop, this very same bookshop owner details her dilemmas, both business and personal, over email with an anonymous fellow New Yorker.

Putting aside the artistic license, (I mean can a bookshop owner really afford to live on the Upper-West side?  Could you really fall in love with someone who ruins your ethically sustainable and very personal business?), it’s these heart-warming email exchanges between the two New Yorkers as they discuss the minute details of their daily life with all its ethical questions, that give this film its warm humour.

One scene that has always stayed with me is where Kathleen, (Meg Ryan) asks Joe, her email pen-pal, (Tom Hanks) for advice on how to protect her beloved business. At this stage both are unaware of each other’s identity, although the audience know that Kathleen’s email correspondent is the heir to the very same corporate bookshop chain that is putting her out of business.

As Joe seeks to provide Kathleen with his business advice he effortlessly defaults to ‘The Godfather’ mode citing its famous one liners as a rallying cry to her dilemma.   ‘Go to the mattresses!’ he tells her …….‘It’s business, it’s not personal!’   For the independent bookshop owner, this line of thinking is alien to her as a full-fat, caffeine-fuelled latte, nevertheless with a punch in the air, she endeavours to adopt this new combative stance. Predictably she fails, lamenting the belief that this is no way to do business.

With time, and as Kathleen is inevitably put out of business, she is confronted by the person who has led to her business’s demise.  At the exact time Joe, in his remorse, discovers his true feelings for Kathleen. When Joe apologises for putting her out of business, she responds by uttering the words that have long stayed with me: ‘All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you’, following it up with a power punch:  ‘whatever anything is, it should begin with being personal.’ Never a truer word said in jest………or in a Romcom!

For any of us who have worked in any corporate organisation, Kathleen Kelly’s words may well strike a cord.  Perhaps you will recognize that being a part of such organisations means that every decision seems to come down to the common denominator of putting business before anything else. If you find yourself unlucky enough to work in a particularly unenlightened business, the ‘little person’ is easily dispensed with and becomes a mere number.  The ‘personal’ is thus never truly considered.

Many will argue that this, of course, is the stark reality of everyday working life and the only way to survive is to compartmentalize these thoughts and understand that there is a certain justification in this approach.  This is, of course, until ‘life’ happens  and one finds oneself in a situation, where life becomes all about ‘being personal’.

Life’s joys and challenges come in many shapes and sizes.  Amongst the happiness that we may be lucky enough to experience, there are also the challenges of say a relationship break-up,  ill-health, financial strains, and the need to care for others.   It is at these times that we need our employer to be exactly this – PERSONAL.

Sadly, this is where so many businesses and individual employers let their employees down.  Small businesses may say that one employee ‘down’ will put their business under enormous strain.  Large corporations conveniently pass on such responsibility to their HR departments, which results in the clinical task of form filling and waiting to see if you are ‘eligible’ for any kind of support.  This, to me is the antithesis of ‘beginning with the personal’.

In times of crisis, when you are not sure how to navigate your new circumstances, you are fortunate if clarity comes easy. Depending on the nature of your situation, things can seem very cloudy.  Add in a heavy workload and solutions can be hard to navigate.  Large corporations may have set systems and procedures but all too often the onus is put on staff finding out for themselves, which is especially hard when one is in difficulty.

A better way of helping and ‘beginning with the personal’ is another approach.  If you are a manager, or even if you are not, what that person needs is a guide and a navigator, someone who can set out the options available and help that person to see what is possible.  Talk to that person as a person, not a number, try to understand what they are going through. We don’t live in the rosy world of Romcoms where there is always a happy ending, and business is indeed business, but if you ‘begin with the personal’, that’s a good place to start.

© stripedsisters 2021

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