The Business Romantic: Interview with Author Tim Leberecht
by Lucy Walton-Lange
I wrote The Business Romantic because I believe we need more romance in our lives and that we can find it in and through business.
My book argues that all the intense and mostly positive feelings we experience in love—mystery, intimacy, vulnerability, even a bit of suffering, and yes, the loss of control—are crucibles of our work and customer relationships.
Such romantic qualities are important in business because they are the ultimate differentiators in a culture that is designed to maximize and optimize. They give us permission to bring our full selves to work and help us create products, services, and brands that our customers truly love, far beyond a merely benefit-driven relationship.
Business Romance will not only make companies more successful but will also help fulfill ourselves as employees and consumers.
Why is it important to remind yourself of what you love to do?
Workers in Western societies spend 70% of waking hours at work. Many of us see our colleagues more than our friends or loved ones. Work is where “we make or break ourselves,” as the poet David Whyte wrote. It’s where we show our true colors. Yes, we want material gains and social security, but we also want to learn and be recognized as who we really are, with all our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual gifts and needs. We all have a profound desire to connect with something greater than ourselves.
Strangely though, business has become divorced from large parts of our humanity, and our professional selves are now just a narrow slice of our individuality. We live in a hyper-connected time when we are supposed to be consistent, transparent, and predictable. Automation, big data, and smart algorithms are engineering the romance out of our (work) lives. In our personal lives, from flirting to dating to fertility to break-up to divorce—there’s an app for it. And at work, we’re seeing the rise of socio-metric tracking tools that monitor our productivity and even our happiness levels. I would argue that some experiences are better if they are not optimized. We must relearn to value what cannot be measured. Workplace and customer experiences should meet not just our practical needs, but also those of our unpredictable, elusive, mysterious, inconsistent, erratic, longing, and loving un-quantified selves. In other words: we need more romance.
To me, romance is the best way to describe a mindset that explores without exploiting. A lifestyle in business that maintains a sense of wonder and the ability to appreciate complex relationships and contradictions, to bear tensions instead of always wanting to resolve them.
Not only can everybody be a Business Romantic, I wish everybody was! Our lives at work would be more fulfilled, and our economies more humane.
How can you be more open minded to the moments of excitement and transcendence that happen at work?
Business Romantics believe that business can create meaningful experiences that transcend self-interest and rational decision-making. They defy conventional business logic to uncover greater meaning and beauty in everything they do. They have their heart in it and do things “for the love of it.”
In my book, I present ten “rules of enchantment” that give you the tools—as entrepreneurs, employees, or consumers—to find magic in business and fall back in love with your work and your life.
I’m proposing a number of concrete techniques such as “thick days” where a couple of employees lock themselves into a room and flesh out an idea or project without digital distractions. They commit to being in the moment and to a dense, intimate, and potentially more vulnerable experience where they can’t hide behind conference call protocol or groupthink.
All these rules are not based on typical business case studies, and they don’t attempt to problem-solve; they won’t provide silver bullets, and productivity is not their only goal. Instead, they will challenge you to seek out new perspectives, to value your own idiosyncratic intuitions and emotions, to embrace conflict and friction, and to celebrate your humanity. They will help you lead a more meaningful life in and with business.
What are your top tips for seeing our jobs with new eyes every day?
Remind yourself that Business Romance is hard work but entirely in your hands – and it’s worth it. You can start with making small changes, for example, on your morning commute. For example, chat up a stranger on the train to get yourself into the right zone of discomfort for the day. Research has shown that we report higher levels of happiness through “micro-interactions” with strangers. Romance occurs when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones, when we encounter surprises and other moments that disrupt our routines.
In this spirit, call an ad-hoc “mystery meeting” at work and give an improvised talk. Swap desks, swap roles, even with your boss. It builds empathy and stretches both of you. Visit another team across the hall. Invite a colleague to lunch, ideally one outside of your department. Then have a “Thick Day.”
Start doing the one thing you would be doing if you knew you were only staying at the firm for another six months. Like nothing else mattered. Think about the greatest gift you can give to your organization and its customers—and start giving it.
Please tell us a bit about your background that has led you to here.
I’ve worked in marketing and communications for my entire career, first in Europe and now in the US and most recently at product design company Frog and now as the CMO of NBBJ, an architectural design firm. The most romantic job I ever had was with the Olympic Torch Relay 10 years ago when I served as an advance press chief for the Athens Olympic Torch Relay for a six-week round-the-world tour. When the flame touched African soil for the first time in Olympic history, I was in Tahrir Square in Cairo and felt a sense of awe when I saw the pride and joy of thousands of Egyptians around me. I realized that this intensity of emotion was exactly what I wanted to experience throughout my career. I then looked to business for a sense of adventure and meaning beyond profit and productivity.
Business is a way for me to express myself. It is a vehicle for finding some greater truth, a great adventure, maybe the ultimate adventure in a time when companies arguably have the biggest impact on our lives.
I am a Business Romantic, and I believe there are many others out there: card-carrying business romantics, closet romantics, and cynics who shut themselves away from falling in love with their work and the world: to connect with all of them I wrote this book.
How do you apply your advice to your own job?
I am trying to follow my own advice as much as I can, but it would be a lie if I claimed I always succeed. But I am proud of those moments in my career where I acted against reason, in spite of data, simply trusting my intuition and heart. I gave more than I took, I over-committed, I fell in love with an idea without the proper due diligence.
Mostly, I think, these “acts of romance” led to something greater and proved to be extremely valuable. For example, while working at Frog Design, a product design firm, I launched a print magazine that only marginally referenced the Frog brand. I fought hard to prevent ads and self-promotion from creeping in, although many of my colleagues asked for it. But quick ROI is often poison to a truly lasting client relationship. To me, the purity of the effort, the fact, that this was a publication created by Frog for our clients and partners, was a genuine act of sharing, a way of adding value to them. The magazine became a huge success and was appreciated because it did not follow the marketing text book. The brand was present because it was absent.
In my daily work, I seek to honor the emotional aspects of work that we often underestimate; for example, how we start things and end projects and that we need time for decompression and even some mourning after an intense initiative has been completed. Business is a powerful platform for social exchange and for creating the small moments that form genuine attachment. I love that quote by the poet Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Speaking of poetry, incorporating features from the arts at the workplace is also always a good idea. For example, I ask job applicants to respond to the Proust Questionnaire, and I encourage my colleagues and myself to write letters and even poems. Philosophy, liberal arts, and the humanities have a lot to offer for all of us who not only want to lead a successful but also abeautiful life.
What is next for you?
I’m currently enjoying every single minute of the book tour that I’m on. It’s such a unique opportunity to directly engage with readers and to hear how Business Romanticism resonates with people. Business Romantics everywhere are “coming out of the closet” and sharing their stories and ideas. It’s also been exciting to run workshops and experiments to apply the Business Romantic concept in various settings and organizations. And after that, I will get some sleep—and then go back to my day job as the CMO of design firm NBBJ!
This post first appeared in Female First.