On Being a "Professional"

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On Being a "Professional"


3-minute read

We seem to be struggling mightily with professionalism of late, not the term, but the underlying behavior. What does it mean, and to whom? What are the expectations, the boundaries, if any? How are they evolving? Does it even matter, or is this just another arcane differentiation that’s falling by the wayside?

My interest is sparked by two things:

  1. A nascent discussion about the LinkedIn platform, which some suggest is devolving from its original raison d’etre, as a forum for the advancement of professional interests, into a long form of Facebook.
  2. The widespread belief that while working whenever from wherever due to Covid and feeling less competitive pressure from peers and the outside world, many of us weren’t exactly raising our standards for professionalism. In that same period, millions of Gen Z workers were introduced to the workspace without the benefit of much (any?) of the usual normalization or training. How should they know what the norms and expectations are?

So, What IS Professionalism?

Toward the end of my tour of duty at FedEx, I spent a couple years helping lead the organization’s Leadership Institute, and in particular a wilderness-based experiential learning program for managers. Stemming from the example and learnings of “Outward Bound, we used Mother Nature as a platform from which to deliver high impact learning experiences around things like problem solving, teamwork, trust, leadership, communication, et. al.

Suffice it to say that under the right circumstances, these topics get real a lot faster on a climbing rope with eight people ascending (one at a time) an 80’ vertical rock wall in Utah’s high Uintas, than over a conference table in a climate-controlled room.

Two of the individuals central to this effort were Jenny and Dean, Utah-based mountaineers, and 1st responders. With 2-dozen “flatlanders” entrusted to us at a time, people who customarily operated trucks, planes, sorting equipment, or desks for a living, we did nothing outdoors that was outside their watchful guidance. They were there to manage the many technical aspects of mountaineering, and to keep things safe. Aside from being models of good teamwork, they were a joy to be around.

Upon meeting the pair, I asked what the word “professional” meant to them. Looking straight at me, Jenny said, “It means that when you’re out here, in our “office”, you don’t ever have to look over your shoulder wondering if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.” Dean added, “This isn’t a hobby to us. It’s how we make our living and put roofs over our heads.” The two of them were good to their word, every second of every day. In eighteen months, we gave over three hundred business leaders all the outdoor experience they wanted, and some learnings/memories of a lifetime, without the need for a single accident report.

My sense is that it’s incumbent on each of us to decide what the term professional means to us. If you’re doing something for a living, you’re a professional. Act like it. Know the organization and your role in it. Know the roles of those next to you. Be the teammate that others want to work with, that everyone can count on. Don’t leave it to your employer or someone else to provide the definition. If you’re doing it in a competitive arena, (who isn’t?) set the bar for what professionalism looks and feels like. Higher is better. If nothing else, it gets noticed.

My twelve-year-old grandson is already figuring out his version of professionalism. By choice, his school uniform emulates his dad, who wears our nation’s uniform to work. Usually, he’s in a white dress-shirt (the pocket of which contains his business card) and wait for it… a necktie! A friend remarked to me that the kid must be killing it with the girls at school. That might be the case but for one thing: He’s home schooled, and the only girls are his sisters:-) Regardless, he knows that he’s looking as good as he can look at the start of each day, and it gets his head in the right space. Nobody makes him do it. He’s training to be a professional, and well on his way.

What about you?

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