The Professionals Part I: Defining Professionalism

I have been considering professionalism a lot recently. This can be a grey area that is both individual and role-based, and one that is supported or suppressed by culture, company culture, and industry. The definition has been relaxing and changing in recent years (which I think is for the better), but it still retains defining principles and individual requirements.

We don’t often think about what professionalism is, even though we use the word constantly, so I wanted to explore some thoughts on what it’s defined as being, how it’s seen, and how it’s changed. I’m also largely focusing on professionalism as a generic business term, though I’ll touch on other aspects.

(For the purposes of this article, I’m not going to quantify what amateur means, as that can be wildly variable!)

Defining a Professional

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Loosely, this is the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterise or mark a profession or a professional person that are usually pursued for gain (as a career path or for personal profit).

Expanding on this in application, a professional is someone with both skillset and mindset, with knowledge, ability, and also attitude, which can be represented by different things to different people in different industries, some minor and some major. Which is which may depend on all three of the above, but I think there are some fundamental truths to professionalism.

That being said, this is logically going to be highly subjective based on context. However, we’ve become widely used to a certain stereotype for professional in business. When you hear that word, what do you think of?

Who do you picture?

I’ll wager many of you think of this:

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But really, the general concept of professionalism has been business-codified. Based on the definition, professional really looks like this:

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And much more besides.

There is no difference for me in role or industry – if you have the requisite minimum knowledge, skill, and attitude to perform the gainful task at hand, you are a professional in your field.

So is a “Professional” the same as “Professionalism”?

I think of it like this:

  • Being a professional is a vocation
  • Professionalism is based upon ongoing use and display of appropriate attitude, core competency, and knowledge

A professional may be unprofessional in certain circumstances, because we’re human. An actor may lose their temper faced with paparazzi; a doctor may act inappropriately with a patient; a newscaster may be overcome with laughter on air. I’m sure you can think of many other examples. That doesn’t mean they aren’t also professionals in their field.

This may be why we refer to people who are both professional and never fail to act professionally as consummate professionals; we’re acknowledging an ongoing dedication, not just a situational application, which other professionals may not achieve. Interestingly, we may also tend to view them as less human in certain ways, because some of their personality appears perhaps supplanted or augmented by always doing the professional thing – and we make a far bigger deal out of it if they react outside our expectations.

It’s also well worth noting that professionalism and unprofessionalism happen at all levels of business. I think this is a very important conversation, and one that historically has been assumed to be a given. Role doesn’t equal professionalism. It can equal apparent professionalism through associationwhich isn’t the same thing.

For example: Leadership isn’t an automatic qualification of professionalism any more than “unskilled” work is an automatic disqualification of professionalism. It’s all about the context (like everything else I speak of, context is everything!): are you appropriately professional to your role, base culture, and company?

There is a quote I use time and again by the late, esteemed Gerry Weinberg:

The name of the Thing is not the Thing. People often buy labels, not Products.

So I think we have two mainstream and overlapping viewpoints for defining a Professional:

  • Do they perform a role with all due skill, knowledge, and attention?
  • Do they look like they should be doing the job?

Out of the two, I categorically care about the first, and care very little about the second past a basic minimum! But it’s still very prevalent in some business that the second is at least as important, if not more so.

Thankfully, this latter part is changing. Offices are becoming more casual and acknowledging the presence and performance of individuals; culture is becoming less rigidly toxic. I don’t think anyone could accuse Gary Vaynerchuk of being unprofessional, for all he is often wearing jeans and t-shirt; likewise with many of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs – Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, et al.

But why does it persist elsewhere, especially in City and Finance? This goes back deeper into not changing structures because “that’s how it’s always been done” – traditional bureaucratic structures and hierarchical roles, where you look like power to associate with (and share) power. I’m not an advocate for “dressing for the job I want” to get it – I’d rather demonstrate I excel at it however I’m dressed. (If I dressed for the job I wanted, I’d probably be wearing a Batsuit).

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What do you mean, “not meeting appropriate”?

Professionalism is, then, as tribal as everything else, and as prone to hollowing to become the Label not the Product. So let’s talk about the REAL defining traits, not the superficial ones. 

What did Professionalism once mean?

Some vocations have always rightly been seen as professional – doctors or soldiers, for example. But in the public eye and popular media, certain professions have become more “professional” than others.

Think back to the mid 20th Century through to the late 70s, where professionalism as a term was very specifically used for sport, curiosities, or specific types of business. Professionalism was considered a rare thing, and men were very much at the fore of this; business was highly rigid and bureaucratic, polite, formal, requiring looking the part – although the strict starching and more formal attire descended from Victorian wedding dress has slowly faded, it leaves descendants in the forms of polished shoes, ties, three piece suits, and “casual” variations thereof.

This morphed from the 80s to the early 00s, where it became a little more generalised, and the number of people acknowledged as having professionalism exploded. The term became increasingly synonymous with sharp businessmen, often including being emotionless, utterly driven, super competitive in work, even inhuman if required; being utterly focused, machine-like, on the goal (this is the association I have with “hustle” which is why I don’t use the word!). A serious businessman was sharply dressed. A serious businesswoman was often seen as a ballbreaker. Dominance, aggression, doing the job at any cost. It often meant living to work (not working to live), giving extra free to the company, never stepping outside bounds, “the deal” being a driving factor. This wasn’t true everywhere, but enough to become parodied.

A lot of presentation became male-oriented and seen as “masculine-competitive” – cellphones, fast cars, sharp suits. Think of the scenes from Glengarry Glen Ross, American Psycho, Wolf of Wall Street:

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Yes, they’re extremes – but for a good reason. For a time, this was what certainly Hollywood saw professionalism as (as well as assassins, like Léon, above). But this era also began to acknowledge – depending on industry, leadership, and decade – that anyone very good at what they did might be considered a bona fide professional, and this attitude grew until the mid-00s. With the advent of Silicon Valley giants run by younger generations and the huge number of Millennials redefining business, a lot of these standards have relaxed or changed even in “City”, especially in tech – and leading industries do affect others, so the changes have spread.

So, looking at the slightly tongue-in-cheek examples above, we can see a vast change of values defining professionalism, from an almost formal politician-polite carrying out of corporate policy, through to profit at any cost, through to dynamic, young, new attitudes… through to today.

What are core professional traits to be mindful of?

Professionalism isn’t just about capability for me – it’s about mutual relationships. If you haven’t read my article on Chris’s Four Foundation of Sustainable Relationships (really need to think of a snappy name), have a look.

So with those four foundations in mind, let’s look at some conduct, aims, and qualities I think are fundamental to today’s professionalism:

Respect. Focus. Ethics. Due process. Proper conduct. Empathy. Collaboration. Understanding. Flexibility. Compromise. Acknowledging of reality. Demonstration of skill and knowledge relevant to the task. An ability to discuss and listen, and make considered decisions. A dedication to the best possible outcome, and completion of the job at hand. Reasonable punctuality. Investment in the project.

I’m sure you can think of more in the comments below. But what does all this really mean?

To me, it’s using tangible ability and knowledge to deliver VALUE in a culturally- and industry-appropriate fashion. That’s what the attitude is there to support, and I think it’s still very easy to fall into demanding a hollow construct of professionalism that looks good but doesn’t deliver; walk and talk are useless in lieu of results, and I know which I prefer. This is a well-known hallmark of more traditional management techniques in bureaucracies, and one reason that after extensive study of them I now work to change the fundamental belief system in business to a more human model, with a focus on value delivery and stakeholder investment.

Where we need to be careful is to STAY mindful of the core aspects, and not just assume them (Cobra Effect). Attitude can become like a mantra; a construct to emulate something demanded by business, not a quality to possess beneficially and mutually. We’ve all seen how a veneer of professionalism can supplant the actuality of it.

Professionalism needs to remain substance over style to retain meaning as we move forward.

Today’s professionalism

With the advent of places such as LinkedIn and instant communication, the attitude of the new younger generation – which is becoming the primary force in consumerism and workforce- and the bringing of human aspects back to business, spreading in part from the tech giants, some of the stiff formality in communication and appearance is melting. It’s possible to have friendly, relaxed conversation and work relationships which retain professionalism – and although I think in some ways the potential for miscommunication is higher, with it being perhaps a little easier to accidentally offend or misunderstand due to more relaxed boundaries, I believe it is also more forgiving and easier to re-communicate, and engage. The way we text, email, write, speak, meet has all drastically changed – but is no less professional. In fact, companies are beginning to realise they need to understand new professionalism, because they need to engage with totally different people now.

Given that we also now carry a personal identity and brand across interactions both business and otherwise, which is a hallmark of the Millennial generation, I think we have the possibility of forging better relationships and bonds than before with beneficial blurring of delineation between personal and business – keeping a professional distance, but utilising individual strengths to bolster this.

We have also acknowledged professional areas across wider swathes of industry than ever before; professional gamers, coaches, sportspeople, actors, salespeople, developers, musicians, executives, workers, photographers, even in incredibly specific areas such as art, curiosity, entertainment, YouTube, and countless more areas of Influence.

But still the definition applies: the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterise or mark a profession or a professional person that are usually pursued for gain (as a career path or for personal profit).

We are now in an era of more relaxed communication and presentation, of valuing the individual, and human sides of professional conduct – no longer strict machine-like interaction – but I believe the core aspects remain the same: ethics, working towards value delivery and using knowledge and ability to do this effectively.

Professionalism is now beginning to include equality, mindfulness, self-development, kindness, EQ and the affective side (not just the cognitive side), and a greater focus on compassion, collaboration, and fulfillment – an investment in what we do. This can only be a good thing, and we have the work of many, many great consultants and coaches I have connections to here, and thought leaders such as Brigette Hyacinth, Gary Vaynerchuk, Dave Snowden, and many others to thank for this. We’re ALL changing what professionalism means, and it’s become much more social, in line with growing realisation that business has always needed to be seen in terms of social complexity.

Individual hyper-competitiveness is now more seen as potentially destructive and less professional than collaboration. Working purely for profit and ignoring human problems and suffering – the “it’s just business” attitude – is fading out, to be replaced by care and empathy. “I’m the boss” and boss-mentality as a whole is being replaced by humble leadership, people who invest workers as stakeholders. The focus of professionalism is moving towards the value delivered, not the unthinking support of hierarchies, profit, and perception. That, to me, is welcome – and consummately professional.

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So what’s next?

I hope this has been an interesting exploration so far, with some food for thought.

As usual, this is designed to get us all questioning traditional patterns and consider how they fit into the rapidly-accelerating changing face of business, especially with the growing focus on people and individualism; thinking from another perspective. I’m sure there will be many different viewpoints depending on industry, age, experience, culture and more – please comment below, I’d love to hear your take on a subject that is both objective and subjective!

I think it’s good to be mindful of how changes are happening – look out for Part II, where I discuss what defines UNprofessionalism.

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