What makes us 'professional'?

Sue Willcock Food for Thought Leave a Comment

I’ll put my cards on the table right now.  I love working in professional services.
There’s just something that makes me feel right at home in the sector, having begun my early career as a trainee surveyor a long time ago.
So long ago in fact, that there was a certain professional etiquette and heirarchy still in place for us trainees.  We did not speak to Partners, made the tea for meetings with no moaning, did a lot of note taking, typing up, faxing and checking – maths checking, reading over…Ahh, the heady days of 1980s trainee quantity surveyors!
Alongside my day job, for me in any case, I was also developed to behave ‘appropriately’ – not just to technically pass my exams, but also abide by the Code of Conduct set by my professional institution (in my case the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) and to, well, “be professional”.
These days, as a management and leadership consultant, I am often met with a set of “business values and behaviours” neatly written down – often over many pages and diagrams and frameworks of ‘desired behaviours’.  Often they include ‘professionalism’ and, intertwined with this, ‘integrity’ and ‘respect’.
But these can be complicated beasts of documents, the likes of which did not exist 25 years ago.  I was simply guided and told how I was expected to behave by my managers and peers, and, perhaps more critically, I was shown how to behave by real life examples through what we would now label as ‘role model behaviours’.
This was shown not just by managers and leaders, but peers and colleagues – professionals who set a benchmark for me to follow – who simply told or showed me that a professional should:

  • Do the ‘right thing’.  Even if this makes you unpopular.
  • Be honest.  I remember someone once telling me as a trainee, “Sue, if you don’t know, you must say so.  Don’t make it up to look good – you are a professional advisor, remember.”
  • Demonstrate respect for others.  Say please, thank you and show appreciation for a job well done.

As someone who comes from a social background where no one had been in professional services before me, lots of office etiquette was new to me as I entered the world of work at 18.   And, as my career has developed (leading to Partner and latterly a business owner and Consultant) I have come to interpret what being professional means to me.
Indeed, there were many memorable moments that influenced me, where I really saw this in action through others:  A surveyor who left a Practice because he did not like the way things were done, an engineer standing up for what he believed in the face of 15 disagreeing other people in a project meeting.  A project manager calling a dramatic halt to a meeting so that more information could be found to get to the ‘right’ answer for the client, even though an ‘OK’ answer was already tabled and we were all in a hurry to move on.
Recently, I discovered just how important the values of professional services are to me when I got extremely agitated over some assessment centre candidates having an argument over ‘doing the right thing’ vs ‘making money’ in a role play moral dilemma.  Likewise, at a event with some school leavers last year, I had a fantastic debate with one team about professionalism when they sabotaged another team’s efforts (albeit in a friendly way) so they could win one of the challenges.  I asked ‘Was that professional?’ ‘Does a client want you to win at all costs?’  ‘Is that acceptable?’
So, here goes.
With no complicated frameworks, these are my thoughts on the five things that encompass many of the things that the word ‘professional’ means to me. As we enter 2016, I wonder how we will all interpret our own ‘professional’ values this year.
What promises will we make to ourselves, our teams, our clients? Will we keep them, even in the face of adversity, choppy waters and tough or busy times?

  • Doing what we say we will do.  Including being on time and meeting deadlines.  Often this means saying no in the first place and not over-promising.
  • Acting in the interests of our clients.  Even when faced with adversity or disagreement from peers or colleagues.
  • Having integrity – an often overused word but for me is about being prepared to take a stand to do what’s right.
  • Respecting others.  An easy one – to treat others as we would like to be treated.
  • Finally, I often ponder dress in the context of professionalism, especially as many writers say the days of the business suit are numbered (and already gone in many business sectors) and I personally find the idea that a posh pen makes me more credible a hard one to swallow. However, I was once told by an personal impact expert that she saw dress/appearance as an expression of respect for the other person.  And clearly it can help engender trust in you as an expert.  This is worth considering in the context of ‘looking the part’ as appropriate to your role, your environment and your clients.

As we enter 2016, I wonder where the professional values we all have will feature in our personal goal setting and intent around our own behaviours. How will we play them out and demonstrate them to others?
Do you think they need to be written down in formal documents as opposed to being simply done and played out in action?   Shown and demonstrated to others by being simply being a ‘decent human being’, as one of my clients would say, and by showing through our words and actions that we care about the business we work for, our clients and our colleagues.
Even when, at times, we are a lone voice.
After all, role modelling is one of the most powerful tools of influence we have.

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