Networking

10 things that define a true professional

You may be a brilliant developer, a highly skilled net admin, or a crackerjack DBA -- but if you're unprofessional, your career is likely to fall short. Alan Norton offers some attributes to strive for.

The term professional is thrown around quite a bit these days, perhaps too much. I do it myself. But what exactly does it mean to be a professional? As you read through the items below, consider how you compare with each trait.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Put customer satisfaction first

Understanding and satisfying your customer's needs are the cornerstones of a successful business. Do what is necessary to meet those needs. After all, without the customer, there is no professional.

You may not view those you work with as your customers, but in many cases, they are. I remember when one of my managers perceived that I was overly stressed. He pulled me aside and sat me down in his office where he told me stories and jokes for the better part of half an hour. He recognized my needs and acted accordingly.

Professionals identify and satisfy their customer's needs.

2: Make expertise your specialty

The very word professional implies that you are an expert. Technical competence is essential in IT.

  • Become an expert in the skills and tools necessary to do your job.
  • Always perform to the best of your abilities.
  • Keep your knowledge up to date.

Professionals know their trade.

3: Do more than expected

Professionals aren't bound by a time clock. They are given wide latitude in their daily self-management. They are expected to manage their time and work habits. Don't abuse the privilege. If you take an hour for personal needs, give back two hours.

The reality is that professionals are expected to exceed the standard 40-hour workweek. There are times when you may be asked to work weekends. You may have to forego a vacation or work 12-hour days to complete an important project. All are part of the job description of most professional positions.

Professionals are expected to produce results. Strive to complete deliverables before their due dates and under budget.

Professionals meet or exceed expectations whenever possible.

4: Do what you say and say what you can do

This is one of my favorite sayings especially in view of the fact that talking the talk is so prevalent and walking the walk so rare in this age of sound bites. You should "engage brain" before speaking -- can you really do what you are about to say? If you can't, the wizard behind the curtain will eventually be revealed and hard-earned trust can be lost.

Professionals deliver on promises made.

5: Communicate effectively

I go out of my way to patronize a dentist who has excellent communication skills. He takes the time to explain the available options, make recommendations, state the total costs, and promise a date when the work can be completed. I then feel empowered to make the right decisions.

I recently ordered Internet and phone service from the cable company. I told the salesman that the existing cable had been ripped out during a landscaping project. Perhaps I wasn't clear or perhaps the salesman wasn't listening -- it doesn't really matter. The message didn't get through and the wrong person was sent to do the installation. As a result, Qwest, not the cable company, got my business. Not only did the commissioned salesman lose his sale, he and his company both looked unprofessional in my eyes.

Resist the urge to blame the customer when communication goes awry. Effective communication is ultimately your responsibility -- not your customer's.

Whether verbal or written, professionals communicate clearly, concisely, thoroughly, and accurately.

6: Follow exceptional guiding principles

Appreciate and support those you work with. Practice good manners and proper etiquette. Have high ethical and moral standards. Be honest and fair in all of your dealings with others. Obey the law. These may sound like the attributes of a Boy Scout, but they are basic values that all professionals should follow. Many companies have a document that outlines their operating principles. Have you read yours?

Professionals adhere to high values and principles.

7: Praise your peers not yourself

Respect and acknowledge the talents of your peers. There is nothing more unprofessional and self-serving than telling others how wonderful you are.

Professionals are humble and generous in their praise of others.

8: Share your knowledge

When I was hired at Hughes Aircraft, a second person with similar skills was hired with me. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that one of us wasn't going to survive. The competitive nature of the situation was palpable. I am no stranger to the belief that it is not in your best interest to share your knowledge with your associates, AKA the competition.

It is easy to find yourself in that comfortable place with "unique" knowledge. If you are a hoarder of information and are of the opinion that all of the nuts you have squirreled away grant you immutable job security, think again. The harsh reality is that nobody is irreplaceable.

Information isn't a limited resource. Contrary to what some might think, your mind won't be emptied by giving away kernels of wisdom or experience. Think of knowledge as an ocean of facts and not a stream of data. It is possible to share what you know and still keep one step ahead of the competition -- simply apply yourself and learn something new daily.

Professionals help their peers and are respected for doing so.

9: Say thank you

I always tried to find a way to thank others for their help. When their help was above and beyond the call of duty, I would buy them a Coke - a testament to the marketing power of Madison Avenue and Mean Joe Greene.

The items I value the most in my personnel file from Hughes Aircraft are two AVOs (Avoid Verbal Orders memos) to my manager from frontline employees. The AVOs thanked me for the support I provided that helped them do their job better.

Silly me -- what was I thinking? I was sharing a Coke when I should have been sharing my thanks in a printed internal document to the employee's manager.

Professionals thank others in a meaningful way that most benefits the recipient.

10: Keep a smile on your face and the right attitude in your heart

This has been the hardest item for me to do consistently over my working years. I believed I was lying to myself and the world by smiling when I was miserable or unhappy with an ongoing issue at work.

I now realize it's not dishonest to be pleasant when you are having one of those lousy days. It is in fact thoughtful to care about how your attitude affects those you interact with. Share your unhappiness with your manager only. "Share the misery" is not the mark of a professional.

Professionals are pleasant even during trying times.

The final word

Working with professionals is a pleasure, and I have been fortunate to work with some truly exemplary ones. There have been a few who liked to be treated as professionals without having to work and act like one.

You don't have to look any further than the medical profession to see examples of true professionals. Think back upon those doctors you've liked the most and model your professionalism after theirs.

So, how do you measure up? Don't feel bad if you need some work in one or more areas. Demeanor that is less than professional can lead to an image problem for you and your company. Negative images are hard to shake. Recognize any shortcomings you might have and begin working on your professional image today.

About

Alan Norton began using PCs in 1981, when they were called microcomputers. He has worked at companies like Hughes Aircraft and CSC, where he developed client/server-based applications. Alan is currently semi-retired and starting a new career as a wri...

59 comments
Gorilla72
Gorilla72

Most of these points would fall under 'Common Sense' to me.  But since most of the public does not have that anymore, I guess it would have to be spelled out for them.. For the record we were taught this in school and the funny part was when I got into the "REAL" world, the people who used the term, "That's not Professional" or "Be Professional", were the ones that were the most UN-Professional.  


I think the security guard said it best to me at one of my jobs when I was venting about all the promotions the woman at the company had gotten.  He said to me... "All I can say to you is, don't ever put  your hands down on the Large Conference room table!".



So much for being "PROFESSIONAL" hu?

Gopal Gureja
Gopal Gureja

A highly interesting and fairly inspiring post indeed! Any one, exercising these 10 attributes could genuinely pride herself/himself as a true professional. HR managers of most companies would be too happy to hire people who show a great promise for self-discipline in thought and in action. But can they act as true professionals all the time while working within a company’s policy framework as reflected in the top management’s day-to-day actions—or lack of action—rather than in the formal mission or value statements?


My empirical research—spanning 200 customer service professionals, 12 companies and a period of over three years—has revealed that the strongly emerging age of customer capitalism has given rise to a serious internal conflict of real and postured priorities, that brings the company’s declared mission and core values under question. This phenomenon also raises doubts about the company’s real KPAs and therefore, it induces distorted perception of the employees’ self-interest. In my view this cultural churn is best described as organizational schizophrenia, which undoubtedly impacts the quality of service adversely. (The book shown in my profile picture: Organizational Schizophrenia: Impact on Customer Service Quality details how the malaise spreads all the way down). https:customercarebooks.com 

I have known of the professionals who, even at the risk of getting on the wrong side, made out a spirited case and have succeeded in getting their top management to consciously exercise a rigour of discipline to block schizophrenia from creeping in to the company. 

Should taking a reasoned stand against any wrong-doing within the company be also one of the traits of the true professionals? Philip Roth strongly endorses this trait when he says: “Unless one is inordinately fond of subordination, one is always at war”.

beticka65
beticka65

This article is right on the money! After being in management for many years, I've noticed that I am quick to notice an unprofessional employee. Each point is true and very important in today's business. It doesn't matter if you are the manager of a retail store or the manager of a million dollar company, professionalism is the back bone. Treating your employees and coworkers with respect should always be your number one priority.

nikipc
nikipc

I enjoyed this article. I often encounter "un"professionalism in the workplace and while i'm out in public shopping or purchasing services somewhere. I always think, if I acted like that at my job i'd be fired." I do try to be professional at work and when I deal with the public outside of work. I believe that going above and beyond to satisfy others will change their attitude and make their day as well as make them a loyal customer. If I can't help someone, I find out who can and I follow up. Basically, I act and treat others as I want to be treated in their workplace by them. I think more people should be reading this article and taking notes on how to be professional.

Not~SpamR
Not~SpamR

I always figured that if I wanted something, or I was asked something, that didn't quite fit in with normal arrangements an easy way to see if it was reasonable was to see if the flipside would work just as well. So if I needed to work late to fix something specific I'd do it gladly, as long as my manager was the type who would let me knock off early if I had a specific requirement (the flipside to that was that I'd only knock off early if I were willing to work late when required). If I was suddenly told that I was expected to work late every night for a month to get a project back on track (like the time I was given a document in October for a "critical" project but the document was dated April), I refused on the basis my manager would never have let me leave early every day for a month. That particular case also highlighted mismanagement - as I pointed out someone had sat on it for six months so if it had become urgent the failings had to be acknowledged. There's a difference between being a jobsworth and being a professional. There's also a difference between being a professional and being a doormat. In my mind a professional will get things done but will also have enough self-respect that an unscrupulous manager won't get to take advantage of their professional goodwill.

lastminute.com
lastminute.com

I would agree somewhat with rmazzeo in that I cannot wholly agree with point #3. I think as a professional you owe it to yourself to work for a professional employer - one who will not use and abuse their relationship and rank over you and one that respects you, such that you willingly give 2 hours back for every 1 used for personal reasons simply because you want to. Its not a hardship to do this, since as a professional within that company you feel valued and you thus you act with intrgrity. Anything else is seen for what it is - being taken a loan of! It is hard to be the only professional in an organsiation if your senior management are not, thereore I would advise you seek out professional companies to work for. Those that respect the all important work/life balance aspect and realise they get much more back from their employees on so many levels for recognising and enforcing this basic need. All the other points I agree with! Thanks for such a thought provoking article.

gileado
gileado

many thanks for your genuine words sir...

rmazzeo
rmazzeo

...Hey, that rhymes! You're kidding, right? "Do more than expected" is a great idea, especially if the client/customer notices & is genuinely happy. But to do it for your company, in many circumstances, simply means that you're a chump - let me explain: Corporations are cutting back - how admirable! But how are they doing it? They are cutting their workforce, expecting those who are still around to do more - in many cases, much more - for the same pay or slightly more, say 2% more. But now you have to work 20% more hours, put more miles on your car (getting paid the same mileage rate), pay the same amount on your health insurance (if you have it), or get your perks cut (no pension, possibilty of future layoff, possibly pay MORE for your benefits, etc.). In the meantime, the CEO/other execs make more & more in bonuses & perks on YOUR increased labor. First example (of 2) - in the company I worked for, I didn'g get a raise (of ANY kind, even Cost of Living) for 3 years. Yet I was told that I was doing a GREAT job & getting better over those 3 years. The excuse for no raise? "The business isn't making as much money as anticipated...". Then, as I was in the field, I was told that I wouldn't get paid for the trip back to the office from the client's location. Now I could be in New York (from PA), so my sometimes 2-3 hour commute would be on MY time. Needless to say, I worked it so that I would be back by 5:00 p.m. no matter what, & when they asked me to come back full-time (I was PT for a year due to family matters), I was told that I would make the same money. I politely refused, got laid off, took the unemployment & RAN. Second example - A neighbor & a good friend of mine was told he would be laid off at the end of last year, unless, of course, he was interested in taking an open "lateral" position, for less pay & more travel. Well, he has a family to support, so, of course, he took the "lateral" move. He is so sorry he did it, in the sense that he is NEVER home with his family, both he & his wife are just not happy with the situation - he's exhausted all the time, she's taking care of the kids with no down time, & he's making less money in a much more stressful situation. He is seriously looking for something else, but it's tough in this market... Bottom line - don't give them 2 hours back for the 1 hour lunch. Grab what you can & run with it. I'm running my own small business now &, while it's not making me rich, it is rewarding, I make some money, there's no stress & me & my family are much happier - with less. You can't be loyal to those who won't be loyal to you. If you insist on being loyal to a corporation, get something in writing or go ahead & play the fool - it's your choice!

cb 123
cb 123

Thank you for the emphasis on honesty, integrity and for remdinding us of the definition of professionalism. With the economy threatened by the greedy actions of those striving to get into the top 1% (inadvertently working to remove the middle class and hoard profit), we need reminders that honest practices make the economy go round. Kudos!

AFloresH
AFloresH

Great article, specially ife read before you start a workday, btw, good call mentioning Steel Curtain 'Mean' Joe Greene SB add!

psgrafx
psgrafx

I really love this list. I believe that I have done my best to follow those rules despite not really knowing what I was following. Behaving this way really helped my career and my managers always loved me and considered me one of their "top" employees.

ppg
ppg

I (as many other commenters have) disagree with point #3. In it you say it is unprofessional to stick to a rigid 9-5 day. I quite agree. If it is needed for your company to do business or to protect their assets you do work through the night or over the weekend. Similarly if by done a few extra hours you allow you colleagues to keep working you do it. Also if it is more efficient to finish a job rather than stopping and starting again on Monday you do it. However to take the next step which you do and say you should routinely work extra hours is not professional. Indeed it conflicts with points 1 and 7 ? you are not respecting others if you are trying to get ahead of them by working extra hours. Instead you are forcing them into a race for the bottom where everyone must work more and more hours just to stay where they are.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

"You may have to forego a vacation or work 12-hour days to complete an important project. All are part of the job description" I don't think so!!! So you are effectively saying I can't be a professional unless I let the company I work for walk all over my and my 'own time'.

Ramon Somoza
Ramon Somoza

I'm missing something crucial, which I've tried to apply throughout my whola career: Do NOT claim a success for yourself, but give credit where credit is due. A true professional credits merits to whoever made the achievement. This is specially true if the guys who achieved a success work for you. It is inspiring -and greatly reinforces your team- when people know that you are not going to claim their rightly-earned medals. And only fools fear that their subordinates will shine more than they do: It's just the other way round, their shining contributes to your own gloss.

santeewelding
santeewelding

With the Latin roots of, [i]profess[/i], and worked my way out from there. You be coming from the other direction, Alan, which is the land of the scattered.

Rayx2
Rayx2

To me the communication part is the most important of all. That means also listening, its easy to say what you want or think. Its really hard to repeat exactly what people say. Too often tone, body language, our owns fellings get in the way of the real message. I guess that the best listeners are really the best communicators because they interact in conversation rather than react.

dawgit
dawgit

Not a lot of them I'm seen or heard about lately. Other wise, a good article.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

but other than that I try and must have succeeded on occasion. Right attitude can be hard one in corporateville, some times that means you parrot the mission statement instead of try and succeed in the mission....

Alan Norton
Alan Norton

Or do your professional characteristics need a little tweaking? Some notes: Before the topic comes up, please allow me to explain the difference between professional/non-professional (noun) and professional/unprofessional (adjective). I have met many non-professionals who are professional in their behavior and have great respect for their skills and work ethics. On the other hand I have worked with so-called "professionals" who were unprofessional. Clear as mud now? ;-) There are many times over my career when I was helped by true professionals. While working at CSC I needed to swap CPUs to test a theory. A tech helped me do the swap. My theory proved out and I was able to confidently buy software to resolve the problem. Swapping CPUs is best left to the professionals and, fortunately, I found one to help me. In large part because of his help, the project was a success. After cancelling my cable installation I called Qwest and talked to a college student named Brandon. We spent 45 minutes on the phone as he answered my questions and made sure the order was right. I really appreciate that kind of customer service. At age 19 he is well on his way toward becoming a professional. Given a choice between a professional and a less than professional, I'll take the professional every time - even if it costs more. July 26th was the Centennial celebration of the Boy Scout organization. Honest, I didn't know. http://scouting.org/100years/100years/Default.aspx I still give Cokes away - these days to the UPS delivery person. As usual, I will be checking in occasionally to answer questions and participate when I can add to the discussion.

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