The bare essence of professionalism is reliably doing real work on the right things, and doing it well.
One of the benefits of my position as a management adviser is that I get to see a lot of different management and leadership styles. And I get to see them from all perspectives: executive, buyer, seller, consultant, adviser, subordinate, and superior to name a few.
As I think about the most effective people I know–that is to say the most effective professionals I know–I have realized over time that the key to enduring professional success tends to be a simple word: reliability. The funny thing about reliability is that it is timeless. It doesn’t depend on your experience level, it doesn’t depend on your topical expertise, it doesn’t depend on your role. It simply depends on your dependability.
Why do I write this? Because I get to see the outfall of unreliable professionals all the time. These are the consultants who talk a big game but who don’t do real work to back it up (the “one-hit wonders” of the consulting profession). These are the managers who set aggressive, unreachable deadlines for themselves and therefore can’t be counted on to deliver. These are the employees who never met a deadline they couldn’t silently stretch or break–while their leaders silently watch them fail because why bother?
These are the professionals who look and feel like they have something better to do than work on your problem or the task at hand.
The essence of professionalism can be encapsulated in a timeless quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This particular quotation was the favorite of a beloved football coach of mine, and it’s one that has informed my ideals for a very long time. It goes like this:
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”
That means if you are called on to deliver the next M&A deal for your company, you think Michelangelo. It means if you are a mid-career manager who suddenly has to step in and own the financial model, you think Beethoven. And it means that if you are a seasoned professional who suddenly has to create that pitch deck when nobody else is available, you don’t think about how you no longer have those skills or how you are better than this work–you think Shakespeare.
In short, the professional mindset is one that doesn’t get bogged down in what work is “beneath” him or her. It’s the one that finds the work and figures out a way to do it for real. It’s comfort in doing the little things that build to a big thing. And it’s being known for reliably applying that comfort. It’s reliably doing real work on the right things and doing it well.
That, my friends, is the bare essence of professionalism.
It’s an ideal that I always aspire to.
What do you think? What would you add as the essence of professionalism?