Before anything else, I want to note that anyone can be a professional. It's not about what you do for a living, but rather it's about how you see yourself and how you act as you go about your business. To that point, I've met some exceedingly professional individuals in the trades and some extremely unprofessional folks with fancy titles and degrees.
On to the point(s) at hand.
I've been in the workforce now for almost 30 years, and I'd like to think that I've learned a few things along the way. Here are six things that come to mind as being particularly important. I don't pretend for a single moment that I've mastered these things myself; to the contrary, I likely fail often at all of them. The point though isn't so much acknowledging failure as it is acknowledging and living in truth. With that in mind, here's my list.
First and Foremost: Be A Decent Human Being
Organizations don't have souls. They are an artificial construct of the law and social behavior, designed to create order for a purpose. Human beings, on the other hand, have souls. They also have hopes, needs, aspirations, and feelings. It astounds me to no end the degree to which some folks, and I've met plenty in my lifetime, will make the conscious decision to put an artificial construct...a thing...an organization...before that of a human being.
Now don't get me wrong: In organizations, sometimes tough decisions need to be made. I've laid people off, and it's happened to me (well, technically I was "retired"). That action in and of itself is not the point at all. Rather, what's at stake here is how one human treats another human, especially during times of duress. In fact, it's during the tough times that we need to work HARDER at showing empathy towards our fellow humans. I don't buy for a single moment the notion that tough decisions in a professional environment need to be made and executed in a sterile, unfeeling manner. That's a cop-out of the highest order, one that devalues our fellow human beings and ultimately poisons our own souls.
What we all need to do is always work at simply being a decent human being in our professional lives, in the good times and, as noted above, especially during the bad. Be kind. Be considerate. Spend as much time talking to the maintenance staff as you do that leader you want to impress. Listen to your co-workers. Hold the door open for someone who has their hands full. If you see someone struggling, offer to help. This isn't hard: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Second: Keep Your Word
Return phone calls. Answer emails. Honor your commitments. If something keeps you from honoring a commitment, apologize and try to remedy the situation. The magnitude doesn't matter because what's small to me may be big to you.
Third: Value Diversity (especially diversity of thought)
There are few things sadder than seeing the leaders of an organization...be it a group, a senior leadership team or a board of directors...look like they are all brothers from the same mother. No good interests are served by surrounding oneself with those who look and think like you. Diversity isn't just some nebulous concept created by rich liberals; it's a basic tenant of biology. Inbreeding is dangerous for both procreation AND organizations.
How can we live in diversity? Give people permission to challenge you. Give yourself permission to challenge others. Above all else, don't fall into the ego trap of believing that no one can teach you, because it's at that point when your ultimate failure actually begins. Don't walk away from that person who always seems to have a different opinion than you...instead, walk towards them.
Fourth: You'll Sometimes Get In Trouble For Doing The Right Thing (but do it anyway)
I've done a few things in my nearly thirty-year professional life that have likely harmed my career...one especially comes to mind...and that's okay, especially in those instances when I knew my intentions were good and for the benefit of other humans (see the first point). The simple fact is this: Sometimes you'll be punished for doing the right thing, but that's the cost of doing business the right way, so do it anyway.
I want to believe that, in the end, doing right for the sake of right ultimately does provide a reward, even if that reward is as simple as a John Mellencamp once noted in a song:
Fifth: Never Stop Changing
We can choose to change with the world around us, or we can choose to passively watch as the world passes us by. The former will keep us interested and engaged; the latter will almost always yield bitterness and fear. When we think about it that way, it's actually not too difficult of a choice. Like most things though, I think what holds us back...well, I know it holds me back...is fear. That's ironic: We're afraid of change, but yet we should actually be afraid of NOT changing.
Sixth: We Are All Equally Flawed
We are all, each and every one of us, equally flawed. No one has it completely figured out. That person at work who seems to have his/her "stuff" together? More likely than not, they are simply better at maintaining appearances than you or I. Life is ultimately a very democratic thing: We all have challenges, we all have fears, we all have hopes, we all have aspirations. That goes equally for security guards and CEOs. Labels and expensive suits are simply wrappers, a kind of plumage if you will, designed for a specific purpose but still masking a naked bird underneath. Of the six things listed in this posting, this one is the most difficult for me to consistently master. I was simply raised to, almost by default, always assume that the problem facing me at the moment is both unique to me and wholly my fault anyway. Neither is usually true.
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A bonus: Always assume positive intent. That's not so much a separate lesson as it is a kind of lubrication for the other six.