The Professional: Seven New Rules

The term ‘professional’ comes from the Latin word ‘professio,’ which literally means to take an oath or a vow. Those who took the oath may have been entering a religious order or pledging allegiance to a political organization, but in every case, they promised to abide by a certain code of conduct and to build affective regard for the group to which they now belonged. Over the last few centuries, the term professional has come to mean different things to different people, but that central idea has not changed. What has changed is the rate of explosive growth in the number of new professions that now exists and the extent to which people in these professions must interact across borders.

Fifty years ago, we did not have television news anchors, software engineers, web designers, or cosmetic surgeons. Nor did we have tutors to help our children do their homework without ever meeting them face to face. Today, tutors sitting in India help American children do their math homework and Japanese children to get better in English composition. The combined impact of this huge shift has obviously created great benefits, but it also comes with consequences. For in an interconnected world where one person’s decision can affect those thousands of miles away, any professional failure can create a hugely undesirable impact: A rogue trader on Wall Street can bring down a large corporation in Europe; an over zealous news reporter can create security risks while reporting from behind enemy lines; a CEO of a global conglomerate can cost millions of people their jobs by embezzling company funds.

[wcm_restrict]Given the potential and pitfalls, the most common modern definition of a professional – someone who uses specialized knowledge and skills to gain employment – is no longer adequate. There are three fundamental requirements for someone to be called a professional. These are the capacity to work unsupervised, the ability to certify that the work is complete in every respect, and finally, an abiding sense of integrity. Professional competence without integrity is actually dangerous to society. Every professional has an average work-life spanning four decades, and once he embraces these tenets, he can evolve over the years to the point where he is self aware. Some of the qualities that impact self-awareness are knowing who I am, where I come from, what my strengths are, how well I handle adversities, how well I seek help, and how well I am able to rein in my emotions under stress. The journey of the four decades, of growing from an entry-level professional to a leader among fellow professionals invariably calls for mastery over four things: the ability to efficiently manage resources, volume, complexity and finally, rainmaking.

Whether someone is a plastic surgeon or a patent lawyer, these four elements have been there in every profession for some time. But now, we are witnessing the baseline shift. In this essay, I want to present to you, a set of seven new rules for being called a professional. I believe, without mastering these, no one can truly assume that distinct title.

#1. A professional must understand the principles of governance

In large corporations that depend upon a whole host of people, too much sometimes rests on an individual’s shoulders. Quite often, that individual may not even be an employee. As organizations become larger, their capacity to govern the actions of every individual actually shrinks. This means, a true professional must know the principles that govern him without being told and watched over. It is no longer enough to be smart and intuitive and competent, but additionally, one must know where the boundaries of law rest, not just domestically but beyond. I am no professional if I do not know my legal responsibilities, my requirement of disclosure and what liability my actions can cause to the corporation and extended set of stakeholders.

#2. Sustainability is part of every professional’s job

The days of the hippie tree huggers are over. Imagine you are a product manager at Proctor and Gamble or Unilever and are charged with designing a new line of detergents or packaged food. You cannot presume that packaging is simply a matter of clever design that helps your products fly off the shelves of a super market. They may get sold in countries that do not have any recycling capability. Worse, disposed off packaging material is a huge economic waste because the poor cannot afford to throw things away. Folks at Danone learned it from Grameen Bank Founder Mohammad Yunus, who asked them to consider putting Danone’s special formula nutrient in an edible cover, not a disposable package. It illustrates how much sustainability is becoming a critical environmental and economic issue. Every professional today has a carbon footprint. It is not enough to be a good surgeon, a civil engineer or a litigation lawyer. Each one must know how we may impact the environment and, more critically, how we may be able to help.

#3. Every professional must include as many people and organizations in their decision making as possible

The concept of inclusion in business started when Quality gurus like Deming asked Americans to drop the ‘product-out’ mentality and instead practice a ‘customer-in’ mindset. But it went a significant step further when the idea of community involvement and corporate social responsibility gained momentum in the eighties. But the current definition of inclusion goes well beyond that. Starbucks must now align itself with the Rainforest Alliance. In a world in which every professional act could have far reaching and sometimes an unintended impact, every one of us must continuously ask, how do I protect the interests of people who may be twice, thrice or even ten times removed from me?

#4. Multi-cultural sensitivity is critical for every profession

We no longer produce nationally and sell internationally. Value creation in every field is a distributed process. Just look at the ‘product of origin’ information on an Apple device. All it says is ‘Designed in California’! Today, half of Symantec’s patents are filed by engineers from outside the United States. Companies like GE and Microsoft rake in higher revenue from sales outside the US. It is becoming routine for self-employed doctors, lawyers, engineers, copy writers, clothing line designers and other creative professionals to be globally mobile. This means collaborating across cultures. There was a time when multi-cultural sensitivity meant being polite to your host. Today, the very nature of collaboration is dispersed in a flat world and the central issue is not politeness, but how to raise issues, negotiate energetically, work with teams that have little in common except one project. Today’s true professional must understand the nuances of a multi-cultural existence and be effective in a manner that goes beyond the ability to use chopsticks and say ‘thank you’ in six languages.

#5. Every professional must understand Intellectual Property

Nike, Coke, Dockers and Intel have one thing in common: their most precious possession, their source of competitive advantage, is no longer physical in nature. That one thing changed a long time back. Our lives are being increasingly governed by copyrights, trademarks and patents. Ironically, one may get free services from a Skype or a Gmail, but you may not use their logo without their consent. As more free things show up in the real and the virtual world, more people are concerned about their property rights. An attendant issue is ownership of data and privacy. Internationally, there is heightened concern about information privacy and professionals must, while protecting their own rights, guard against contravention.

#6. A professional’s professional is a rainmaker

The term rainmaking means an unusual ability to create value through deal-making and personal contacts. Traditionally, a rainmaker has been understood to be a great a salesperson. But rainmaking is a lot more than just that. Consider the chief technology officer of a company who is able to influence standards by being on an industry body – the revenue impact of such a thing can be immense. Or consider the ability of a surgeon to build a point of view on a certain issue that becomes so viral that the institution he works for gets noticed and receives funding for a path breaking research. These individuals are rainmakers. It is a non-trivial, non-random professional quality that some people hone and harness over time. Rainmaking calls for building a personal brand and ambassadorship, not just on behalf of an employer but, on behalf of the professional community that someone belongs to.

#7. A great professional learns from unusual sources

Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, the founder of the world’s largest eye hospital, Aravind Eye Care in India, cited MacDonald’s as his most admired organization. He believed that that they show the path to bringing down cost by leveraging volumes and delivering a billion predictable dining experiences at affordable prices. Dr. V, as he was known, asked himself – why couldn’t he drastically bring down the cost of eye care by taking advantage of the high number of blind people in India? Why could he not use the assembly line method used by the burger company to maximize the number of operations every surgeon performs? Last year, Aravind Hospitals operated upon 300,000 people, and 70% of them did not have to pay anything.

We live in a complex world. In it, newer knowledge must come by not just casting the net deep but casting it wide. As professionals, we get busy and blinkered. Every professional convention, seminar and exhibition looks like a penguin colony. A great professional, like Dr. V, must continuously look outside and learn from unusual sources, she must try that learning and then create newer bodies of knowledge so that she can build a legacy that does justice to the idea of affective regard.[/wcm_restrict][wcm_nonmember]


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About the Author

Subroto Bagchi co-founded IT services company, MindTree and is the author of the international best-seller The Professional. Subroto spends one-on-one time with the Top-100 leaders at MindTree on their ‘personal-professional’ issues to expand leadership capacity and build readiness for taking MindTree into the billion-dollar league. In addition, Subroto works at the grassroots by making himself available to its 45 Communities of Practice that foster organizational learning, innovation and volunteerism within the organization. To read Subroto’s complete biography, click here.

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