Workers or Professionals

What does the term “professional” bring to mind? Most of us probably relate it to those who demonstrate an extra measure of training, skill, integrity, and competency which sets them apart. Some vocations, such as law, medicine, accounting, education, and (sadly) ministry are referred to as professions. Other vocations are often called jobs or trades. The implication is that if a person isn’t engaged in a profession, they’re performing in a less distinguished or lower status vocational category. Before the Lord, we know this isn’t true, but it’s undeniable that describing someone as a “professional” usually carries very positive connotations in our society.

If we’re going to lead our team in a manner that enables and cultivates them to think and act like professionals, we need to identify the qualities typically attributed to professionals. For example, professionals pursue careers, while workers merely have jobs. Professional work isn’t just an activity performed during a set number of hours per day, it largely defines one’s personal responsibility and identity. Remember our previous fable about the two men who were seen laying brick? The man who was laying brick to support his family was a worker performing a job; the one “building a cathedral” embraced a higher purpose and career. Much of the difference between the two is attitudinal. We have great opportunities to influence our team’s attitude by our expectations and the attitude we take towards them. Upon asking a doctor what they do for a living, they’ll say, “I’m a physician” or “surgeon,” not “I treat diabetes” or “diagnose illnesses.” Their professional self-image allows them to answer in terms of identity rather than activity. If we ask a truck driver what they do, they’ll likely say, “I haul freight” or “drive for UPS,” identifying themselves with what they do rather than who they are. This seemingly subtle difference can be the tip of an iceberg in which many such differences accumulate into a major drag on long-term personal and company performance. Professionals excel because they personally connect with the results of their work rather than their activities. Professionals are further distinguished by the following eight traits. They:

■ Perceive themselves as responsible to the customer with a mission to solve their problems and deliver value. Only after customers are served and satisfied do professionals feel they’ve discharged their responsibility. In contrast, workers perform a defined task for a paycheck, whether or not customers are satisfied.

■ Sense a direct financial connection to the results of their work. They don’t generally work solely for straight hourly wages or a fixed salary. Workers can be removed from customer, see themselves as pleasing a boss, and are typically paid for time. Professionals seek performance-based compensation and expect to ultimately be rewarded for their contributions. Those at the top of their fields generally desire to be recognized and paid for results. They enjoy a well-deserved reputation for noteworthy performance!

■ Never think, “it’s not my job.” They do what it takes, in contrast to workers who typically do what they’re told. Professionals may work alone or as part of a team, but their objective is to achieve a result, not merely execute tasks or follow instructions. They see what they do as contributing to a worthy process or objective, not as an isolated task.

■ Exhibit personal responsibility. When facing an issue, their attitude is generally, “if it’s to be, it’s up to me.” They’re committed to improving and growing, and taking calculated risks. They understand that innovation and progress come from challenging the status quo. Without some risk, there’s no personal or professional progress. Conversely, workers avoid personal risk or “rocking the boat.”

■ Pursue continuing education and training. Education, including critical reasoning and problem-solving, helps to develop confident professionals. Workers are trained to perform discrete tasks. Professionals learn to think by developing a broad reservoir of knowledge that can be applied to myriad situations. They stay competitive in their role by continually searching out and applying industry best practices. They’re committed to lifelong learning and continuous improvement in serving clients.

■ Don’t just work at something, but continually reflect on it through ongoing inquiry and an endless quest for insight and understanding in their field. Professionals examine what’s effective and what’s not, distinguish cutting-edge from rudimentary techniques, and ponder differing theories and approaches for future application. Professionals are constant learners, not just in the classroom, but also in the field where the rubber meets the road. Again, workers are initially trained, but professionals learn continually.

■ Seek personal growth, not just promotions. Their goal is to become better professionals, thereby reaping the rewards of better performance. A professional career doesn’t concentrate on position or power, but on knowledge, capability, and influence. The most highly-respected professionals aren’t those with the greatest positional authority, but those with the most knowledge and accomplishment in their field. For professionals, increased income follows growth in capabilities, not simple tenure or climbing over others.

■ Behave as if “self-employed.” Their well-founded confidence is based on their marketability. The world rewards true professionalism, something that always seems to be in short supply! Professionals desire to be a part of the best team and healthiest workplace as they pursue excellence in their field (whether laying brick, filling prescriptions, or managing customer projects). Now, think of your own team. Do they exhibit these professional traits? If not, why not?