Updated: Sep 15, 2021
In his book On Writing, author Stephen King sets out what he believes makes someone talented – what distinguishes an amateur from a professional. “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check,” he says, “if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”
On the face of it, it’s that simple. But, of course, it’s not. You’ll have encountered numerous people through your career who are collecting a pay cheque but who, by your own judgement, don’t meet your definition of professional. It’s why definitions like King’s can be misleading. It’s why the original definition from the 1880s, “the standing, practice, or methods of a professional, as distinguished from an amateur”, doesn’t tell you everything.
In practice, professionalism refers not just to the pay, but to the state or practice of doing your job with skill, courtesy, competence and ethics. In short, it is shown when you take your work seriously and respect the people you work with.
Most importantly, professionalism is not the job you do but how you do the job.
Depending on the role, workplace or sector, an employer might have specific rules to help guide professionalism – a policy around social media use, for example, or a dress code or seating plan.
However, it’s just as important to set your own rules – to know how to be true to yourself and when to challenge societal norms, to find your own way of doing things and maintain high standards.
If you’re wondering what makes a modern professional, we’ve put together a list of traits we think are good starting points. As a candidate, you’ll be more comfortable with some than with others – the important thing is to find out how they fit with who you already are. As a company on the hunt for talent, you may need to choose which you value most highly.
Confidence is the feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something.
If you’ve ever worked with a highly confident person, you’ll know how motivating and reassuring it can be. As the confident person, you get to enjoy team members who are just that – motivated and reassured by your own ability to influence and lead. With confidence, you spend less time stressing about what might go wrong – and more time chasing new things to do right.
Conscientiousness is the quality of wishing to do one's work or duty well and thoroughly.
It’s all about being organised, being industrious and taking responsibility for your own words, thoughts and actions. With this professional characteristic, you can set your own standards, prove that you are reliable and show that you care about your role. Of course, don’t confuse conscientiousness with obsessiveness – perfectionism is impossible to achieve, which is why successful professionals prioritise their work in order to achieve their goals.
Appropriateness is the quality of being suitable or proper in certain circumstances.
In essence, appropriateness means your outward appearance. Not just how you dress and carry yourself in a particular situation, but the way you write and speak, what subjects you bring into discussion and your behaviour around colleagues. This characteristic is a big part of professionalism – it means you know what is considered appropriate in a specific event. Appropriateness helps you to feel more secure in your job, increasing your credibility while avoiding being awkward and upsetting others.
Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.
It’s what makes you keep your word – even if that means taking a more difficult route in order to do the right thing. A valuable characteristic of professionalism, integrity enables you to align with your beliefs, values and behaviours, gaining trust of your peers as everyone can see you as genuine. Of course, honesty with colleagues is only the start. Be honest with yourself about who you are and what professionalism means to you.
Competence is the ability to do something successfully or efficiently.
Your skills should match the job requirements and naturally will regularly produce great results that exceed expectations. Being a professional means focusing on completing objectives on time and to a high quality – you’re not just doing this for yourself, after all. Still, don’t think that means you can’t ask for help if you need it. Competence is also about knowing what you can’t handle.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive, use, understand, manage, and handle emotions.
You might also have heard it called Emotional Quotient or EQ. It’s an important characteristic throughout our whole lives but especially essential to any professional. Your professionalism means you can control your emotions no matter what is happening around you. You know the right times to express how you feel, have meaningful conversations and stand up for yourself.
Respect is a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something – usually because of their abilities, qualities, or achievements.
Much like integrity, it’s not just about respecting others, but also self-respect. From being a role model and having good manners and politeness, to knowing when something is worth your time and when to walk away, respect should be provided to all those around you as you should expect it from all those around you.
Knowledge is facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education – the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.
A professional never stops learning. Throughout your career you must do your best to become a master of your role and continue to learn. Within professionalism, it’s also important to act on your knowledge – being professional by sharing your knowledge with others (sort of like we’re doing here).
What about professionalism in the new normal?
Maybe you’re working from home, sharing a co-working space or only heading into the office a couple of days a week. With the amount of change we have seen in the workplace in recent decades, and more so in recent years, it can be tough to know how professional we need to be in our roles. We just aren’t interacting with our jobs the same way we were two years ago.
Check back next week for our follow-up blog post on this very topic – in which we’ll explore the modern dress code and how applicable it is in the new normal. In the meantime, if you have any other tips for being professional, be sure to share them with us.