“What does professionalism mean? What makes for a good professional?”

My friend Abhijit, a renowned HR consultant, asked me this one day, out of the blue. I took two cups of good black tea and 15 minutes of thought to respond.

A good professional has a few attributes.

The full scope

First: a good professional understands the full scope of the job assigned. A poor professional says “I did the job, as was needed.” But he often fails to realise that this is not enough. A good professional understands, for instance, that testing of a new system, or installation of a new product, is part of the job assigned. A good professional realises that cooking the meal and leaving it in the pots is not enough — the food must be served and the pots need to be washed.

How many times have I seen programmers who did not realise that they needed to thoroughly test their code on all platforms before declaring their job done? If they tested it, how often have we seen cases where the code was not uploaded to the deployment system after testing? And so the story goes on and on. They did not understand the full scope of their work.

Keeping promises

Second: a good professional keeps his promises. A poor professional regularly fails to deliver what he had promised to do. This is often seen as a question of poor work quality. I feel that this is a matter of commitment to keep your promise. If the polish on the furniture is not as shiny as expected, or if there is a bit less salt in the soup, one can call it a case of poor quality. But I often find that the polishing has not been done at all — the job is only part complete. The onions have not been sautéed at all, before being put in the soup. The car’s suspension has not been aligned and lubricated at all as part of the servicing of the car. It’s not a subjective and fine issue of quality — it’s something worse. These people have not kept their promises.

Taking ownership

Third: a good professional takes ownership of the job he picks up. He does not make excuses. All of us face unexpected obstacles when executing our tasks. If this were not the case, we would not bill the fees we do. However, only some professionals take the obstacles head on, and refuse to back down till they have delivered on their promises. Others just go to sleep. I see this everyday. I ask someone to get something done, and we both agree that this should be a one-day job. After three days, when I take a review, I realise that the job is not done. I ask why. I am told about a problem which held him up. I ask why this was not escalated earlier. I get no answer. I suggest two different solutions to the problem and ask why he did not think of any of these options. I get no answer. This must have happened a hundred times in my experience.

Life skills

Fourth: a good professional has basic life skills needed to do a good job in his area and market. By “life skills”, I am specifically separating these from technical skills or professional skills. Programming competence is a programmer’s technical skill, and understanding balance sheets is a CA’s technical skill. These are needed, but much more is needed to make a good professional. You need life skills.

He needs to know how to ensure that his mobile phone does not get discharged at the end of the day, making him miss the end-of-day tele-conference. He needs to know how to have at least a couple of clean pressed shirts in his cupboard at all times. He needs to know how to arrive for all, not some, meetings on time. He needs to know not to pick his nose while with others.

I remember a candidate who had applied for a senior project manager’s position with our company. On the day of the interview, our office called him half an hour before his arrival time, just to ensure that he was coming and there was no confusion. On the phone, he asked: “How do you travel from Dombivali to New Bombay? Is there a bus service I can take?” A bus ride from Dombivali to our office would take one and a half hours at least. He was asking this question 30 minutes before his job interview was about to commence in New Bombay. And he was applying for a position where he would ensure timely delivery from a team of 15-20 young officers and manage two or three client projects. You see what I mean by life skills? We politely sympathised with him and scrapped his application.

Being a good professional is a simple goal, really, when put into words. It is so rare to meet someone who lives up to these goals.