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What it Means to be a Professional

2010 August 1
by Greg Satell

Are you a professional?

Most people think they are and, technically speaking, merely getting paid for what you do qualifies you as a professional.  However, we use the term to imply much more than a paycheck; it’s intended to signify merit.

Unfortunately, it’s often also used as an excuse for bad behaviour.  People say, “I am a professional” as a way of adding legitimacy to their actions.  Therefore, it isn’t a word that should be thrown around, but should stand for something meaningful.

4 Professional Myths

Probably the most frustrating thing about the term “professional” is the specious criteria used to substantiate the claim.  Then, after establishing their credentials, some people feel empowered to say and do just about anything.

Here are four examples:

Professionals work for big companies: People who work at major corporations often feel superior to those who toil in smaller enterprises.  Big companies have big offices and make big deals that involve lots of cash.  Surely, they must be more worthy than the drones who work at places nobody has heard of?

Not in my experience.  Although I have worked with outstanding people at companies great and small, I have often found it to be the case that employees at large corporations went there to hide, a luxury that small company people can’t afford.

So when someone starts off by saying, “after a career working in marketing at a Fortune 100 company…” you can be sure a very weak point is about to follow.  Moreover, even people at high performing companies like P&G and McKinsey are trained to work within a very structured environment and their performance outside of it is often uneven.

Professionals have senior titles: Many others believe themselves to be professional because they have an  important sounding title and lots of people working for them.  They conjecture that such trappings make them professional by default.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Having a position of power is a responsibility, not a privilege.  No matter what your business card says, you still need to go out and perform everyday.  The only difference between a big title and a small one is that those whose decisions affect others need to be that much more demanding of themselves.

Keeping this in mind, for most of my career I carried business cards with no title on them.  It helped remind me that I still needed to prove myself. (Besides, it was a fun way to thumb my nose at an overly hierarchical Eastern European business society).

Professionals know everything: Over the years, it has often been my extreme displeasure to encounter those who believe that competence in one area conveys omniscience.  Based on this misguided theory, they ignore input from others who have a different perspective.

I’ve seen financial officers who like to dazzle people with their creative brilliance, marketing managers who regularly overrule competent editors, web programmers who imagine themselves to be strategic geniuses…the list goes on.

On the other hand, the best professionals I have had the opportunity to work with understand that everybody has something to teach them and endeavor to build consensus among disparate factions.  The truly great ones can humble you with their humility.

Professionals lack manners: A disturbing proportion of executives believe that to be at the very apex of the corporate world, one needs to be constantly late for meetings, bark at underlings and neglect to return phone calls and e-mails.  This is probably the most spurious myth of all.

Creating hardship on others doesn’t convey importance; it wastes time, creates inefficiency and diminishes overall performance.  A true professional works to bring up the level of those around him, not diminish colleagues in order to feel better by comparison.

A Simple Rule of Thumb

Over the years, I’ve come up with a simple litmus test that has been extremely useful in making personnel decisions and choosing partners: Professionals solve more problems than they create. Whenever, I need to make a decision about entering or extending a relationship, I apply that standard.

Problems are rarely caused for want of competence, but usually stem from ill-placed pride and a lack of common decency.  Many feel that because they work for a big company, have a big title and know a lot of things (especially acronyms) they are entitled to make it difficult for others.  How else can they advertise their stature?

True professionals, however, look to solve problems.  They want to help people, seek out “win-win” situations and are willing to shoulder the burden when things go wrong.  Their self worth is defined by what they do for others, not what they can do to them and get away with.

Which one are you?

– Greg

29 Responses leave one →
  1. Zahid Hussain permalink
    August 1, 2010

    Hi Greg.

    What inpressed me the most in this interesting article is your admission: ” I carried business cards with no title on them. It helped remind me that I still needed to prove myself. ” The desire not only to prove but to constatly look into the possibility of improving oneself is the key to ultimate success and also the greatness. Every day when I start my computer, I learn so many new things that I did not know before and admit that there is no end to learning and improving.

    How many “professionals” understand: “Having a position of power is a responsibility, not a privilege?” I have been very lucky throughout my career, with a few exceptions, when truly “great ones” did not humble but stunned me with their humility.

    A very recent trend that I have noticed is that the mention of outstanding achievements in a resume and or interview is seriously discouraged and even ridiculed. My daughter was interrupted and asked by a senior director level recruiting officer to leave her academic honors aside and tell him about the people in position of power she knew!

    A general manger of one of the country’s fastest growing media group told me that his bosses did not like to discuss new ideas because according to them they themselves knew far more than anyone can even dream of. Another trend that I have noticed is that the all empowered decision makers in organizations (luckily excluding my business contacts) in most of the companies particularly in media do not attend or return calls, do not acknowledge or reply to letters and mostly do not even open the emails. Is it a new management principle in the theory of time management that I am unaware of?

    No wonder that most admired business professor Peter Drucker had a cover story in Forbes a few years back in which he had discarded whatever is being taught in our business schools as obsolete.

    I am seriously thinking of starting a discussion on the question: “Do the professionals really solve more problems than they create?”

  2. August 1, 2010

    Actually, a professional is someone who has (and needs) a recognised qualification to do their job, like a doctor, lawyer or teacher.

  3. August 1, 2010


    Thanks a lot for sharing your experiences, which are especially apt. It is a bit frustrating how common such examples are, but also comforting that there are so many counter-examples as well..

    I think that, in the end, it all comes down to a choice. I’ve found that it’s surprisingly easy not to deal with people who cause problems if you make it a priority.

    – Greg

  4. August 1, 2010

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. August 1, 2010

    After receiving feedback about having a professional approach from a job interview that I failed to get ! I have been considering the same question. In my profession, librarianship, we are currently trying to define, and publicize, what makes us valuable in a changing milieu. The sense that our skills are under threat and need to evolve in an increasingly electronic world is making us strive harder for professionalism.

  6. August 2, 2010


    That does indeed seem to be a tough situation. Best of luck to you and let me know how it turns out.

    – Greg

  7. Satinder permalink
    August 2, 2010

    In each of my training and awareness sessions, I start off with following included:
    1) If one has changed after knowing something more/different from yesterday he is wiser today.
    2) Learning is an interactive process.

    Have also known and observed that truly great are really humble and ever ready to help.

  8. Christina Bartels permalink
    August 2, 2010

    Nice piece. Greg You definitely can’t hide in a small company. I love working for the “unknown” and help them rise!

  9. August 2, 2010

    That’s great advice. Thanks Satinder!

    – Greg

  10. August 2, 2010


    It’s true. A small company can often be much more exciting!

    Best of luck to you.

    – Greg

  11. Olga permalink
    August 3, 2010

    Hi Greg,

    Brilliant and right to the point. I wish more people realised these simple truths and became more humble about themselves.

    I’ve seen so many times exactly what you have mentioned – hiding behind the titles, bringing people down just to prove own worth, making things sound so complicated and sophisticated just to avoid doing anything real.

    It takes courage and intelligence to be the true professional, manager, leader and constant effort. Why bother, somebody may ask? It probably comes down to the feeling of personal self worth.

    I love the bit about business cards with no title! 🙂

  12. August 3, 2010


    Thanks. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great professionals, but you are truly one of the very best!

    – Greg

  13. Ned Kumar permalink
    August 4, 2010

    Hi Greg,
    Good points you make,follow those one should 🙂

    True professionals need not advertise their ‘professionalism’ — it stands out loud and clear by virtue of they work and mannerisms.


  14. August 4, 2010

    Thanks, Ned. I follow them as best as I can (even if I falter sometimes:-)

    – Greg

  15. Olga permalink
    August 7, 2010

    Thank you Grisha, with no doubt I can say the same about you 🙂

  16. Einat Adar permalink
    August 20, 2010

    Great article.

    You need to distinguish those who use acronyms and jargon because they’re trying to confuse from those who simply don’t know how to express themselves better.

    My test is this – if I don’t know what the acronyms stand for, I ask and then formulate a simple explanation, eg “so you mean that this software reports on how many calls were answered?”. If the person I’m talking to nods enthusiastically, we’ll probably work together. If they frown and say it’s more complicated, 9 times out of 10 I don’t get the project, and that’s a good thing (:

  17. August 20, 2010

    I like it! Thanks, Einat.

    – Greg

  18. August 28, 2010

    Very valuable post, Greg. It offers very well balanced highlights on what professionalism is about. I can say I share your opinion.

    I would ask you to elaborate on a bit of a side remark you make: “it was a fun way to thumb my nose at an overly hierarchical Eastern European business society”. Do you find Eastern European business society overly hierarchical? That’s interesting topic to me, being from this region.

  19. August 28, 2010

    No offense, but yes (although thankfully getting less so in a lot of places, especially among the younger generation).

    – Greg

  20. August 29, 2010

    I have been in the film business all my life, shot big movies and I’m still only as good as yesterday’s dailies.

  21. August 29, 2010

    Thanks, Jack. I think we’re all in the same position.

    – Greg

  22. October 19, 2010

    Hi Greg,
    It’s been awhile, but I guess it’s a lack of time.
    One of the reasons I went into my own business is because I was surrounded by the most unprofessional “professional” people. And what a shame they had the positions they were unqualified to handle. Owners, managing partners and human resources to mention a few.
    As always, your article is “so” on the money!
    Thank you for confirming the right way to do things and treat people!
    Hope all is well.

  23. October 20, 2010

    Nice to see you again Lisa! How is your business doing?

    – Greg

  24. Xavier Weibel permalink
    January 11, 2011

    Based on what I could observe having done most of my career in large corporations is that professional people bring an almost perfect mix of theory /structured approach with strong emotional intelligence. I qualify emotional intelligence by a mix of empathy, openness and charisma which enable in return to preempt problems in a respectful manner. It takes time, it takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of rebuking from technocratic elite to acknowledge the fact that some situations may only be solved by putting human beings at the center instead of a pile of slides or spreadsheets showcasing only hard facts. It might be like stating the obvious for some but for so many managers this is truly outside their natural comfort/pride zone where status prevails. I would also dare extend this thinking further:
    – True professionals are inclined to burn-out because they reason by empathy and need to set limits for themselves instead of trying to become “superman/superwoman” for everyone around them. They also work against the common flow which make their job more straining on a daily basis
    – True professionals are role models and strong innovators: they often carry a strong creative-intuitive-artistic side (expressed or not) which is a natural vehicle to solve problems in a novel way: global acceptance of their vision is a necessary step to success so they need to become equally ingenious at setting up tactics for management support.

    Keep up the good posts!

    Kind regards,


  25. January 11, 2011


    Great points. Avoiding burnout is a challenge for anybody who truly cares about the people around them!

    – Greg

  26. February 12, 2011

    Greg, thanks for this post too!

    I fully agree with your conclusion “True professionals, however, look to solve problems. They want to help people, seek out “win-win” situations and are willing to shoulder the burden when things go wrong. Their self worth is defined by what they do for others, not what they can do to them and get away with.”

    The more you give (to colleagues and company), the more you get. 🙂

  27. February 12, 2011

    Thanks, Victor. Have a great weekend!

    – Greg

  28. August 8, 2011

    Nice man..
    I had also mentioned about this topic in my Blog.
    Do check:

  29. August 8, 2011

    Thanks. I’ll check it out.


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