Chapter II. Where the heck did it all go wrong? |or| A history of professional.

Professional didn’t start as a filthy word — just the opposite.

Let’s begin with the birthing of the word, sometime in the 17th century. The etymology for professional reads verbatim: from Middle English, from profes, adjective, having professed one's vows, followed by some indecipherable business about professing in various languages etc. etc. Late Latin professus, etc. something about a past participle of profitēri, which I don’t think is in any way related to a profiterole, etc. etc. etc.

Wedged between all that convoluted Latin and past participle business is a concept as simple as it is delightful: to be a professional, you committed to practicing your learned profession by professing your skill to others. 

If we flip dictionary pages to the definition of professional, we see a similar story:

1. relating to or belonging to a profession.
2. engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as an amateur. 

Belonging to a profession. Doing your job. Simple. Honourable. Still no skeletons in Professional’s closet. 

Or are there? Obviously I wasn’t around in the 19th century, I was still just a lusty feeling in my great-great-grandparents loins — but all evidence points to the Victorians as the perpetrators of molesting Professional’s honour. Yes, this may well be where the bones are buried, so don your bonnet or top hat, let’s take a quick trip back in time to the 19th century to investigate. 

Skylines of smoke-belching chimneys thrust from squat brick factories — we’re slap bang in the iron belly of the Industrial Revolution now, where big changes are underway. For the first time, land and family name aren’t the only sources of wealth — it’s now possible for anyone with ambition and imagination to make their fortune from manufacturing and trading goods. With these new industries, new professional roles emerged — most requiring formal education and training. Although there’s nothing in the etymology or definition to give any indication, professional was always associated with knowledge gained through academic learning. In contrast, skilled manual labour was usually referred to as a trade or craft. This might sound like an unnecessary fuss over semantics, however the bias towards university-educated, white-collar careers planted professional firmly in the domain of the Victorian middle class. And this is where the perversion of professional began. 

With the influx of the freshly educated and newly monied — the middle class bulged in both size and influence, and men became defined by their jobs rather than their backgrounds. The ‘old’ middle class were less than thrilled. Class distinctions became of increasing importance — a way for the respectable, established professionals like lawyers and doctors, to elevate themselves in the social hierarchy above the ‘new’ businessmen and technocrats. Meanwhile, the men who’d risen from humble beginnings worried constantly about fitting in — cloaking their incessant insecurities in the paraphernalia of gentility. Big houses, fine frocks, and always the fear of being found lacking by their peers.

Around this time, perhaps to further establish correct social order, the Victorians took professional and added an -ism to it. Sure sounds innocuous enough, but those three little letters made an inordinate difference. Suddenly, simply practicing a profession wasn’t enough. It was no longer a case of being a professional, or not — professionalism created a continuum by which your importance could be measured, and compared against others. A man’s level of professionalism was evidenced by his education and qualifications (where and what), title, role, income, address, attire, manners, possessions, and even the nature of his profession. 

Don’t think I haven’t just waded through 4 paragraphs of history without a purpose. I hated history at school — too many numbers and not enough creativity if you weren’t the one writing it. However, I’d be willing to go all in on the hunch that many present notions of professionalism — obsessions with qualifications, formality, manners, language, attire, status, materialism, and by-the-book conservative nature — can be tracked back to professionalism, and Victorian middle class aspirations.

Pushing forwards, and things really ramped up for the recently re-birthed notions of professionalism through the 20th century. This was the golden era of Human Resource departments — which pretty accurately sums up how organisations felt about people as a whole at that time. Management mostly held themselves at arm’s length from their fleshy assets, shielding themselves behind corner offices, suits, ties, cleverly indecipherable acronyms, and deadpan masks of corporate formality. Many of these leaders were company-faced power brokers: impersonal; unapproachable; incapable of acknowledging, and unaccepting of mistakes. And still the misplaced focus on the Victorian trappings of professionalism. Fast cars. Sharp suits. Professional was priority — human was on hiatus.

Then things changed. 

Given enough time, almost everything changes. In this case, it was a the subtlest shift in attitude towards professionalism that shook the establishment. Blame/thank the Millennials. Frankly, I’m a bit weary of the whole Millennial buzz — they’re just another generation with different ideals from the last — much like mine, and every generation before. However, with Millennials filling half the workforce by 2020, bringing with them a whole new perspective, you’d be daft to bury your head and hope it’ll all go away. 

You needn’t hunt much further than a tech company or start-up to see a radical new interpretation of professionalism. A relaxed and flexible attitude permeates these companies: everything from clothing and culture, to work hours and incentives. Workplaces are open plan — designed to encourage collaboration. Leaders are no longer found ensconced in offices on upper floors, but down in the trenches with everybody else. Gone are the days of barging into boardrooms and barking curt orders, then leaving. The days of the one-way, top-down, do what I say, because I said it are past. To manage this generation effectively means being available and approachable — facilitating conversation and collaboration, and ensuring ongoing feedback. 

Perhaps the greatest shift though, is in this generations’ expectations of the work itself. It’s no longer enough to punch in, get the job done, and take a pay-cheque home. There’s an expectation for connection to the work — the promise of purpose, meaning and fulfilment. There’s a thirst for the why, the context, and to see their work contribute to the bigger picture. There’s an expectation of transparency, but with it the understanding that their managers are human too. It’s fine to make mistakes, as long as genuine apologies are offered. Finally, I’m loathe to use the term digital native (are they Tarzan with an iPad?), but it’s worth noting that this generation is always connected — often to the disgruntlement of older generations that would never have considered taking a personal call at work. The line between on the clock and off the clock has never been more blurred.

Yes, it’s a brave new world. Today’s global organisations exist in an entirely different landscape to a decade ago, let alone the previous century. They comprise a massively diverse spectrum of roles, expertise, age groups, cultures, and income brackets — stretched out past every horizon. The disconnect between management and front line can be as vast as the geography these companies cover. Communication has never been more complicated, nor more crucial. Employee experience has become every bit as valuable as customer experience. We’ve changed — a lot…

Yet many organisations stubbornly haul baggage from the previous century.

We’ve burst triumphant from the human resources era into a people, leadership and culture age. It’s the renaissance of real. Human is back…

But some leaders are still back banging away about propriety and professionalism with the Victorians. 

Professional has gone from a simple promise to do our best, to a word floundering for meaning in a modern workplace — a clause that’s wheeled out selectively by managers seeking safety in the status quo.

Let’s wind it backwards, past professionalism, right back to professional — where practicing a profession is the first, second, and third concern. If you’re in the business of safety — keep your people safe, using whatever methods and communication serve that purpose best, be it sharing a cat gif or Snapchat, so-called professionalism be damned. If you’re part of an Internal Communications department — communicate with your people, using whatever channel or messaging is most effective, instead of getting hung up on fonts sizes and exact hexadecimal colour values, and whatever other infinitesimally unimportant nit-picking is enshrined in the external style guide. If you’re a leader — lead. Use whatever means necessary to connect with your people.

Because in the end —it all just comes down to humans. 

We’re fortunate to work with some clever folk who understand all this. The rare ones who understand that to effectively engage and connect with people across all levels of an organisation, human is a much more powerful quality than outdated notions of professionalism. These are the leaders who see that people don’t mysteriously transform when they go to work, and that the trick to communicating with them effectively is really no trick at all —

The ways people choose to connect at home are exactly the same ways that would be most effective at work.  

The challenge, as social media makes abundantly clear is that human is often a little too… human. The challenge, is to take how people communicate naturally, and integrate it into how we communicate at work — without offending everyone in the process. 

We don’t actually need need to be less professional — just the opposite. What we need to do is re-calibrate the definition of professional for a modern organisation, and bring more human to our workplace interactions.

But… how, exactly?

I’m glad you asked.