I frequently ask professionals what they consider to be the difference between a good secretary and a great secretary. The answers flow freely. Great secretaries, I am told:
* Take pride in their work, and show a personal commitment to quality
* Reach out for responsibility
* Anticipate, and don't wait to be told what to do -- they show initiative
* Do whatever it takes to get the job done
* Get involved and don't just stick to their assigned role
* Are always looking for ways to make things easier for those they serve
* Are eager to learn as much as they can about the business of those they serve
* Really listen to the needs of those they serve
* Learn to understand and think like those they serve so they can represent them when they are not there
* Are team players
* Can be trusted with confidences
* Are honest, trustworthy, and loyal
* Are open to constructive critiques on how to improve
All of this list can be summarized in one phrase: Great secretaries care.
Two obvious points need to be made about this list. First and foremost, it is applicable to all of us, not just to secretaries. With virtually no modifications, this list could serve to delineate the defining characteristics of what differentiates a great consultant from a good one, a great lawyer from a good one, and so on. Indeed, this list is a reasonable definition of what it means to be a professional.
Second, this list has nothing to do with technical skills. Few secretaries are deemed to be "great" because of their ability to type 95 words a minute or file documents in nanoseconds. Similarly, very few professionals become known by their clients as "great" purely as a result of technical abilities. The opposite of the word professional is not unprofessional, but rather technician.
Technicians may be highly skilled, but they aren't professionals until they reliably and consistently demonstrate the characteristics listed above. Professionalism is predominantly an attitude, not a set of competencies. A real professional is a technician who cares. (You may recall the old slogan "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.")
How many of us so-called professionals are prepared to be held accountable for behaving according to the standards set by this list? Yet we often ask people who earn a fraction of what professionals earn to meet these standards. This raises an interesting question: Why would secretaries be willing to strive for such standards? Why would anyone who isn't sharing the profits want to demonstrate this level of commitment?
To find out, I asked Julie O'Leary, who began in 1985 as my secretary and who is now my business manager. Julie meets and exceeds every one of the standards listed above. This is what she had to say:
Professional is not a label you give yourself -- it's a description you hope others will apply to you. You do the best you can as a matter of self-respect. Having self-respect is the key to earning respect and trust from others. If you want to be trusted and respected you have to earn it. These behaviors lead to job fulfillment. The question should really be, "Why wouldn't someone want to do this?" If someone takes a job, or starts a career worrying about what's in it for them, looking to do just enough to get by, or being purely self-serving in their performance -- they will go nowhere. Even if they manage to excel through the ranks as good technicians -- they will not be happy in what they are doing. The work will be boring, aggravating, tiresome, and a drag.
It should be clear from this why I consider Julie O'Leary to be more of a professional than many of the lawyers, consultants, accountants, engineers, and actuaries that I meet. (I sometimes worry that her professional standards exceed my own.) If you've ever been a purchaser of a professional service, or an employer, you'll probably agree that finding people with technical skill is usually easy, but finding people who behave consistently in the ways described above is hard. It is rare to find individuals (and even harder to find whole firms) filled with the energy, drive, and enthusiasm, as well as the personal commitment to excellence, that Julie has shown. Why is this?
Traditional Views of Professionalism
Part of the problem, I believe, lies in what people believe professionalism to be. As we have seen, real professionalism has little, if anything, to do with which business you are in, what role within that business you perform, or how many degrees you have. Rather, it implies a pride in work, a commitment to quality, a dedication to the interests of the client, and a sincere desire to help.
However, traditional definitions of professionalism are filled with references to status, educational attainments, "noble" callings, and things like the right of practitioners to autonomy -- the privilege of practicing free of direction. All of these definitions are self-interested. (As George Bernard Shaw suggested, "All professions are conspiracies against the laity.")
Perhaps one reason for the scarcity of real professionalism may be that the recruiting process in professional firms is flawed. Real professionalism is about attitudes, and perhaps even about character. Yet few firms screen very effectively for this in their hiring, either at entry level or when bringing in more-experienced, lateral-entry hires. Most hiring processes are about educational qualifications and technical skills.
As Julie once pointed out: "Firms should hire for attitude, and train for skill. Skills you can teach -- attitudes and character are inherent. They can be suppressed or encouraged to develop, but they have to be there to begin with."
Another of my favorite discussion questions is to ask people "Why do you do what you do?" Obviously things like money, meaning, and intellectual challenge are important, but the one I always listen for is "I like helping people." If that one is missing, I know I am speaking with a professional in trouble.
Too many professionals don't do what they do because they want to help their clients; they're in it only for the money or the personal prestige. In my view, such professionals may become good, and even earn good incomes, but they will never be considered great.
In recent years, many firms have debated the question "Are we a profession or are we a business?" I have found many of these debates to be misconceived. Many of those who argue that they are a business say that they cannot afford the laissez-faire management approaches of the past, and must focus more on financial realities. In reply, those who have argued that they are a profession appeal to the needs for autonomy, professional fulfillment, and freedom from bureaucratic constraints. In my view, both sides are wrong.
Being a professional is neither about money nor about professional fulfillment. Both of these are consequences of an unqualified dedication to excellence in serving clients and their needs. As Dale Carnegie wrote many years ago: "You'll have more fun and success helping other people achieve their goals than you will trying to reach your own goals."
A related problem may be how people are being "socialized" into the professions by schools and by firms -- I suspect that many truly don't understand what professional life is really all about. For example, in recent years I have seen many so-called professionals undergo a form of status shock. An acquaintance of mine, a top-of-the-class MBA type, recently left the consulting profession after many years with a top-tier firm because, as he said: "In the early years clients gave me respect because I solved their problems, but now I'm treated like a vendor. They question my recommendations, make me justify everything I plan to do on their behalf, and watch my spending like a hawk. I'm not used to being in the subservient role, and I don't like it."
This acquaintance was (and is) entirely accurate about how significant the changes have been in how clients deal with professionals. In the past, professionals were often given respect and trust automatically because of their position. That's no longer true. However, what this person failed to understand (or to accept) is that it is still possible to be treated with respect and trust -- but now you really have to earn and deserve these things. None of this should be a surprise; as Bob Dylan once wrote, "You Gotta Serve Somebody."
Perhaps it is time for our schools and professional firms alike to stop teaching students that they are the best and the brightest, the special elite in the noblest profession of all (whatever that profession happens to be). Maybe schools and firms should find ways to teach more about what it is to serve a client, and about how to work with people whether they be your juniors, your seniors, or your colleagues. (When I talk with business-school alumni about their careers and what they would have done differently to prepare for them, the most common reply is "I wish I had paid more attention to the courses about dealing with people.")
It's Not (Just) About the Money
If you review the preceding list of behaviors (commitment to quality, reaching out for responsibility, doing what it takes to get the job done, etc.), it should be obvious that people who exhibited these behaviors would be on a fast-track path to economic success. As Julie pointed out, it is doing these things that earn you respect and trust, whether from colleagues or clients. If this is true -- that professionalism works -- then why don't more people operate this way?
I have frequently posed this question to groups ranging from senior professionals to secretaries. I must report that the most common reply I hear is "Well, I'm not compensated for doing all that." This is of course a Catch-22. In most organizations, you would be rewarded (eventually) if you behaved this way. But if you wait to be rewarded before you do it, then you'll probably wait forever. The problem, then, is that people may be too short-term in their thinking -- they are focusing on their jobs, not their careers. The noble path does win, but only if you are prepared to make the investment to act professionally over a long period of time.
Another factor that suppresses people's desire to act professionally (at least in the terms in which I have defined it) is the environment in which they work -- how they are managed. It is easier to find the discipline and motivation to behave professionally if everyone around you is doing the same. However, I am frequently told that this is not the case. I often hear comments like "Why should I strive for excellence when everyone else is just doing enough to get by? I'd be willing to participate if everyone else was behaving this way, but it gets pretty demotivating to be the only one really trying with nobody noticing."
What this comment points out is that even if you have a firm filled with people who have the attitude and character to be real professionals, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of creating an environment that demotivates them. If those at the top are not living, breathing exemplars of real professionalism, it is easy for those lower down to conclude that commitment and professionalism are not required "around here."
So what is it that encourages people to act professionally, and also creates the environment that allows real professionals to flourish? The answers are as old as the hills, even if they are just as frequently forgotten. Here's Julie's advice again:
* "Remember to show appreciation to the one who has taken that extra step or surprised you with an exceptional performance. This will breed more enthusiasm and more good work.
* "Don't be afraid to give people ever more responsible assignments (trust them), and if it doesn't come out perfect, let them try again after you've given them some pointers. Everyone likes a challenge.
* "Get people involved. Share reports, conversations, information about competitors and clients, etc., so that everyone can see the big picture and how they fit into it.
* "Constructive critiques are one of the most powerful learning tools available to the employee. Take the time to help people learn -- not as a matter of performance appraisal, nor an issue of compensation, but simply as a sincere desire to help them improve.
* "Don't promote teamwork and then only recognize the captain. Make sure recognition is given to everyone in some way. It doesn't have to be money -- it can be as simple as saying 'Well done.' Take a friend to lunch -- 'It's on me.' Work hard to make people feel part of what's going on."
To Julie's comments, I'd add a few of my own. I believe that everyone likes to feel that what you're doing has a purpose -- that you're doing something meaningful in the world. If all anyone ever talks about is the money, it gets pretty depressing. You can't just pay people to be dedicated, motivated professionals. You must reward them if they are, but money alone won't do it. Ultimately, you must inspire them to be as professional as they know how to be. To get people to be professionals, you must treat them as professionals -- and be tolerant of nothing less.
Julie's view on this is as follows: "If the person has the right character, and you treat them as you would want to be treated, they will respond with enthusiasm and commitment. If they don't, then you should reassess what the person is doing working for you. Or maybe they need to reassess if they're in the right job."
I hope these thoughts cause the reader, whether a managing partner or a secretary, to ponder two questions that we all need to think about frequently. First: Do other people consider me a professional? (How well do those I serve think I meet the criteria on page one?) Second: Do I deal with those who work for me in such a way as to encourage their commitment and professionalism, or do I sometimes act to suppress it? (How good am I at bringing out the professionalism in others?)
Copyright © 1997 by David H. Maister