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Passion, People and Principles

Special Challenges for the Young Professional

post # 37 — March 28, 2006 — a Careers post

I recently received this email from Gordon Ross:

I have recently turned 30 years old and have been running my small professional services firm for 10 years.

There have been special challenges being young professional providers. For example, how do you prove or demonstrate to new and potential customers in a short period of time that you are trustworthy when you simply haven’t been around all that long?

cover of David Maister's co-authored book, Thr

Your Trusted Advisor book goes into tactics on how to demonstrate credibility, reliability, intimacy and lack of self-orientation, but competing against much older and presumably) wiser firms was difficult sometimes, especially in regard to credibility and still is. You call experience-based work “grey hair work” for a reason!

Culturally, or perhaps biologically, speaking I believe that you think differently in your 20’s and early 30’s than you do later in life.

I was barely out of adolescence when I started on my professional services career. I kept many of the characteristics and traits of being a teenager: rebellious, enthusiastic, idealistic, oblivious to risk, and in search of instant gratification. Many of those things can be at conflict with the values present throughout your writing (hard work, perseverance, rigor, health and hygiene issues, etc.)

I feel as though a great deal of time was spent attempting to re-invent the wheel as a young professional. We struggled to create a professional identity, much the same as teenagers attempt to create their identities throughout their years trapped inside educational institutions.

All of your books sit next to me and have for quite a few years now, but I didn’t pay much attention to many of the lessons until I needed them. And that was also a function of time passing: I had simply not lived long enough as a professional to really understand the value of what you and other authors had written. The knowing-doing gap in action yet again.

Running a project for your customer as a young professional can feel a bit like asking to borrow the car from your father on the weekend. Many of our customers were old enough to have been my parents, some even my grandparents. I think there’s a healthy dose of respect and even fear that is present in the young professional and an equally healthy dose of skepticism and suspicion in the older customer. While I’ve been lucky enough to develop friendships with those much older than myself, it is certainly easier to develop them with people of our same age.

Ironically, those teenage characteristics were probably what made my company valuable over the last 10 years: willing to question the status quo, do things in different ways, stand by our idealistic beliefs, take risks, and sometimes stretch ourselves beyond our means. We simply didn’t know any better and failure was out of the question.

We also learned how much we didn’t know. The learning curve is steep during that time and we joke about our MBA from the school of real-life business. We had to become experts on topics both for our customers and our employees—if we didn’t, no-one else was going to do it for us.

It’s been a great experience, one that I feel very lucky to have been a part of.

I’m sure there’s many similar stories out there shared by many other 30, 40, and 50 somethings that started young in business and learned a lot.

I think Gordon has raised a fascinating topic. As he asks – does anyone else out there want to share the lessons of launching and running a professional business when you’re young? What about the special challenges of being a young professional, even if it’s not your firm? I’ll hold off on my comments until I see whether this is a topic which interests others.


David (Maister) said:

Roman – your observation is accurate – i haven’t written about start-ups for a very basic reason – I have never studied them and don’t know enough to write about it. I’m very sorry!

posted on March 30, 2006

Roman Rytov said:

Hi David,

Undoubtedly these questions are a very interesting point of discussion and we’re waiting for your feedback. Another idea would be to make a list of advice or TODOs on how to start a professional services company (or a group) from scratch. A kind of “Professional Services for dummies”. It’s interesting to read about so and so’s experience and even his or her mistakes but what about best practices and good patterns? I’m trying to invite you to talk about very practical and trackable things like how to hire and split resources between different directions, front and back offices, investing into new products and technologies, managing and monitoring clients and so on. Maybe it’s more about operating such a group?

I read your books and posts with much of interest but to me they talk more about how to improve the quality of a professional services company rather than how to start it.

posted on March 30, 2006

Huda said:

I was so delighted to read Gordon’s story. I almost started to loose hope a few months ago in really being able to mature up and establish a true professional service firm. As a 23 year old female, I find it even more difficult to be taken seriously. When others perceive you in a certain way, you tend to take form of their perceptions, unless you are aware and have a passion(almost anger) to over come those perceptions people may have.

I was considered young and too immature for business. The way I overcame these perceptions is through showing RESULTS. Results in my life and I am sure in many other peoples lives has made all the difference. In my previous employment I worked for a small Chartered Accounting firm in Sydney, Australia. My main aim was to increase the firms profits and maintain the same number of staff. I DID IT. In a matter of seven months I tripled the profits and only 1 more staff member was required to be employed. Then and only then, when I showed results was I taken seriously by the partners, other staff and even family members. I owe many thanks to people like David who I have never met before and other professors, writers and mentors for sharing their experiences. Reading, listening and understanding other peoples experiences gave me the tools to develop my own professional identity.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned and I don’t think people can say it enough is “celebrate mistakes and learn from them”. As they form stepping stones for you to reach higher achievements.

I am currently employed to develop an Alliance Business, which is going great, 1 month until we go to the market. My employers have seen my previous results and have high expectations of me (pressure, pressure….don’t you just love it!).

I am also working on forming my own consultancy business. I have backed my self up with the technical knowledge and I am capitalizing on my strengths, which is creating client relationships rather than customers.

Thank you for sharing your stories, I feel I am not alone in developing my Professional Identity.

posted on April 4, 2006