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Passion, People and Principles

Lessons in True Professionalism

post # 186 — September 10, 2006 — a Careers post

Hyokon Zhiang writes:

The Korean edition of True Professionalism by David Maister (that I and Innomove colleagues have worked on) has just been published. The book has both aspects like a father who strictly persuades us of the meaning and the value of doing things right, and one like a mother at the same time who warmly encourages hesitant us saying that doing things right is ultimately beneficial for ourselves. I strongly recommend this book to people who think themselves as professionals, or want to be professional.

Personally, the professionalism side of David’s advice was the most influential on me – more than strategy, marketing, recruiting, or any other more ‘skills’ related topics. That’s why I translated True Professionalism to begin with. And I believe that there must be other people like that.

I am interested to hear people’s experiences about professionalism. For example,

  • How do you have the resolve to do what is the right thing to do vs. what is immediately profitable.
  • Taking the high road. In some moments the high road is obvious but hard to give up the temptation to pursue short-term gain. Sometimes you want to follow the high road but it is not obvious which route that is.
  • Sometimes you feel uncomfortable about your firm’s or colleagues’ behavior, and sometimes you feel disappointed about yourself in going along
  • Some experiences give you life-changing lessons.

So, let’s pass on some advice and experiences, as requested. What have you learned about what it means to be a true professional? How have you learned to sustain professional behavior in spite of the world’s temptations?


Deborah Crawley Quinn said:

To consider yourself a professional in any field requires a significant level of passion about what you do. I practice in an area that has the potential to be highly subjective. Whilst there some key principles that marketing & communications professionals must adhere to, often we are offering advice that may not be supported by other professionals operating in the same field. That is where passion comes in. To be passionate about what you do requires you to be constantly developing your skills either formally or informally, it requires you to be a student to your area for as long as you consider yourself a professional in it. I consider myself a custodian of the knowledge that those before have collected and that I have a responsibility to add to it and pass it on to those that will follow.

Consequently I believe a commitment to life long professional development will assist in maintaining passion about what you do and reduce the attraction of the dollar when it requires you compromise your professional standards.

posted on September 10, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Wow, Deborah, there’s lot there! Let me try and unbundle the elements of what you say:

a) Passion about what you do.

b) Constantly develop your skills

c) Be a lifelong student of your field

d) Be a custodian of knowledge you inherited

e) Responsibility to add to knowledge

f) Responsibility to pass it on to others

What I also read in what you say that “true professionalism” is not just the sense of “duty” that you are responsible for these things, but that they are things that you believe in beyond duty – a strong personal desire to accomplish these things is what helps you avoid short term temptations to be expedient.

If that’s right, then it comes down to what promises you want to make to yourself (not to others) about the way you want to live your life.

Am I getting this right?

What do other people think?

posted on September 10, 2006

Deborah Crawley Quinn said:


That is correct. It is about how you want to live your life. It also seems to me that that if you approach your profession in this manner, the rewards of your work become the work itself and your own professional and personal development rather than billings alone.

posted on September 12, 2006

Bill Peper said:

In a former life, I served as the Director of Career Services at a prestigious law school. Teaching professionalism is central to the mission of a law school. Here are some key points that I shared with the students (although I have fallen well short of these standards on a regular basis).

  • Adopting the useful goal of getting better, not perfection. As Dale Dauten notes in his excellent book, Better than Perfect, perfection often is either impossible or a static concept that places a limit on what one believes is possible.
  • Developing the skill of bringing one’s “A game” all of the time, even when mediocre efforts as “good enough.”
  • Developing the skill of uncovering and meeting one’s clients real challenges and providing maximum benefit.
  • Developing an ability for introspection and grow in virtue throughout one’s life, particularly in the areas of kindness, selflessness, and forgiving.

posted on September 12, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, Bill. I accept everything you said, and i would not shy away from your last point about kindness, selflessness and forgiving. I support you entirely that these are key componenets.

I don’t know if this fits, but regular readers of my thoughts know that I find paralells in personal life and professional life. So, for me, the essence of professionalism is delaing with those in business as you would deal with those in your family. Until proven otherwise, give and expect the same level of fair-dealing , trust and understanding that you would expect from a sibling, child, parent. And if they ever let you down in business, respond with the same concern, tact and grace that you would if it were a family member letting you down.

For me, that’s the height of humanity, and anyone who treated me that way would get ALL my business all my referrals and my willingness to respond in kind.

posted on September 12, 2006

Kami Huyse said:

I think that professionalism, and the ethical behavior that springs from it, requires that you adopt a set of inner principles. In fact, I suggest people verbalize, and even create for themselves a written set of these principles.

A minister friend of mine once told me the following, “When you are in an intense situation, when you are squeezed, what comes out will be what you have developed in your heart.”

In business context, this means that if your only motive is profit, then you will tend to make decisions to increase profit, and so on. However, if you adopt a set of principles, that include many of the elements mentioned by Deborah and Bill above, then the path to take becomes clear when you are squeezed.

And aren’t we all squeezed from time to time?

posted on September 12, 2006

Bill Peper said:


Thank you for that image of revealing one’s heart and inner disposition when squeezed. I appreciate your contribution.

A varient of a question I ask my clients as a facilitator may further amplify David’s suggestion to ask whether one is living up to his/her standards: If a martian followed you for one week (or month/year), what objective would the martian have to prove that you believe in this standard. If there is not tangible proof, you may want to examine how important the standard is to you.

In my experience, people tend to view ethical standards in a negative way (this is as far as I can and will go.) A minimalistic perspective on how to deal with grey (not black and white) issues can lead to rationalizations that undercut the standard.

posted on September 12, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Kami, I think that’s right. I also think it a very good practice to ask those around you (from time to time) “these are the principles I believe in: am I living up to them?” The answers can be very helpful!

posted on September 12, 2006