Decades ago I had a friend tell me this question was posed to their High School class. I never found out what the class concluded.
Over the years I have thought often about the answer to this question.
My earlier conclusion was that professionalism meant a separation of work and personal life. This is something that I think the older generation is better at. The younger generation seems more transparent about personal matters in the workplace.
As the years go by, however, my experience doesn’t support this conclusion as a definition of professionalism. I find many professionals are actually quite personable.
This has caused me to re-evaluate the answer to this question.
I think the answer I would give now is that professionalism means ownership. It means responsibility and accountability for producing the appropriate results.
I walked into a CostCo last week looking for a large household item. I found a smiling attentive employee with whom I asked where I might find the item I was looking for. He said “I’m new here,” and shrugged his shoulders.
There was this moment of pregnant miscommunication.
No doubt he was unable to help me due to his present unfamiliarity with the store layout, but as a customer I felt neglected.
I thought to myself, “Well, are you going to get someone for me who knows where this item is?” And then I realized I had, perhaps, misaligned expectations for customer service from a new employee at a wholesale warehouse selling everything from car tires to margarine.
Then the light bulb went on—a more professional employee would have “owned” my problem. They would have found someone who did know where my item was and would have walked with me until my problem was solved.
Suddenly I realized I had the answer to my decades-old question: Professionalism means ownership. Ownership of issues. Ownership of assignments. Ownership of tasks.
My thanks go out to the anonymous clueless employee. After several decades, I finally have my answer.
How would you answer this question?
Mike J. Berry