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August 2, 2017

What is a Professional and Why Does Being One Matter?

by Frank Sowa

On Becoming a Professional

When I took a Directorship job at Cleveland’s Arthur G. McKee & Company  in 1979 (soon to be Davy McKee — International Engineers and Constructors – 14,000 employees in 32 countries worldwide – A Fortune Service 300) at 22, I was told in the first week to come up to the Executive Suite by one of the Senior Vice Presidents of the Company. When I arrived at the top of the stairs, he invited me into his office, sat me down, and told me I had personally been selected for “fast-tracking” into their “professional development” program. He explained that the program was intense and that I’d be studying strategy, business, finance, management, analysis, research, development, communications, marketing and sales. (To my knowledge, they don’t have such extensive professional development programs these days in organizations,)

As part of this pre-professional-development-program interview, he handed me two items and told me to study them closely, because in his mind they were the essentials to “becoming a professional executive within the company.”

The two items were: 1) An essay written in 1967 of: “What is a professional.” … and (2) the following 1958 McGraw Hill Advertisement that he said appeared in Business Week magazine:


He told me as he handed it to me that McKee wanted me to write Sales Proposals for multi-billion dollar processing plant projects — sold around the world. But, he also said, “Selling is much more than ‘just sales and marketing.’ Selling starts by being able to sell yourself and your ideas to your customers/clients, your superiors, to your staff and peers, to your suppliers, to the board, the officers, the executive suite, and to your subordinates. NEVER FORGET THAT, BECAUSE BASICALLY YOU CAN’T ACCOMPLISH ANYTHING HERE, OR ANYWHERE ELSE WITHOUT BEING ONE!” (It stuck with me since.)

The ad also stuck with me all this time because it drives home a special sentiment that is meant to humble and fact-check who you really are. I mean, if you cannot answer all those questions about your organization — or for that matter — yourself — every day of your life — then you really do have NO REASON to ever consider yourself a “PROFESSIONAL!”

As the Sr. VP concluded, he explained that in building an organization’s strategy, the process INTERNALLY must begin by having solid — BUT ALSO PASSIONATE (from the heart, as well as the head) answers to EVERY ONE of those comments. He said this was also the basis of a “Situation Analysis,” which I’d learn more about when I delved into strategy as a part of the PD program.

The short 1967 Essay on “What is a Professional?” which the senior vice-president said he had picked up at a training program when he worked in New York City, was even more helpful. (Since 1983 Davy LeightonlI had searched for a similar discussion of “What is a Professional” so I could hand it out to staff at The Xavier Group — but was never able to find one that was as clear and appropriate as that one.) Finally, in 1986, I wrote a new “What is a Professional” paper to hand out to The Xavier Group staff. I am providing it to you here so that your generations may pass it on if you’d like to your staffs:

TXGoldLOGOWhat is a Professional and Why Does Being One Matter?

Welcome to The Xavier Group, Ltd. As our literature which plays upon all of the bridges in the Pittsburgh region says, we were founded in 1981 to “Bridge the Gap between Creativity and Communications” to derive better strategies than our rivals, so that our customers don’t get broadsided by something they didn’t expect. To do that passionately, enthusiastically, and correctly, I expect EVERYONE who works for, or with, Xavier to at all times conduct their behavior as consummate professionals, highly-skilled perfection-seeking, trustworthy, honest, ethical members of an exceptional team. That TEAM … or company, will only succeed if we meet, or EXCEED, all customer expectations.

Now, I understand you come from varied backgrounds and educations. Many of you may not know exactly “What a professional really is, or why being one matters.” That’s okay. As a part of your interning, or your probationary, period — you will all partake in our proprietary professional development training where we will provide you the means to hopefully carry on the traditions of being a professional by yourselves — so that when you graduate you will conduct yourselves with dignity, honor, integrity and passion.

“Being a true professional is much more than ‘just doing things to make your company and your customers happy.’ Becoming a professional starts by being able to sell yourself and your ideas to your customers/clients, your superiors, to your staff and peers, to your suppliers, to the board, the officers, the executive suite, and to your subordinates. NEVER FORGET THAT, BECAUSE BASICALLY YOU CAN’T ACCOMPLISH ANYTHING HERE, OR ANYWHERE ELSE WITHOUT BEING ABLE TO ALWAYS DO THAT THE RIGHT WAY, AT THE RIGHT TIME, FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE! In other words, your reputation –integrity — and the only way you’ll ever earn the respect you cherish rides on how well you become a professional, and understanding that, ‘It does really matter!'”

A professional takes pride in continuously cumulating specialized skills and knowledge that generally allow for better decisions, make the professional a recognized expert, and specifically allow for better performance in his/her job. He/she makes it a daily required practice to gain useful knowledge by independently and extensively acquiring it, chiefly from books. But professionals don’t hoard that unique knowledge — they share it. Professionals understand that their own reputation grows tenfold when they place others first, and share what they know. They also understand that coming to deeply understand and satisfy your customers and all organizational stakeholders (including peers, superiors, officers, suppliers, etc.) are the very cornerstones of a successful career as well as for the business you work for. Without them, there’d be no need for professionals.

Professionals engage in a process of constant and continuous self-, team-, operational-, and organizational-evaluation and improvement. A professional makes decisions, findings, and recommendations based on their consummate dedication to the craft; the science and technology behind the scenes; the systems, policies, processes, and instructions at play; and not the current circumstances that brought it to someone’s attention. The characteristic that separates the professional from the dilettante is an uncompromising continuous commitment to excellence – doing what is required to  attain completion of a project or portfolio at its highest level, even when it becomes personally inconvenient. Professionals understand the concepts of the value of time yet they are never bound by a time-clock. Because of this, professionals are given wide latitude in their daily self- management and the chance to be self-empowered individuals. They are expected to manage their time and work habits on their own. A professional doesn’t abuse this privilege (it’d be against his/her nature). An unskilled laborer does a job as instructed, but little else. An amateur is capable of doing some things well under the right conditions, but rarely has the perseverance that is seen in a professional to attain excellence in his/her livelihood (this is true in work, sports, life, etc.). But a professional, as a matter of course, does it well regardless of the situation, and always meets or exceeds all expectations.

A professional is passionate, motivated, and punctual. A professional respects the respectable, but admires the inspirational. A professional is a seeker of knowledge but also a teacher and mentor. A professional is disciplined, religiously maintains the highest standards, and is engaged in the constant pursuit of un-attainable perfection. A professional is restless and never satisfied, always evaluating and re-evaluating where they’ve come and finding ways to do what they are doing better now, today, moment to moment. A professional is someone who masters an art or science, has the ability to deeply discuss and perform it at the highest levels with original creativity that often challenges the best of the best. A professional invents for the purpose of achieving solutions (material gain comes into play only if someone sees that as a valued add-on). Professionals are expected to produce results. They strive to complete deliverables before their due dates and under budget.

Professionals are committed to carrying out what they said they would. Because of that, unlike many sales amateurs, they ALWAYS clarify exactly what it is that they CAN DO. Professionals understand they should “engage their brain” before speaking — can you really do what you are about to say? If you can’t, professionals will never lie as that approach will catch up with them. When professionals are faced with something they can’t handle, they first see if there is time to both better assess the request AND to explore and discover if there are experts that can be drawn into the task that CAN do what is needed. Professionals will deliver on promises made (so NEVER make false promises).

Professionals always communicate effectively, taking time to explain the available options and clarifying each of them until other parties understand what is really being said. They take time to carry out sufficient research, in advance of promising anything, so that they’re able to convey crisply their findings and make their suggestions and recommendations. They compile clear and accurate proposals that state itemized costs (when needed) and always state and clarify total costs. They research and clarify through PERT or GANTT charting how a project will proceed under what timetable and point out specific key decision-points and turnover points — reviewing all aspects of the project before anything begins — and then again and again at the key decision points as the project evolves. They then (after all of this and ONLY then) promise a date when the work can be completed and agree among everyone on that conclusion. If, and when they do this — the professional feels empowered that everyone involved will make the right decisions, and do it the right way to satisfy everyone. But, a professional also recognizes that there will be times when it is better to walk away.

Professionals always appreciate, respect, acknowledge, and support those they work with, even when they’re rivals, or unable to act in the same manner. Professionals try to set principles that are not self-serving being humble and generous in praise of their peers. Professionals show good manners and proper etiquette. They have high ethical and moral standards that force honesty, fairness, and trustworthiness in all of their dealings with others. They don’t try to get around policies, governance or laws. They obey them (If they feel they are wrong, they bring objective evidence to support their reasons, and ask for corrections– usually because they’ll improve the organizations). Professionals always adhere to high values and principles.

Working with professionals is a pleasure. If you don’t feel that’s the case i your life, or in others — then you need to examine why — that’s what a professional would do.

Good luck in your professional development studies.



Frank X. Sowa, Chairman/CEO, The Xavier Group, Ltd.

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