What does it mean to be professional?

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With the winter Olympics just past, I’m reminded of the difference between professional and amateur.  Many of us are old enough to remember the 1970s and 1980s controversy over whether to allow professional athletes to participate in the Games.  For many, the defining (and culminating) moment of the controversy was when the United States basketball “Dream Team” played in the 1992 Olympics and demolished the field.  I think we lost something important that year.  Maybe that explains my subsequent Olympics apathy..?

Nobody doubts that NBA athletes are professionals.  They make millions doing a sport as a career, satisfying both the compensation and dedicated focus components of the professional equation.  But would we consider a 16-year old figure skater who receives a per diem and is supported by others a professional?  I’m not sure there’s a clear answer.

What about those of us in the finance and contracting fields?  What constitutes being a professional?  To summarize Jack Malcolm, you need the following characteristics:

Accountability for client outcomes

Fiduciary responsibility to your clients

Continuous learning and professional study

Affiliations with other professionals

Pride in your work

That seems like a 100% accurate list.  But my first thought reading it was that it wasn’t comprehensive.  As a professional, I’m more than just accountable for client outcomes.  My fiduciary responsibilities extend beyond my clients, too.  If I were re-writing Mr. Malcolm’s article, I’d probably pick a different word than “client”, though I’m not sure what that word would be.  The gist of my recommended change is that, as a professional, I have responsibilities to everyone who acquires or employs my services.  Not all of us have clients in the strict sense of the word.  Not all of us are employed by others.  But regardless, as professionals we are often serving multiple parties at the same time.

For example, a professional salesperson should be attempting to meet a client’s needs and has a fiduciary responsibility to do what is right for that client.  However, that professional salesperson must also meet the needs of his or her employer and has a fiduciary responsibility to the employer.  So maybe that’s another key component of professionalism: balance.  Professionals see the bigger picture and are able to meet the needs of multiple parties in a relationship or transaction.

Is there anything else that defines a professional?

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