What is a ‘professional’?

It occurred to me recently that almost all of my clients fall into the category of ‘professional’ in some way.  Technologists, consultants, underwriters, designers, communicators, engineers, accountants, lawyers – it’s a varied list but they are pretty much all professionals.

It’s unsurprising given my background, but that label is an advantage and a problem. Many of us think of ourselves as professional because what we do matters to us, and we take it seriously enough to study, practice, develop and generally get good at it.

Beyond that some jobs are called ‘professions’, often involving people in years of study, acquiring qualifications, and then working alongside similar professionals who charge clients (not customers) for their time and expertise.

The benefits for the professional are pretty clear – a strong sense of identity, belonging to a respected profession, good earning power, helping others with your expertise. What’s not to like?

Well, that focus on expertise for one thing. At those rates, you had better be good. And right. And that brings pressure. All customers want value for money, but the kind of smart customers who buy professionals want way more than expertise to justify the fee rates. They want art and science, craft and improvisation, analysis and insight, all delivered at speed with tangible impact on real world problems.

My clients are very good at what they do. They have worked hard, studied, delivered and are successful, both financially and in other ways. They:

  • are experienced in their field and have proven skills and solutions
  • know a range of people and have ways of working well with them
  • have a real sense of themselves – their identity, values, skills, etc

But the connected world has changed the game. It’s not always clear and concrete – it’s messy and fuzzy. Clients needs don’t always fit the professional labels. It’s not that they are asking you to change, because that would imply a neat sidestep from one box into another.  It’s not that expertise isn’t needed – it’s needed more than ever in a crowded market.  It’s just that expertise is no longer enough.

You take your expertise into the fuzzy situations, but you need to be able to flex and adapt it, and get creative about combining it with other skills and new ideas to experiment and co-create your way to impact.

You need to work with new people in different ways. Some you are comfortable with, some you are distinctly uncomfortable with, but you need to collaborate quickly and build generative partnerships with people you barely know.

And all of that means you develop a larger sense of who you thought you were, with a bigger map of the world you operate in. It’s not so much a change as a release of old limits, a freedom from old constraints.  It can be as scary as hell for professionals who have to explore beyond the discipline that made them successful.  But it’s also a relief to you and your clients to let all of you show up in your work, not just the bits other people once said would make you ‘professional’.

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