I think we all like to think of ourselves as professionals. In the truest sense of the word, since we all get paid for what we do, we are professionals. If we didn’t get paid we wouldn’t be called amateurs, we would be called unemployed. I’ve written in the past about what I think makes a leader in business. This time I am going to depart a little bit from that idea, but not too far. I am going to look at what makes a professional.
This may end up being one of my shorter discussions in that it doesn’t really seem to take a lot to define what a professional is. It does however take a lot to be a professional in business. It’s that execution thing that most people have a problem with. It is very much like golf (one of my favorite hobbies). Anybody can play golf. Get the proper equipment. Dress in attire that you would never normally own yet alone put on. Find a place called a golf course. Pay your admittance. Bingo, you are golfing. Very few however are golfers. I guess by extension even fewer are professional golfers.
I aspire to be considered a golfer. Since I have no illusions over the probability that I will ever be paid to play golf, I suspect that being a professional golfer is out of the question. Notice that I said I wished to be considered a golfer. Being a leader, being a professional, and by connected example being a golfer is really not something you can proclaim yourself to be. Others usually have to do it for you.
Being a golfer, like the other two, requires a little time and a commitment. It takes practice and an understanding of your own tendencies and behaviors. I have learned that getting mad or frustrated does not improve my golf game. It took me a long time to learn this. Sometimes I occasionally forget it after some unexpected turn of events or particularly bad break and my score then reflects this fact.
Professionals understand that similar events occur in business. Competition is fierce and occasionally may seem to be playing by a different set of rules. Management and staff may appear arbitrary and misguided from time to time. As the various television commercials enjoy pointing out, humans are not fully logical beings and seem to want to do things that from the outside looking in are misguided at best, but from the individuals point of view may have been a viable alternative at the time.
Regardless of whether the ball is in the fairway, the rough or a hazard, a golfer will always try to execute the best shot they are capable of in order to achieve the best score that they are capable of that day. Conditions change; people are not machines so their performance levels may vary from day to day. Just because you were able to par or even birdie a hole the last time you played it does not mean you will perform the same way or attain the same outcome this time. The experience helps but as they say in the stock market; past performance is no guarantee of future success. You have to try your best every time.
Professionals are those that understand that not every assignment may be in accordance with their opinion of a correct or proper strategy. They may not agree with the decision or direction that is being undertaken, but like the golfer, they do their absolute professional best regardless of the situation. They don’t complain or foment discord in the business ranks. They look at the situation, try to understand the direction and objective and do their best to achieve it.
They don’t get frustrated or mad that the business is doing something other than what they would prefer. They know that won’t help or improve their personal, their team’s or the business’ performance.
In theory golf is a pretty simple game. Get the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible. Unlike so many other sports there are no opposing teams or people trying to keep you from your objective, and the ball doesn’t even move when you are trying to hit it. Despite these facts there are far fewer golfers on a golf course that there are people playing golf. You know them when you see them, and they don’t usually proclaim it. They just go quietly about their game, doing their best at all times. Their score usually reflects this.
Business as well is not rocket surgery (to mix metaphors a little, just for fun). While there is competition, their goal is not specifically to keep you from achieving your objective. It is more to achieve theirs. But like golfers on a golf course, there does not seem to be an abundance of professionals in business. You know them when you see them, and they too do not usually go around proclaiming their status. They just go quietly about their assignments trying to make sure that the business’ objectives are achieved. This includes even the assignments and objectives that they may not be fully in agreement with.
I remember having a conversation with one of our newer hires in a past assignment. I should say that I remember trying to have a conversation with one of our newer hires in a past assignment. He obviously didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t tell him. I thought I would just strike up a conversation and get to know him, and at the same time communicate what an outgoing and friendly organization we tried to have. I should have known better.
The first thing I had to do was to try and pry his nose out of his smart phone long enough to make eye contact with me. While he did look up long enough to acknowledge that I did exist, that I was standing there next to him and that I was not in fact one of the undead zombies that he was so fond of eradicating in oh so many colorful and exciting ways, I didn’t get much more than that. No verbal greeting. No nod of recognition. It seemed that just my motion of walking up to him had caught his eye and momentarily distracted him from whatever he was doing on his smart phone. He immediately went right back to it.
Undaunted, I said hello and questioned if he was in fact the new hire that we had just brought on.
I could see the gears turning. I could see the internal battle raging. He was obviously hell bent on whatever application he was using on the smart phone and I was annoying / distracting him from it by my insistence on engaging him in some sort of social interaction. It took him a while to frame a response, without looking up.
While he went through his internal preparations, I asked him if he would like me to text him the question, if that would make responding to me any easier.
This got his attention. He looked up to see if I was being serious, if I was angry, or if he could ignore me and blow me off. I kept a straight face and to his credit he finally looked up and acknowledged me. Since it was obvious at this point that he did not know who I was (I think I was his supervisor’s, manager’s boss at that time) and again to his credit he did not choose to demonstrate what I perceived as his distain at my interrupting his communing with his smart phone. Smart boy.
Since he now recognized that I was not going to go away easily, or due to his ignoring me, he tacitly agreed to slightly more than 2 seconds of prolonged eye contact and acknowledgement before his next text message came in and distracted him. He immediately re-immersed himself in his phone and began to type furiously with his thumbs at a speed that could only have been attained after many, many hours of practice. I was amazed.
As he was typing I said that he should go ahead and respond to that text message as I would be pleased to watch and wait.
Now he knew something was up. After he had finished his prolonged message he again looked up at me to see what sort of expression I had while uttering such blasphemy regarding the priority of his smart phone connectedness. I kept my face carefully neutral. I then smiled.
At this point he now recognized that, horror of horrors, he was going to have to engage me in a real time interaction. I could tell that he recognized his predicament because he had exactly the same look on his face that my son did when my son realized what he had just stepped in because he had forgotten to clean up after the dogs in the back yard before he started mowing.
It was at this point that my smart phone started ringing. I let it ring. I could see that he was having a hard time with my nonchalance regarding the immediacy of my smart phone communication. He asked if I was going to answer that. I think he was hoping I would and that would be his opportunity to flee.
I said no and made a point of reaching in my pocket and turning the phone off. I think that single act caused the preponderance of blood to drain from his head. He seemed to grow quite pale. It seemed I wanted to talk with him and he was going to have to respond. We were going to have a conversation.
I am familiar with “text-speak”. I actually do text quite often. I just don’t converse in it real time. I prefer to speak English, although I do understand Spanish, and even took a little Russian in college. I am not quite sure what language he spoke.
What I did gather from him was that everything according to him was “like” something else. It was “like” this, or when he was surprised it was “like” wow. Things were also “seriously” one way or “seriously” another. There were also times when it appeared that he was tongue tied as he tried to locate the real-time emoticon that he could provide me that would convey the depth of his feeling or commitment in the conversation.
I think that all this time he thought that I was going to harsh his mellow.
What he didn’t realize was that in accepting that he was going to have to talk to me he had actually stumbled upon the best way to achieve what he wanted in the first place; which was to find a polite way to drive me away. I don’t think I am overly literate, but this guy drove me nuts.
About five minutes into the conversation I was looking for either the “off” button or the ejection seat switch. It was as though my children’s texts had been animated and had come to life in front of me. There were no complete thoughts or sentences that were conveyed. All standard grammatical concepts now seemed to be merely the slightest of suggestions. In short he was verbally illiterate.
I am sure that he hoped to, and quite possibly even thought that he had made a good impression on me. I believe I might have misled him down that road when at the first courteous opportunity I thanked him for talking so good with me. He smiled and immediately dove nose first back into his smart phone and beat a hasty retreat to my office.
I am concerned that we all may talk so good in business in the future.
Doors are great inventions. Ever since the first cave man rolled the big rock across the opening of his cave to keep the saber-toothed tigers out when they were rummaging around for a late night snack, doors have served a purpose. They keep the undesirables out. They can let people in. They help turn on the light in the refrigerator when you want to get a late night snack. I do however think we have crossed into a questionable area on the relative utility of doors when we decided to put doors on cubes in the office.
That’s right, doors on cubes.
A closed door can present several messages. It can tell the world that you are busy and don’t want to be bothered. It can say that no one is home. It can say that I don’t want you to see what I am doing behind this closed door. I just can’t figure out what a door on a cube does. Especially a door that has glass windows in it.
Cubes were invented in the nineteen sixties by the Herman Miller Company. Until that time working space in the business consisted of rows of desks in an open room, very similar to the classrooms within schools, only with bigger desks. It seems Herman Miller was not satisfied with selling just desks to businesses so they came up with a modular arrangement that allowed them to sell walls and desks to businesses, thereby creating and expanding their market. It is rumored that they got the idea while watching a behavioral study in which a rodent was challenged to make its way through an ever changing labyrinth to get to its cheese.
However business was not entirely happy with the initial wall arrangement and required that the walls be lower so that management could continue to actually see employees doing their work. Hence the birth of the cube. A work area that gave the occupant the impression of having privacy while giving management the ability to continue to monitor the occupant.
The cube has evolved over time. Initially there were just cubes. Now there are low walled cubes, medium height walled cubes and high walled cubes. There are cubes of different sizes and various pleasing pastel color combinations. The idea here is that as you advance up the ranks of the organization, the height of the walls and the size of your working area advance along with you. Eventually, hopefully you reach a station in your business where your cube walls reach all the way to the ceiling and the size of your working area can support (gasp) the same stand alone desk that people had before there were cubes. When these work area standards are met, this is now called an office. Offices usually have doors, not cubes.
The doors on offices are usually solid with no windows. If you have walls to the ceiling and you close the door it is because you want something called privacy. Having a door with windows would seem to defeat this concept; hence most office doors do not have windows. We have all walked past closed office doors and wondered if anyone was in there, and if they were, what were they doing? If they had wanted you to know they would have left the door open.
Which brings me back to my original questions. Since when, and why, are they putting doors on cubes? We have already stated that the walls of the cube do not reach all the way to the ceiling, so putting a door on them cannot appreciable increase the privacy. This is especially apparent due to the fact that it seems that most of the doors that they are putting on cubes have windows in them.
So let’s review: the walls of the cube do not reach all the way to the ceiling so there is not much privacy when it comes to sound or noise containment. The doors that are being put on the cubes do not reach to the ceiling either so no help there. The doors that are being put on the cubes consist of a basic frame, the center of which is entirely made of windows. Windows made of transparent glass.
They are adding a door, something that can be closed as a sign of desired privacy, to a work area with walls that don’t reach the ceiling, and putting windows in it so that you cannot in fact get any privacy by closing it.
These guys at Herman Miller are brilliant.
What else can you say about a company that convinces their target market that they need to buy something that does not in fact deliver the functionality that it was designed to do, since the first cave man rolled the rock across the opening of his cave? These guys are now selling desks, walls and doors that still achieve the same functionality and privacy that was present when they were just selling desks into large open environments.
Now the only other explanation for this door on a cube concept that I have been able to come up with is that companies have come to the conclusion that the leap from open cube to closed office was just too great for most employees to be able to make. Having to go from low walls and no doors, directly into an area where the walls reached the ceiling and the doors shut out both the sights and sounds of the business, where there could be privacy, may have just proved to be too much for some.
Businesses must have recognized this facility based chasm and worked out a step whereby managers would not have to hurtle directly from the no privacy at all of a cube into the privacy rich environment of an office. The solution was simple: put a door on the cube as a mid way point in the transition. Besides after all those years in a cube without a door, the inhabitants could probably use some practice in how to properly operate a door anyway.
Have you ever heard the phrase “Dumber than a door knob”? I am sure that businesses didn’t have to hear that description about their management too many times before they took action to assure that their management members had the requisite training, practice and abilities to successfully make the cube to office transition.
It seems that either through the marketing brilliance of modular furniture suppliers, or business management process doors for cubes is here to stay. I was not around for the truly open environment of just desks in a work area. I am sure that I did not enjoy the maze where my cube was located when I was looking for my cheese. I am just not convinced that the solution is to put doors on cubes.
Let’s get this straight right up front. I am a dinosaur. I know it. I am proud of it. I will probably never change. Okay, now that we have that out of the way you may be wondering why I am so unapologetically proclaiming my status and how I can in fact prove that I am what I claim to be. It is very simple. I still wear a sports coat to work.
I know, I know. How utterly old school and last century of me. But you know what? I don’t care. I still believe that the “office” is a place where professionals go to interact and conduct business. To me professional attire and business conduct go together. It is difficult for me to ever associate blue jeans, sneakers and tee shirts with professional and business. I won’t even pretend to apologize if this stance offends you. I have never been accused of being particularly politically correct.
I do not long for the days of suits, ties and professional attire, for those of us that can remember those days. I don’t wish to return to the days of casual Fridays which begat sloppy Fridays which seemed destined to degenerate into underwear and bathrobe Fridays before the entire thing was junked in favor of the current wear anything you want as long as you are decently clothed rules. I would simply like to remind everyone that having a job is not an entitlement, it is a privilege. We are professionals and are here to conduct business. We ought to dress like it.
Now with all the issues besetting the business world such as high unemployment, enormous public and private debt loads, contracting markets and increasingly fierce competition, you might think that I would have more to talk about, or rail against then what I might consider to be some slovenly trends in our office haberdashery. I do, but I thought I would start at the very basics.
I remember seeing an instructional video by the great Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi, who upon arriving in Green Bay got the team together and held a team meeting. The team had suffered through several losing seasons before he arrived. He told the team that he was going to start at the basics. He told the team how they would wear their uniform, how they would dress and how they would conduct themselves, both on and off the field.
He then held up a football and continued his instructional lecture when he said: “This is a football.” Before he could go any further he was asked by the team if he could “go a little slower.”
Football players. Go figure.
However Lombardi did go on to lead the Packers to several world championships.
John Wooden, the ten time national champion basketball coach at UCLA had similar approaches to uniforms, attire and conduct. He is even reported to have instructed his team in how to properly lace and tie their shoes. He too understood that how you dressed and looked affected what you did and how you performed. This approach seemed to work out well for him and his team. As I said before, ten national championships means you knew how to do things right.
I am not proposing that we need to return to the days of dress codes. I am proposing that we as leaders should want to set an example for our teams as to how we want to be perceived and how we wish to conduct ourselves and our business. This would come under the definition of leading by example.
I will illustrate my point. Many of us at one time or another has been in the job market interviewing for a new position. What did you wear to that job interview? Did you wear the jeans, sneakers and shirt that you are now wearing? I would hazard the guess and say of course not. You probably wore at least slacks, a button down shirt, dress shoes and a sports coat. Depending on your approach you could have been wearing a suit and a tie.
It seems that you are expected to dress professionally when you are looking for a job, but that you no longer feel the need to dress that way once you have the job. I wonder why that is? Does familiarity breed contempt? Remember my point about entitlement. Just because you currently have a job doesn’t mean that you are entitled to keep that job.
Another example would be what attire you choose when you meet with customers. I think the same examples apply. It seems everybody is just a little bit more dressed up when they are meeting with a customer than when they are just “working”. Again, I wonder why that is?
Diana Bocco looked at the role clothing plays in conveying human identity in an article she contributed to the ezine Curiosity, which is part of the Discovery channel family of information. In it she states: “…in many professional fields, a conservative, classic look makes you look more capable and showcases your professionalism.”
Nowadays with the internet anyone is capable of finding a quote to support whatever position they choose to adopt. That is part of the fun of the internet. It has however been a longstanding proposition that “Clothes make the man (and with a seldom seen from me bow to political correctness) …or woman”. When I go to see my doctor, I want to see him in a long white lab coat, preferably with his name embroidered on the left chest pocket, not in a leather biker jacket with chains and big black boots. When I go to have my car worked on, I would expect and hope to see the mechanic in a set of overalls, preferably greasy, not in the tutu and slippers of Mikhail Baryshnikov at the height of his ballet prowess.
Wow. I may have some trouble getting that last picture out of my mind.
When I am conducting business I like to wear a sport coat. I also prefer long sleeve button down shirts, slacks and leather dress shoes. I do make a nod to casual styles by wearing loafers instead of lace up shoes. Just call me wild and reckless when it comes to foot wear. I am also not saying that anybody else has to dress like I do. As I have noted we are past the time of mandatory dress codes.
Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the Desert Storm action has said that leaders lead. I like that. I think a small and basic place to start is to set the example for what to wear for business. It doesn’t take much effort. I don’t think it is any more expensive than any other type of attire. I do think is says a lot about who you are and the type of respect you wish to show both the people you work with and your job in general.
I also think that it is an infinitely preferable trend to try and set, as opposed to the guy who is currently walking around in the office wearing “Crocs” rubber shoes, because they are “comfortable”.
I recently read an article by Gretchen Rubin titled “Trick Question: Can One Coin Make a Person Rich?” In this article she cites the fifteenth century scholar, Erasmus, from Rotterdam, Netherlands. This intrigued me as some of those who know me and my never ending quest for the arcane can attest. I finished reading the article and then did a little research on Erasmus as my curiosity had been piqued. Gretchen sited not a book, but a footnote in Erasmus’ 1509 essay “In Praise of Folly”. Now I was hooked. The footnote was related to and explained “the argument of the growing heap.”
According to the footnote, the argument of the growing heap is: “If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.”
This is an interesting proposition. If you continue to give a person coins, at some point in time you will have given them enough so that they can be considered rich. But how many coins does it take? Which specific coin is the one that pushes the individual across the “rich” threshold? I think we can all conceive of and follow the logic here in general, but again may have divergent views on which individual act of giving a coin is the “special” one. This got me to thinking, yet again. That is always a dangerous process.
I continually try to look at what leadership is, as opposed to what management is in the business and sales environments. I like to point out that we have always looked up to and followed great leaders, not great managers. Applying what Gretchen Rubin cited and what Erasmus footnoted may seem at first to be a bit of a stretch here, but overall I think it is pretty interesting.
If we apply the argument of the growing heap to actions demonstrating leadership (or to actions demonstrating management for that matter) we would have to say that there is obviously some threshold where at which, after a certain number of leadership demonstrating actions an individual would be considered a leader. Let’s not get into what a leadership demonstrating action is. That too is a matter for conjecture. For purposes here, let’s just assume that there is such a thing.
To put this question another way, I would ask if one anomalous leader like activity in the career of an otherwise drone like manager would make that individual a leader. Now remember we are talking about business, not politics. My suggested answer would be no, one leadership action in a career doesn’t qualify anyone to be a leader. I have seen some managers take leader like actions by mistake and immediately revert back to their management activities. If it is not one action, then how many? Would ten qualify? How about a hundred?
I think you can now see the application of the argument of the growing heap that I am making to business. The fact that it originates in a sixteenth century essay titled “The Praise of Folly” seems to me to make it that much more apropos for its application to business, or politics today.
We all make a number of decisions and take a myriad of actions during the course of a normal business day. These decisions can either add to or detract from growing our leadership “heap”. How we are perceived as leaders is subjective in that each individual will have a different threshold for what they consider an acceptable leadership heap to be. Many will also have varying values that will be assigned as to how much a demonstration of leadership advances the heap and how much a management act reduces it.
I remember reading a joke which stated that every time someone did something good at the office they got a little token that read “Atta Boy!” When they got one hundred “Atta Boy!” tokens they were entitled to a firm handshake, a slap on the back and a “Good Job!” from the boss. However if they ever did something wrong they got an “Aw Crap!” sticker which meant that they had to immediately give back all of their “Atta Boy!” tokens, even if they had ninety-nine of them, and then start back from zero in their quest for a “Good Job!” from the boss.
I don’t know why that little story came to mind, but it does seem to fit in when we talk about the subjective nature of leadership activities, management acts, and how the two are judged by the population in general.
Sometimes we manage the issue and sometimes we lead by example. We need to remember that inevitably people are always watching what we as leaders do. According to the argument of the growing heap, it is in fact one individual act of leadership, in a succession of leadership acts that can qualify an individual to be a leader. The question then arises as to which single act is it? As no two individuals are going to have the same perceptions and values, it’s probably safe to say that there will never be an agreement on which specific act caused someone to cross the leadership threshold, or which management act caused them to fall back from it. Therefore I would say that every act is important.
If we add the complexity to the argument that an “Aw Crap!” management moment can reduce the “Atta Boy!” leadership heap by a disproportionate amount, it means that every action counts, both positive and negative counts even more.
Gretchen Rubin noted in her article “Often, when we consider our actions, it’s clear that any one instance of an action is almost meaningless, yet at the same time, a sum of those actions is very meaningful.”
I would suggest that this is not the case in business. As a leader every action we take will have meaning. It will either add to or detract from your leadership position. I think we have all experienced the fact that it normally takes many more positive acts to outweigh what may be considered or perceived as a negative act.
Leadership is an ongoing process where every action counts. It will be good to remember that the next time you are going to take an action, even on the little things.