When I was in 12th grade, I played a secretary in the high school play. I thought I had done well picking out my costume. I was wearing dress pants, a nice sweater, and my boots (the only closed-toe high heals I owned at the time). My director, a fashionable young teacher, looked me over and approved everything but my hair. I had pulled it back and secured with a green elastic band. She told me to switch the elastic to a simple clip. “The colored hair band is appropriate for you to wear as a teenager,” she said, “but I would never wear that as a professional adult.”
For some reason, that comment struck me pretty darn hard. It was the first time I remember anyone pointing out the difference between dressing nice and dressing professionally. It was the first time I realized that different things are appropriate at different times in life. It was the first time I consciously considered what was meant by “professionalism”.
After that, I started paying more attention on my own to what was considered “professional”, but there were so many other aspects of professionalism that no one ever taught me. I wrote my first résumé based on an example I found on Google. It wasn’t good. And though I went to many job interviews in my early 20’s, I finally really figured them out at age 25 when I found myself on the other side of the hiring desk. My knowledge of professionalism is based on observation, independent research, and the mixed results of trial-and-error experiences.
Because of my own experience, and because I see so many young people entering the workforce unprepared, one of the things I try to do as a high school teacher is take a few days (or weeks) to talk to my students about professionalism. Too many times, people are told to be and act “professional,” but aren’t ever taught what that means. So I try to work it in to my unit plans somewhere, even in my English classes. We go through the whole process. I have them fill out job applications, write a résumé, dress up professionally (which includes a discussion with the girls about the professional value of modesty), and go through a mock interview with me. We talk about interacting with customers and clients, how to work with difficult bosses and colleagues, and the appropriate ways to leave a job when the time comes. We talk through scenarios where they might be tempted to respond in anger or frustration, and I try to give them tools to respond in a more professional manner. While these discussions might not cover every base, my students always seem engaged and interested, asking questions and bringing up their own scenarios, too. I know they’re thinking about what it means to be professional, even if they haven’t figured it all out yet.
In the process of our most recent cross-country move, I had some interactions with a “young professional” that reminded me again why these concepts are so important. I assumed he was young, anyway. I didn’t actually meet him until the very end of our interactions (when I paid him). Up until then, I only talked to him on the phone. He sounded young, and he mostly used text messages to communicate. I can deal with that, though. Young doesn’t inherently bother me at all. But immaturity and unprofessional behavior does bother me. During one particular exchange, this young man’s inexperience, immaturity, and unprofessionalism came screaming through. Literally, yelling. I found myself going into “teacher-mode” to diffuse a very tense conversation.
If I had been less desperate, I would have taken my business somewhere else. I’m the potential client, so I should not have been the one calming him down. But he made a mistake, and when I pointed it out, it hurt his pride. Instead of sucking it up and dealing with it, he lashed out. If I wasn’t in a tight time-crunch with nowhere else to take my business, I would have stopped working with him immediately. I needed results fast, though, so I fell on the instincts I’ve developed for handling angry, whiny students, and I got my results. I shouldn’t have to do that, though. I shouldn’t have to be the one to remain calm while the person whom I’m giving my money to whines and complains on the phone.
So in light of my recent experience, I thought I’d pass on a few tips on professional communications. To my wonderful, world-changing students, sometimes your pride will be hurt. Sometimes customers, clients, coworkers, and even bosses will do and say things that are frustrating and even hurtful. But the professional world isn’t about feelings, self-esteem, or people noticing how hard you try. It’s about results. There is no “A for Effort” in the working world if the results don’t follow. You aren’t paid to try; you are paid to successfully provide a service that someone needs completed. At some point you need to develop a thick skin, brush off the stings, and do your job well. And yelling at your customer won’t make them like you. I promise.
I could ramble on for a while, but someone else already has written a wonderful post full of tips on how to succeed as a professional, so instead of reinventing the wheel, I’m going to direct you to him. If you want a more comprehensive crash course in what it means to be professional, I highly encourage you to check out this article: Professionalism at Work by A. T. Sherbiny. He covers many of the most important concepts in a simple, straightforward way. The next time I teach a unit on professionalism, I plan to send my students to this article. Teens who want to enter the professional world, you should check it out. Seriously. I believe you can succeed in the working world, but unfortunately, it may be up to you to learn how. Take a minute to think about what it means to be professional and learn from the resources provided to you.
Professionals, what have you learned by experience that you wish someone had told you earlier? What tidbits should I make sure to include in the next Professionalism unit I teach?