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John Cowan

From another point of view, a professional is someone whom you pay to do your best for you, as opposed to someone you pay to do what you ask for. Many have wanted their lawyers to do illegal things for them, but the properly professional lawyer will not do so, because his first responsibility is to the law and the courts, not the client.

We can also say that a profession is a way of making a living in which you apply what you have learned, usually from books but also from other sources, to getting your job done. By contrast, a non-professional job such as management, ditch-digging, or being President of the U.S., is about applying whatever you've got, your best effort, to the job. What you've learned is decidedly subsidiary.

Justin Lee Brannan

The great Alan "Ace" Greenberg once said that while many top-tier, investment banking firms only hire freshly-minted MBAs from mostly Ivy League schools, he is/was more interested in a candidate's drive, ambition, and street smarts.

In one of Ace's famed interoffice memos, which was collected in the book, "Memos From The Chairman", he wrote, "If somebody applies for a job with an MBA degree, we will certainly not hold it against them. But we are really looking for people with PSD degrees. PSD stands for poor, smart, and a deep desire to become rich."

Ben Ho

Interesting Line:
"Yet sociologists will tell you that a defining feature of a profession is that members are trained and socialized to put their client's interests AHEAD of their own. "

I was at the GSB when Pfeffer dropped his bomb, and now teach economics to MBAs myself.

The funny thing is the defining feature of a profession as seen by an economist, is that it is a cartel designed to keep prices (i.e. salaries high) by restricting entry.

Though perhaps that's the problem with economists (as Ghoshal argued, economists are the source of business school ethics problems).

Bob Salstrand

Thank you for "No Asshole Rule" it has changed the lives of many of our sawmill workers and their supervisors. I actually gave it away to supervisors for participating in a workshop. Great points and excellant data.
We have a Supervisor II that is both a non-name MBA grad, with a PhD in Ass Holeism. Really enjoy your work.

Bret Simmons

Great stuff, Bob, and thanks for doing such a good job on this blog.

I'm a management professor. My "drive" if you will is to try to get students to think and behave purposefully, with that purpose being doing the right thing for the greater good of the folks they have been given the privilege to lead.

But I struggle with how to get egocentric actors with a strong entitlement mentality to think of *anything* other than themselves.

Stefan Stern

Fascinating stuff Bob.
Prof Richard Sennett at the London School of Economics would, I think, share your concerns about the craft of management and how it is coming under pressure.

"Professional" is an increasingly slippery term, it seems to me. I wrote about this (from a slightly different angle) in the FT last year. Forgive me for posting the full text (below), as it is not free-to-view.

Best wishes,
Stefan Stern


BUSINESS LIFE: The problem with performance-managing professionals
By Stefan Stern, Financial Times
Published: Jul 11, 2006


When our first child was born last spring my wife and I indulged in that traditional speculation practised by many new parents: what did we want the dear girl to do when she grew up?

Like a lot of proud fathers, I instinctively veered towards the conventional. She would, of course, pursue a brilliant professional career, achieving both financial security and social respectability. Put your trust in the professions and you can't go wrong.

My wife, less hidebound than me and, crucially, a few years younger, was more pragmatic. "I bet she'd make a good plumber," she said.

At only 15 months, my daughter has not yet had to face the literacy and numeracy tests that will soon be coming her way from the Department for Education and Skills. It is therefore too early to say in which direction she is headed - although, to judge by her talent for destroying order, plumbing may indeed turn out to be a favoured option.

But Mrs Stern's scepticism does provoke other, more immediate, questions. What does it mean to be a professional today? Where in the past the term covered the established disciplines of law, medicine or accountancy, today it is used to cover even the work done by security guards or contract cleaners.

Has the term "professional" been devalued through its ever wider application to ever more lines of work? And what implications does the changing nature of professionalism have both for employees and their organisations?

One afternoon last month, Demos*, a London-based think-tank, gathered together a selection of professional people and gave them a few minutes to describe the challenges they face doing their jobs. The effect was remarkable.

In both the public and private sectors, managers are agonising over similar things. In this age of targets, monitoring and performance management, professional people wonder how much autonomy they retain over how they go about their work. They had originally entered a profession because of a vocation, a calling. Now they found themselves pursuing a managerial agenda set remotely by bosses who often did not share the same personal commitment to the work in hand that they do.

Richard Sennett, a professor at the London School of Economics, argues that many professional people have lost "a sense of craft" in their day-to-day work. They are being judged according to their position in an occupational hierarchy, not by what it is about their work that makes them feel professional: their dedication to their craft.

"We have misunderstood the idea of quality, and how people go about doing quality work," he says. "A most important motivator for professionals is being able to do a good job for its own sake, rather than just to meet a target. If you take that ability away from professionals they get very unhappy."

"Professional" has become a very slippery term. During the past four weeks, the World Cup [soccer] has offered us a masterclass in what football players call the "professional foul" - the shameful but necessary hauling down of an opponent who might be about to score a goal. "Well," former players say as they seek to justify this sort of action, "football is a professional game."

If colleagues break down in tears, or display uncontrolled emotions of any kind, there is often much frowning, tutting and use of the damning label "unprofessional".

But is this the sort of chilly professionalism we need to meet today's performance targets and competitive pressures? Perhaps it is. Better the cold, competent professional than the cheery, ineffectual amateur.

But sometimes, of course, professionalism is in the eye of the beholder. This is a theme film-maker Quentin Tarantino explores in his 1992 crime thriller, Reservoir Dogs. Professionalism is the film's leitmotif. A gang of armed robbers collapses into violent disarray as a planned heist goes wrong. Appalled by a colleague's displays of brutality, Mr White, played by Harvey Keitel, issues the most damning criticism imaginable.

"What you're supposed to do is act like a f****** professional," he says. "A psychopath is not a professional. You can't work with a psychopath, 'cause ya don't know what those sick assholes are gonna do next."

I have wandered a little from this column's usual territory. How unprofessional. But that is my point. The early 21st-century version of professionalism risks becoming narrow and impoverished. The under-40s coming up through the ranks seek variety and autonomy in their work, as well as financial rewards. They do not want their true professionalism to be performance-managed out of them.

My daughter may struggle, like the 19th-century schoolboy Tom Brown, in trying to earn a living while "doing some real good, feeling that I am not only at play in the world".

She might benefit from listening, if not to her father, to Tom Brown's schoolmaster, who offers this advice: "You talk of 'working to get your living' and 'doing some real good in the world' in the same breath. Now you may be getting a good living in a profession, and yet not doing any good at all in the world . . . keep the latter before you as a holy object, and you will be right, whether you make a living or not; but if you dwell on the other, you'll very likely drop into mere money-making."

* Production Values - Futures for Professionalism, published by Demos, www.demos.co.uk

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