What makes a professional?

Submitted by myraidgoups on April 27, 2008 - 12:09pm.

When I worked in a large international consultants' firm, I used to teach courses in professional ethics to first-year associates. We would usually spend about a day on working out what exactly makes a professional, what we understand by ethics, and what is the importance of ethics for professionals. Over the years, there was a remarkable constant set of traits that almost always were seen as central to being a professional. Perhaps this list can be a starting point for some interesting discussions here.

I post two lists here: one with traits that were almost universally recognised as being essential to being a professional, and one with some statements that would usually lead to some more disagreement and discussion. Both sections are tailored towards professionals in other settings than aid work, but read 'beneficiaries' instead of 'clients' and they are totally applicable to our sector too.

Elements of professionalism
True professionals:
• are competent;
• know their limitations, and are willing to push these back continuously;
• are discreet and respect confidentiality;
• stick to promises and agreements;
• are loyal and honest towards clients and colleagues;
• practice what they preach;
• are strongly motivated by ethical values;
• are rational and objective, but respect their partners’ emotions;
• are creative;
• are independent, but communicate well;
• are willing to be held accountable and to explain their actions, and report unasked;
• are willing to share knowledge and skills;
• foster professionalism in others, wherever they find it.

Some statements for discussion about professionalism
• “True professionals never declare their professionalism; they demonstrate it”.
• “Amateurs don’t have any room for true professionals, especially in recognised professions”.
• “Volunteers are often more professional than the professionals”.
• “True professionals respect their partners’ time schedule”.
• “True professionals strive to minimize bureaucracy, but respect the rules; they try to change (and minimize) the rules, not to ignore them”.
• “Anyone can be a professional. In fact, most professionals work outside recognized professions”.
• “A bureaucrat can’t be a professional”.
• “A true professional is almost always a good teacher and mentor. However, not every good teacher is also a true professional”.

I am looking forward to your responses.


Submitted by jcravens42 on April 28, 2008 - 1:44pm.

"Professionals...are willing to be held accountable and to explain their actions, and report unasked."

As a person usually responsible for reporting in whatever project I'm working in, I love this definition/quality of a professional -- particularly "report unasked." I remember a young Afghan ministry worker coming to my office and asking if maybe I might want to read his journals, in English, about his work in the field recently, if I wasn't too busy. Had it been a different country, I would have flown across the room and hugged him. You communications folks out there will know what I mean.

The people who drive me crazy the most in aid and development are those who are NOT willing to be held accountable, and are NOT willing to explain their actions. We all make mistakes (myself included -- big time), but I just don't get the "it wasn't MY fault" attitude of oh-so-many. At times, it's the prevailing culture of an office or department.

“Volunteers are often more professional than the professionals”.

That can certainly be true. What isn't sometimes understood by paid staff members is that, often, a volunteer *is* a professional -- he or she happens to be donating his or her expertise, unpaid. Why "pro bono consultant" carries more respect than "volunteer" is something I wish could be changed.

Jayne Cravens
Bonn, Germany

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