Professionals and True Professionalism

Who is a professional? This is sometimes a difficult question to answer. Everybody seems to have his own opinion of just who is a professional. In searching for that answer, it is important to review and understand the two most common and accepted routes to higher education.

The Traditional Route

After successfully completing his high school education, a student generally has two choices. The first choice – the traditional route is the one he chooses if he wishes to undertake a certificate or diploma course of study in a particular discipline at a college or polytechnic. Alternatively, if he wishes to undertake a degree programme, he then enrols in a university.  On successful completion of the certificate or diploma programme, usually over a year or two, he earns a certificate or a diploma in the subject of his choice.

If he decides to go further and enrols for post graduate studies and he successfully completes the programme, he will earn a master’s degree. Some go all the way and enrol for a doctoral programme and if successful, they earn a Ph.D.

Regardless of the route, any qualification you earn in this manner, you get to keep for life. The qualification cannot be subsequently taken away from you.

The Professional Route 

Here too after successfully completing his high school education, a student has a second, equally good choice. He can choose to undertake studies of a specialised nature and pass the final examinations. This is particularly so in the United Kingdom and in the Commonwealth countries.

Many in the past chose this route partly because there were too few universities in the countries concerned and the competition was stiff to enter the universities. They also chose this route because it afforded them the opportunity to study locally for internationally recognised professional qualifications. A few with the financial means to study overseas, then chose to complete the final year in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand or even Canada.

However, when pursuing a professional qualifications in law, for instance there is a need to undertake a certificate in legal practice programme in Malaysia and earn the qualification i.e. CLP. In the case of accounting graduates, there is a need to acquire much needed, relevant work experience either before, during or after passing the final examinations. Once you have acquired the relevant experience, you can then apply for membership in the particular accounting body. Once you are admitted, you can use the coveted initials i.e. ACCA, ACA, ACMA, CPA etc.

Membership is the Qualification

For professional accountants, membership is the qualification. Passing the final examinations is, at best, half the qualification. In this route, you can lose the qualification if:

i. you are guilty of gross incompetence / negligence;

ii. you have committed a serious offence i.e. criminal breach of trust (CBT). You can then be struck off the membership rolls of that professional body. This is a serious matter because you have now lost the right to work as a professional. In many instances, the public is notified of this matter when an advertisement is placed in a local newspaper advising them of the name of the person who has been struck off the rolls!

Need for Continuing Professional Development

Furthermore, in professional bodies there is a mandatory requirement for continuing professional development (CPD). This is to ensure that as a professional you remain abreast of developments taking place in the profession.

David Maister, a former professor at the Harvard Business School and someone who consults to professional service firms globally has this sound advice:

Believe passionately in what you do, never compromise your standards and values, and care about your clients. Do all of these things because they are the ethical things to do.

Who Qualifies to be Regarded as a Professional

A profession is a vocation or calling, especially one that involves some branch of advanced learning or science.

A professional belongs to a body of individuals engaged in a profession that is recognised by an Act of Parliament. These generally refer to the much older, established professions of medicine, law, engineering, architecture etc.

Then again, societies in many parts of the world have a way of regularly referring to nursing and teaching as professions. The reality is that this is often just lip service. Nothing much is done to ensure that they are treated, respected and remunerated as such.

We are also experiencing a new wave of professionals in fields that did not exist before. I am referring to fields such as marketing, public relations, advertising, information technology etc. Professionals in these fields now command really high salaries, are keenly sought after and operate at very senior levels.

As you can see, it is not such an easy matter defining just who is a professional these days. Whilst the older established professions still hold sway, the newer professions are coming to the fore and are demonstrating ability to the lead the professional group. Some in the older professions are coming under closer and greater scrutiny because in these days of openness and transparency, far too many of them are found to be guilty of being less than professional.

How do you Recognise a Professional

There are some easy signs:

Has the Desire to Keep Learning

A professional has the desire to keep learning. He believes in the concept of continuous learning i.e. from the womb to the tomb. This is not restricted to just formal learning by attending CPD courses on a regular basis or by reading his professional journal. He is also open to informal learning.

Values the Need to Intern / Understudy

For professionals like doctors, there is a mandatory requirement to serve the government for two years under a period of housemanship. This is a useful period for the young doctor to get to grips with the realities of his profession on a day to day basis. It is also a period of intense pressure, huge demands and extraordinarily long hours in the hospital wards.

‘ The finest steel, they say, comes from the hottest furnace!’

This period of training and familiarisation is a useful preparation for the young doctor for a life of service.

Has the Sense to Specialise

It is very important to understand the basic requirements of a particular profession and to obtain an overall understanding of the demands and expectations. In addition, a professional must always be one step ahead in anticipating the challenges that come with the assignment or project.

At some point after gaining a good overview of the profession, an accountant for instance, can then make a major decision to specialise in a particular area. This is crucial if he is to progress in his career and make an impact. He can choose to specialise, for instance, in taxation, management accounting or finance and build his career from there. Or he can choose to gain varied experience and make the move to the corporate world or even become an entrepreneur. There are many possibilities.

Makes the Commitment to Contribute

In this regard, many committed professionals take a broader and more encompassing view of their profession. A few decide to serve voluntarily on the committee or general council of their professional body. They offer their time, energy and passion for the profession and for the greater good of society. In the process, they also acquire leadership and networking skills and hone their professional and social etiquette. Others decide to be active in community service clubs, like Kiwanis International or join bodies like Toastmasters in order to learn and develop the skill of public speaking.

Takes the Time to Socialise

This can take place in two contexts: within the profession; and in social club circles, in old boys’ associations and neighbourhood associations. This offers an opportunity for the professional to mix with people from other professions, businesses and from all walks of life. In the process, he will inevitably widen and broaden his worldview and take a more inclusive approach to most matters.

Danger Signs for Professionals

a. The profession begins to lose its glamour and interest for the individual. There are a number of cases of individuals who pursued a particular career because they wanted to please their parents! However, after graduating and working in that particular career for a while, they made the change to a career that they are really interested in. A few switched professions, some went into direct selling and others went into business.

b. Disappointment and depression set in. These individuals realised that the profession is not what they want to continue with.

c. Commercial considerations become all important in a very materialistic world.

There is quite widespread disappointment and disillusionment with, for instance, the attitude of doctors who are quick to diagnose your illness and prescribe medications in micro minutes. It is as though these patients are in a factory assembly line and therefore have to be attended to speedily! Then again you have the attitudes of a few specialist doctors who are less than willing to listen to the patient and are impatient and rude. Some are quite reluctant to even explain matters. Whatever happened to the cultivation of bedside manners and the concept of having caring, helpful and considerate doctors? Some are too quick to recommend certain procedures and quicker still to refer the patient to another fellow specialist.

Review their Modus Operandi

The professions used to have a special exalted place in society. Not anymore. Their ranks have swelled to huge numbers and in the process, standards have fallen and quite a few have been struck off the rolls for gross negligence or incompetence. Pride in the profession has diminished and the lure of money making has taken over especially in a few of these established professions.

Professionals who wish to restore the pride and standing of the profession and retain the respect once readily given to the professions should re-examine the way they operate these days. They should review their modus operandi and take steps to enhance the level of practice. They should realise that the public at large is better educated. A professional, therefore, cannot choose to be professional most of the time and para-professional when it is convenient.


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