I have been wanting to write this piece for a long time. As readers of this series know, the articles are about what causes the for-profit firm’s valuation to increase. Here I want to write about how true professionals think and behave. To the extent that firms need and want true professionals as executives or consultants, the article should serve to foster the theme of these articles of increasing firm valuation.
LinkedIn and other blogs seem to be going to three-minute videos or very short articles. Many are very ephemeral pieces that discuss one small aspect of a complex system, tug at the heartstrings, and incite people to an emotional response or some other limited reason for publishing an article. Ephemeral means “here for a short time” and it is one of my favorite words in today’s world of sound bites and “optics”. In my view, nothing new is really learned. We just circulate stuff over and over again as new people attach their names to current developments, either that they write or pass on that are here only for a short time. Maybe this is the mission of Linked In and other blog avenues and no real learning is expected to take place. But part of my argument here is that sound bites are injurious to developing the mind and behaviors of the true professional.
Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap of Harvard in their book Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom state that it takes ten years to go from novice to virtuoso expert in just about anything. Becoming a virtuoso doctor, lawyer, drummer (one of my hobbies), pianist, golfer (another of my hobbies), chess player and yes an executive or consultant takes accredited education and training and a period of practicing under a mentor. It also takes getting out there as a journeyman or journeywoman and making mistakes, hopefully, only ones from which the budding professional can recover. In my career as an ever-learning strategy consultant and professor, I have learned more from my mistakes than from my successes.
And in this journey from novice to virtuoso, something happens or should happen mentally that separates the true professional from the fake or non-professional. This is inculcating the values of two phrases I learned in my courses in professional ethics – “noblesse oblige” or nobility obligates and “to whom more is given more is expected”. By the time the emerging professional attains virtuoso status, he or she will be entrusted with the “life of the patient” and something special is demanded of the true professional in this process. This is literally true for many of the M.D. specialties and figuratively true for business professionals. However, in some cases recently and over the last forty years, fraud, waste, and abuse have actually “killed” at least several businesses. On the upbeat side of these statements, the true professional is entrusted to provide assistance at a fair price that the “patient” cannot or does not want to do for himself or for herself. The true professional may not be literally smarter than the patient, but that professional has had those years of development and mentoring that allows him or her to bring something to the table that is needed and valued and valuable. I entrusted a major back surgery to my orthopedic surgeon four years ago because my back was and is very valuable to me and I valued his training, mentorship and prior experience at performing many prior back surgeries.
The true professional is also inculcated with a mindset that he or she will be in a continuous learning mode until they retire. Part of the mindset is this: the professional must act and behave “as if they know all” or be willing to find out things, to quote my brilliant professional ethics professor, but they and everyone else know this is not possible. Sound arrogant and sound maybe being untruthful? No, I do not think it is. How would you like for your doctor, upon examining some symptoms you have, say “I have no idea what is going on, sorry – see you next time.” The response should be “These symptoms are challenging my current knowledge and experience, but we will use every diagnostic and the advice of other specialists until we can find a root cause answer. I promise I will do this for you”. This same mindset should inhabit the true business professional as well in my view. The true professional deeply cares about each firm or client and the partnership of the professional and the firm should produce an outcome that at least provides improvement if not some kind of a breakthrough transformation.
Today’s world of sound bites and optics is injurious to developing the mindset and behaviors of the true business professional in my view. For instance, the desire and need to get a quick MBA credential without really learning much of anything that sticks is a real problem. The justification is “I will really learn when I get on the job, so the book learning I had is just a beginning”. There is some truth to this, as the budding virtuoso business professional has to start somewhere. But notice what is developing in the DNA of that budding professional: quick in and out, no deep learning, no ability to distinguish among fad, fancy, symptoms and real root causes. And in this process younger generations do not venerate older and more experienced professionals who should be serving as mentors. Everything seems to spring forth as something new just waiting for someone to put a new marketing spin on it and perhaps even that “they have invented” this or that for the first time. Now I am not talking about new and unique contributions that extend, enhance or even change existing knowledge and experience. I want my back surgeon to learn of new knowledge, technology and techniques that will make back surgeries and rehabilitation better. But if we are not careful in the business world, everything will spring forth as “just born”.
One of the pernicious things in this “new normal” if my view is correct is that there is little or no regard for prior intellectual property. Things can be lifted and not cited or outright stolen. I have had some of my developments stolen over the years. I know there are legal remedies for this but the true professional respects prior intellectual property, and the community should be secure in knowing their hard work will be protected out of professional courtesy and not out of fear of being sued. There is too much important work to be done without the churn these professionally unethical practices cause.
A final few points before I conclude. In the case of a consultant professional, he or she should invest in the tools of their trade and continuing education, that are investments and not billed back to a client. By tools, I mean anything that the professional cannot do himself or herself that will benefit the client and allow the consultant to lower total delivery costs. This includes buying existing databases on customer trends, buying access to industry reports and they like. Plumbers and electricians buy the tools of their trades to do faster, easier and more effective work and so should the true consultant professional. This adds to fixed costs that must be covered but must be done in my view.
I could go on but will not here. I am very worried about the disappearance of true professionals in business. The blog articles and videos on LinkedIn and other places are adding to a gestalt that knowledge and learning can be quick, non-head hurting and at a more superficial level. Sure business will go on and profits will be made. But business will not become or stay a true profession – only a practice ground for ephemeral techniques that come and go. Maybe we want this. Maybe I am also wrong. Maybe there are many true business professionals out there on their ten-year journeys to become virtuoso experts, and I just do not know the avenues by which they are accomplishing this. What are your views? Are my fears ungrounded?
This article is part of a series on what causes a firm’s value to increase.
Dr. William Bigler is the founder and CEO of Bill Bigler Associates. He is a former Associate Professor of Strategy and the former MBA Program Director at Louisiana State University at Shreveport. He was the President of the Board of the Association for Strategic Planning in 2012 and served on the Board of Advisors for Nitro Security Inc. from 2003-2005. He is the author of the 2004 book “The New Science of Strategy Execution: How Established Firms Become Fast, Sleek Wealth Creators”. He has worked in the strategy departments of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Hay Group, Ernst & Young and the Thomas Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.billbigler.com.