October 14, 2016

Professionalism: tips, tricks, and anecdotes

Grace Grieve-Carlson ’19

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Professionalism is not a simple concept to pin down, but it’s a quality that virtually all employers look for. Beyond having the right mix of technical and executive skills, understanding what it means to be professional can help you stand out from the crowd when looking for jobs and internships. Here are six keys to professionalism.

1. Be someone your team and employer can trust.

One of the most important parts of being professional is honesty. In order to be respected by your colleagues and your employer, you must be honest about what you know and what your skills are.

Once you make a mistake (it’s bound to happen!), tell your team so that they can help you fix it. And if you aren’t sure about something you’re doing, ask your coworkers for a second opinion. All of these actions build trust and show integrity.

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2. Learn to self-regulate.

When you’re at work, work. So simple, but so important! It can be easy to get distracted, but staying focused and finding work to do is a great way to stand out as professional.

When you don’t have formal instructions, look around and see if there’s anything you can do to help the workspace run more smoothly. A proactive and detail-oriented mindset shows that you really care.

3. Show confidence.

An employee who shows confidence inspires confidence. Simple ways to do this are to make eye contact with people you speak to and nod slowly while people speak to you.

Another great way to show confidence is to remove unnecessary “sorrys” from your vocabulary. Constantly apologizing is exhausting—and a roadblock to exuding confidence.

If you’re popping your head into someone’s office, a simple “excuse me” is more appropriate. If a customer or client is complaining to you, say, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” instead of apologizing for something you didn’t cause—but if you really did something wrong, go ahead and say sorry.

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4. Have the proper etiquette for your role.

In your job, there should be a certain way to conduct yourself—how you dress, email, respond to phone calls, and navigate other daily interactions. If you don’t have a strict dress code, follow the example of what your boss is wearing. Even if it’s not an official rule, it’s probably unlikely that your boss would wear sweatpants to work. A good rule of thumb is to be a little more formal than you think you should be.

For email and phone interactions, confidence in your knowledge and a friendly tone are key. You are representing your company, which is a role to take seriously.

5. Communicate clearly and consistently.

A professional can clear up confusing communication quickly and thoroughly, whether it’s regarding a boss’s expectations or a troubling interaction with a client. If you aren’t sure what’s expected of you or what your role is in a certain situation, clear it up early so that you can get back to your work.

Don’t be afraid to identify problems and talk about them openly. Provide progress updates so your boss knows how work is going. If you’re going to be late, call to let people know.

And here’s an extra tip: don’t send angry emails. Better yet, don’t email when you are angry. Too much can be misconstrued over email. If you need to have a difficult conversation, having it over the phone or in person is better.

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6. Keep your eyes on your own plate.

It might feel like some people around you are working less or getting more praise than you, but just focus on the work that is yours to do.

Some male teammates of 19-year-old Katie Ledecky, a 2016 Olympic superstar swimmer, expressed difficulty with this point. Of Ledecky, one male swimmer said, “She is no easy task to beat in practice . . . I saw her break a lot of guys . . . she’ll just start beating you every single [lap]. Your morale goes down pretty quickly when you get broken by a female in practice. I saw a couple of guys have to get yanked out of workout because they got beat by her.”

When Ledecky heard this, she claimed not to have noticed, telling the New York Times: “I was probably just concentrating on doing my own work.”

Professionalism—a true mash-up of many skills—can take years to perfect. But with knowledge of what this elusive concept involves, you can start cultivating professional skills right now.

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Grace Grieve-Carlson ’19, an English major and Arabic minor, is a marketing and design assistant at the Career Development Center. She is the general manager of WMHC and hosts a radio show on Friday afternoons. She is also a member of the Unusual Suspects improv troupe, a cartoonist for the Mount Holyoke News and co-leads the student organization Comedy Collective.
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