Being a True Professional

From Mary Crane (, who conducts our 1L Etiquette Dinners. 

Most employers report that today’s colleges and universities graduate some of the smartest students this country has ever seen. Unfortunately, those same employers complain that many new hires lack a series of critically important professional skills. “I can teach a junior associate how to draft an iron-clad contract,” senior law partners have told me, “but I can’t teach a new hire how to think through a problem or behave in front of a client.”

Whether you are about to interview for your first professional position or have just started a new career, you must demonstrate professionalism in all that you say and do. If you want to succeed, demonstrate a determination to adjust to the professionalism expectations of employers. Avoid assuming that the workplace will adjust to you.

Following are five things that you can do to ensure you come across as a true professional.

First: Develop self-awareness
You know that you need a certain amount of “smarts” to land your first job. Once you start work, however, interpersonal skills will predict your future success far more so than your GPA ever could.

Developing interpersonal skills starts with self-awareness. Understand your unique talents and strengths. Recognize that your personality impacts how well you work with others. Reflect on how you can modify your behaviors to facilitate relationships with internal and external clients.

A variety of assessment tools can help you develop self-awareness. If you are still in school, visit the career services office and inquire about any assessment tools that they offer. If you’ve already started work, check with your professional development department. Among the tools that I recommend are StrengthsFinder, DISC, and OCEAN.

Beyond assessment tools, learn to value every piece of feedback that you receive. (See #4.) Constructive feedback, in particular, allows you to develop a more thorough understanding of your unique capabilities as well as aptitudes that you should still grow and develop.

Second: Communicate professionally
Though electronic gadgets pervade our lives, an impressive face-to-face communication may be among the easiest ways to distinguish yourself as a true professional. Some studies estimate that 90 percent of your most important work-related conversations will take place offline. And no less than gazillionaire Warren Buffet has identified the ability to speak effectively in front of others as the number one skill that students and new hires will find particularly valuable throughout their careers.

So, get comfortable with speaking on your feet. Actively seek out opportunities to step away from your desktop, laptop, and smartphone and engage in verbal communications. Develop a comfortable speaking pace, learn to articulate key thoughts succinctly, and avoid verbal tics like space fillers (allowing uhs, you know, and like to pervade your speech) and upseak (allowing your voice to inflect up at the end of sentences).

In your electronic communications with anyone who is not a peer, adopt a slightly more formal approach. (By the way, if you’re a new associate, a senior partner is not a peer. If you’re an interviewing student, anyone on the hiring committee is not a peer.)  Use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Skip abbreviations, especially ones that may not be known or understood by others. And for heaven’s sake, avoid using imperatives. When communicating with a supervisor or prospective employer, instead of indicating, “Send me the document,” write, “Please send me the document.”

Third: Show initiative
Students and new professionals who possess a positive attitude arrive at work willing to tackle any project that comes their way. In most cases, bringing a “can do” perspective to the workplace merely meets an employer’s expectations. Professionals look for ways to contribute without being asked.

Even though technology affords you the ability to work anywhere and at any time, most employers want to see you at a workstation or desk tackling projects throughout the official workday. They assume that you will complete assignments on time and deliver them in a “client ready” condition. They take it as a given that you will not waste company time and resources.

If you wish to be known as a true professional, do more than meet these minimum standards. Show initiative. Understand the discrete tasks that have been assigned to you as well as the bigger picture. Look for potential problems before they emerge and resolve those issues whether or not recognition or reward follows.

Three simple ways to show initiative include:

  • Carry a pen and pad of paper (or an electronic tablet) with you everywhere so that you can record notes, assignments, etc. (Students should carry a copy of their résumé to all interviews just in case an interviewer misplaces their information.
  • When you make a mistake—and every student and new professional will—immediately inform anyone who will be impacted. Don’t stop there. Take the additional step of suggesting a proposed solution.
  • When invited to an event—whether the event is an interview, a quick lunch, or a client presentation—respond immediately. Do not wait for a potential “better offer.” And once you indicate that you will attend, remember, only a genuine emergency excuses your absence.

Fourth: Respond to feedback
One recent study indicates that nearly half of newly hired employees fail within their first 18 months of joining the workforce. Among those who fail, 26 percent do so because they can’t accept feedback.

Feedback. Everyone likes to hear that his or her work exceeds expectations. No one likes to hear that he or she has come up short. True professionals welcome constructive feedback. They know that any feedback that points out a shortcoming, as hard as it may be to hear, helps them to learn and to grow.

So, welcome feedback. In fact, if your supervisor doesn’t automatically provide it, proactively seek out some constructive criticism of your work.

Then, here’s the most important feedback principle to keep in mind: own it and hone it. Listen to every piece of feedback that you receive and take immediate action to improve behaviors that don’t meet expectations.

Five: Manage stress
Stress is an inherent part of every about-to-be and new professional’s life. Much of the stress that you will encounter can be directly tied to a series of external factors over which you will have little control, including supervisors, clients, and market forces. Your internal makeup—your personal drive to succeed as well as tendencies toward perfectionism—can drive individual stress levels, too.

True professionals develop stress-coping strategies. With regards to daily tasks, learn to identify what you can and cannot control. Then take steps to tackle what you can control quickly and let go of the rest. Away from work, focus on nabbing six to eight hours of sleep nightly, eat and drink with your health in mind, and incorporate exercise and mindfulness into your schedule whenever possible.