I recently said to a friend, “Being a good businessman makes you a better professional. I think that is true in all the professions.” As I thought about my stray comment further, I realized that a deep truth lies at the bottom of it.
What is a professional? Some people imagine professionals in terms of their work clothing. Perhaps a professional is a “white collar” worker. But in fact, being a professional has nothing to do with such superficial matters of appearance. True professionals:
- Have mastered a body of literature/knowledge, usually through advanced schooling.
- Operate out of a body of theory derived from or informed by research.
- Submit themselves to a particular code of ethics related to their field of work.
- Have added the lessons of experience to their theoretical framework.
- Direct their own work rather than taking orders from managers, working on the basis of professional judgments based on creativity, professional theory, and the lessons of experience.
- Belong to professional associations which offer guidance for best practices.
If any form of work does not include most of, if not all these elements, it isn’t truly professional work. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with doing non-professional work. Many highly intelligent and keenly skilled people do work that does not fit the definition of professional work. All work has inherent dignity and requires intelligence and good character to carry out successfully. But each form of work has different kinds of rewards and creates a different sense of satisfaction for the worker.
My comment to my friend asserted that understanding business improves the quality of professional work. The essence of professionalism requires workers to adopt a hybrid identity as applied scholars in business. All three factors matter: the apprehension of scholarship (knowledge and theory), its application to human need (practice and professional judgment), and the business structure that makes it all possible.
One common misconception imagines that professionals are people who get paid for what they do, as opposed to amateurs. This notion comes from the use of “professional” to apply to athletes or musicians. While most people who practice those forms of life do not get paid for their activity, a “professional” does. Such a definition might offend an idealistic professional who truly believes that they do not practice their profession because of a monetary motivation. Nevertheless, the hard cold realities of life impose a need for payment on all workers. While many professionals love their work so much they would be willing to do it without payment, the vast majority of them need compensation from their work in order to meet their basic needs.
In fact, professionals should not feel squeamish about getting paid for what they do. Payment for service is essentially an honorarium that recognizes the value of a person’s time and honors good service with a monetary reward. The more money a person’s service is worth to those who receive it, the more honor they will receive in the form of money. To imagine that any profession can function without the business that makes it possible is the most naïve kind of idealism. While idealism is fine and noble, naivete is unworthy of adults.
Far from sullying a profession, business adds great dignity to professional practice. Anyone who has ever provided professional services without charge, only to have them disrespected or devalued, knows this truth. While pro bono work can add great satisfaction to professional life, even donated work sets up a debt of thanks or respect or some other form of honor. If that debt remains unpaid, the satisfaction suffers. Professionals do remain human, and everyone—professional or not—wants their work to be valued.
The business that structures professional life of all kinds sets up a stable and solid structure to ensure that the needs of professionals get met, as well as facilitating the offering of pro bono or reduced-fee services that allow for nonmonetary kinds of honor to be paid. Professionals should never resent the business that makes their practice possible. Quite the opposite, they should seek to understand the business as well as they understand the more inherently academic or intellectual or moral elements of their work. Such understanding makes them better professionals.
A professional who does not understand the business that makes the practice possible is not a professional, but rather a mere employee. Such a status inherently interferes with the exercise of professional judgment, which is one of the very things that constitutes a professional and not a routine worker who merely carries out orders. And because professions are nothing if not the practice of some field of knowledge, failure to understand the economics of one’s practice also inherently interferes with good professional judgment. It does no good to offer solutions that the economics or business of the field will veto. Inversely, understanding the business helps professionals come up with innovative solutions that will actually work within the bounds of reality. It isn’t necessary for all professionals to run the business in which they practice, but they do need to understand it and not constantly agonize over the fact that they are in business.
While this analysis only addresses the issue of monetary compensation, a deeper look into professional practice across a variety of disciplines would discover many ways in which business imposes reality and structure and method as theory and knowledge meet experience and judgment and the accountability of peers, making professionalism possible.