I want to write a little today about polishing your professionalism.
My first lesson in this happened when I was in college. I was volunteering at an art event that was raising money for a museum. It was kind of a big deal and I was excited to help. I knew I wasn’t going to be offered a job or anything and I was told I could wear jeans. But I dressed up for the event anyway, and hit the floor ready for questions and action. I ended up being pretty visible—visiting with people, answering questions, and finding things that went missing or needed refilled.
A key person at the event who should have been doing all those things really dropped the ball. They didn’t dress up at all and looked really unprofessional. They didn’t really know what was going on and when they answered questions they sounded annoyed, curt, and defensive. I actually felt embarrassed when I had to introduce donors to this person. Some people asked if *I* was the key person and I had to say no, I was just a volunteer. There were a lot of people who were not impressed and I know it cost the organization money.
I’m not telling this story to boost my ego. It was a long time ago, when I still had a lot to learn. But it was a really good lesson.
So, here’s the deal: It doesn’t matter if you’re a titled person of distinction or an unpaid volunteer—the professionalism you display is going to be noticed by those around you. And from my experience, polishing your professionalism isn’t extremely difficult or out of reach. I’ve been poor most of my working life, and I live with a visible disability and other chronic conditions. I have a lot to say about how certain barriers are definitely a big deal or unfair in the professional world. But that’s a post for another day. When I talk about polishing your professionalism, I’m talking about small details you can bring to the table no matter what job you’re in. Be friendly. Know what’s going on and have answers when people have questions. Dress up as much as you can. Look for small ways you can make things more personal or be more considerate of others.
Flash forward to when I was working at a full time job. A few of us were tasked with approaching local businesses to donate to some of our upcoming events. I was told to just call or message businesses on Facebook… because no one likes giving money and most of the places never get back to you at all, anyway.
This was the first time I had done this, so I believed what I had been told. I sent two messages via email, but it didn’t feel right. I thought I should at least try to stop by these places in person.
I printed out the message and left space before my name to sign the page with ink. I printed 15 copies and arranged time for me to be out of the building delivering the letters.
I’m not going to lie, I was nervous. It’s kind of weird just marching in and asking for stuff. But I just powered through my nerves and was as friendly as possible when I went in.
Twelve of the fifteen letters I delivered in person resulted in a donation and I got enough to not have to send out any other requests. The two emails I sent? They never responded at all.
Once again, my instinct to put on the polish paid off.
I don’t know why certain things become “good enough” at work, but I do know that without attention, bad habits can become the norm. Trying new things and genuinely striving to make things better is another aspect of polishing your professionalism.
Of course you can’t always do these things and just because you do raise a standard doesn’t mean that you’ll get a promotion, or a donation, or that anyone will even notice it at all. In fact, some people around you might notice and start teasing you or even outright bully you. But this will show you who you should look up to or get advice from, and who you should not. This will also give you some in-the-field practice in standing up for what you think is right, which is never easy but something you do need to experience.
Unfortunately, there will always be people in higher positions who definitely do not act professional. They won’t present themselves professionally or even know how to do things properly at all. But they’ll still be in charge and still get accolades. Save yourself unnecessary suffering and just accept that now. Polishing your professionalism is for you and where these skills will take you. Hopefully you can place yourself in a position where those above and around you are professional and knowledgeable. But you’ll have to put the work into yourself to get there.
Just because other people have different styles or standards doesn’t mean you can’t try to polish or raise your own. These don’t have to be big things and you can do them without being showy or snobby.
In fact, you should definitely try not to be snobby or showy. If your motivation is to simply one up others or keep score, that will likely hurt your professionalism in the long run. Not to mention it will slowly grind you down into being a miserable person.
Your motivation should be practicing being professional until it becomes comfortable and second nature, so that it will benefit your life and your work. You’ll find you will naturally begin bringing these skills into other areas of your life. You’ll be more confident, make more connections, and spot more opportunities. You’ll be a more authentic and less defensive person.
Just like anything, professionalism takes practice and experience. You won’t be perfect right away. But you can choose to begin practicing now.
My advice is to start small. Pick one thing you could improve and start working on it until it becomes a good habit, then build from there. Take your time, enjoy the lessons, and shine on!