Eric Karjaluoto

You Needn’t Look Professional

One of the more popular themes on LinkedIn, these days, is a plea to make the network more “professional.” Seems that folks are concerned that their virtual water cooler is becoming a mess of food photos, viral memes, and math quizzes.

I find this amusing. The professional content that folks share on LinkedIn is largely vapid, derivative, and self-promotional. Although these posts might be business-themed, the vast bulk of it is a waste of time—and a boring one at that.

My perceptions failed me

As a kid, I knew who was in business, because I could tell. They dressed well, had impressive titles, and acted formally. Oh, yes, and they talked about serious stuff—because business is serious, y’know?

But, my perceptions were flawed. I grew up in a mill town. Around there, the people who’d achieved success in business didn’t necessarily look the part. Instead, they wore jeans and ball caps. They drove pick-ups, and weren’t typically that distinguishable from anyone else. They’d simply worked hard, and found success.

The people who looked the most “professional?” They were often admin staff or worked in front-line sales. Folks often confuse looking professional with being a professional (go figure). As such, professionalism has mostly devolved into a means of controlling others through their lazy biases.

Perspectives move around

If an overweight person walks past, you’re likely to make a series of—probably inaccurate—assumptions about that person’s character. During the Renaissance, your assumptions would have been different. This has a lot to do with power and choice. When food was scarce, extra weight conveyed prosperity. Now that food is (largely) abundant this body type is no longer as enviable.

Some will say that their observations/judgements about others’ body types are health-focused, but this seems inaccurate. If they were actually concerned with health, their talk would center around exercise, not body types. The notable part, here, is found in the judgement.

Consumer culture works best when people are insecure, jealous, or believe that their things make them better. (There’s a lot of money to be made by exploiting people’s insecurities in this way.) So, life is high-school, all over again. We’re told how to think and act—and we tend to maintain this charade. The fear of not fitting in is hard to shake.

As icons crumble, the illusion fades

Like high-school, though, if you step back for a moment, you realize this is all nonsense. I remember once shopping for new clothes. The salesman was snobby and seemed to enjoy making me feel small. At a certain point in our conversation, I had to remind myself that in spite of appearances, this fellow wasn’t some successful businessperson. Nope, he just sold suits, at the mall. So, why did I feel threatened by his judgement?

The same thinking can be applied on a larger scale. Remember how intimidated you were when you applied for your first mortgage? All those forms and scrutiny into your financial past were designed to make you feel small—and grateful for the debt they’d make available to you. Yet, those very same banks crumbled not so long ago—because, in spite of their professional appearance, many were built on quicksand.

This is the funny part about bemoaning a lack of professionalism on LinkedIn: it’s like complaining that no one says “sir” or “ma’am” any longer. This is misdirected concern. None of these traditions are actually necessary to do meaningful work—or to convey your competence. The real question comes down to whether the dialogue/action is constructive and beneficial—which, on LinkedIn, it typically isn’t.

Those with influence don’t need to pretend

When I think back to the wealthy logger in his pick-up truck, I’m sort of humbled. Here’s a person who’s well-to-do, yet, doesn’t show off. He doesn’t need to turn heads, read about himself in a newspaper article, nor receive a plaque with his name on it. Instead, he fared well, and just lives his life. To me, this seems more admirable than someone who’s desperate to establish some kind of legacy.

That’s what I find interesting about how business culture is changing. Increasingly, folks seem to share that logger’s mindset. It seems as though there’s less need to pretend. In fact, the uniform/act of professionalism seems increasingly anachronistic. When I see someone who’s formal and dressed up, I don’t think, “This must be someone important.” Instead, I wonder who this person is trying to impress.

Again, this has a lot to do with perceptions changing. Hallmarks of trust get tarnished, and no longer warrant our confidence. As things become more abundant, material symbols of wealth no longer indicate what they once did. Meanwhile, I believe that as we evolve, our attentions focus more on what (or why) we do what we do, than which objects we’re preoccupied with.

Establishing trust

None of this means that we shouldn’t take our work seriously. It’s just that we should focus on what we do, and how we do it, more than some outdated ideas about appearance.

So, I wear shorts and a t-shirt most of the time (even to business meetings). On calls with clients, they sometimes hear my kids splashing around in the bathtub, next to my workspace. I frequently use expletives and personal reflections in our discussions. And, I crack jokes—which are sometimes almost funny. I’m convinced that none of this has a negative impact on my relationships with those who hire me.

I show my professionalism in different ways. The first of these is knowledge. I know my shit, and I explain my thoughts/decisions carefully, so clients understand why I suggested an approach. I’m also explicit about what I don’t know (for example, my knowledge is weak in SEO, retail merchandising, interior design, and many other related—yet different—pursuits). In my mind, you need to admit what you don’t know, to maintain any credibility with your client—because there’s no such thing as an “expert in everything.”

I also do what I say I’m going to do. If I schedule a meeting, I’m there on time. If I commit to a deliverable, I make it happen. If something goes wrong, I take responsibility for it—and propose a solution. These are the sorts of actions that define my professionalism.

Be indispensable

I spent a long time believing that if I looked the part, success would follow. In retrospect, this was a mistake on my behalf (that wasted a lot of time and money). Truth of the matter is that no one really cares about your fancy title or the way you present yourself. What they care about is what you can do for them.

So, put a little less time into thinking about how professional you look—and instead, ask your clients how they feel. Learn about them. Find out about their problems. Uncover what they want to say, but are unsure of how to do so. Then, do those basic things: help them meet their goals; do what you promised; be on time.

Being a professional is much simpler than looking like a professional. Meanwhile, so many are obsessed with looking the part that actually being professional is surprisingly rare. Put another way: concentrate principally on doing good work, and folks are bound to notice.

And as for social networking? Perhaps the time for posting business-esque content is over—and you should instead just try to be helpful.

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