Accountants, doctors, engineers and lawyers are very different professions, but all share the core concept of the ‘professional’ - an individual who provides specialist expertise to others, whether as a consultant or full-time employee.
In purchasing their expertise, clients and employers have clear expectations about what they want in return for their investment. More than likely, professionals will also be working alongside colleagues that have similarly clear expectations.
'Professionalism doesn’t simply refer to your technical expertise,' explains Ros Leah, ACCA head of professional development. 'It’s about how you deliver that expertise as a service, and this is a crucial point of differentiation for employers. The applicant that behaves in the most professional manner is usually the prime candidate for a position.'
So what does it mean to be professional? Here are five essential qualities that clients and employers expect.
Successful business relationships are built on trust, making it by far the most important quality of professionalism.
'The confidence to trust someone comes from the way they conduct themselves,' says Ros. 'Clients and employers will of course assess you on your technical ability, but a great deal more contributes to their overall impression of you.'
'If a candidate is late, messy, uncommunicative, rude or evasive, this all serves to undermine the perception of trust. This isn’t restricted to interviews, as professionals are judged on how they conduct themselves every single day.'
'Responsibility and trust go hand in hand,' explains Ian Waters, ACCA head of standards. 'Every organisation relies on finance, which means finance professionals play a critical role in an organisation’s success. Clients and employers must be certain that you can not only carry out tasks to a high standard, but also do it honestly, objectively, confidentially and in compliance with relevant laws and regulations.'
'This is why ACCA continues to drive professional responsibility in the finance sector, with a mandatory ethics module, a comprehensive ethical framework in the ACCA Rulebook that applies to students as well as members, and a positive engagement with the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants (IESBA).'
Striving for excellence
Manufacturers rely heavily on ‘quality assurance’, simply because one bad product can drive customers to buy elsewhere. Finance professionals must embrace quality assurance for the same reason, bearing in mind one critical difference - they take personal responsibility for their own quality assurance.
'Quality assurance is an obligation that professionals have to their client or employer under the ethical principle of competence and due care,' says Ros Leah. 'Beyond that, striving for excellence is particularly important for those with ambitious career objectives as it can lead to professional recommendations and much greater opportunities.'
'Continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of this. Keep up to date with technical developments, embrace new skills, and continually challenge yourself to do better.'
Today’s world demands more of its professionals across all sectors and industries. More than ever, clients and employers are looking for individuals who can deliver a much broader positive impact on their organisation. This can take many forms, from improved business processes to initiatives that enhance team-working and morale.
Today’s professionals must also be more considerate of how their actions affect communities and the environment. In many sectors, corporate social responsibility has even become a driving force for business improvement.
Representing your profession
'The conduct of professionals has a strong impact on their profession,' explains Ian Waters. 'Those with positions of responsibility have never been more closely scrutinised, both by traditional and social media. In particular, failures of integrity and ethics can have an extremely damaging effect, and ultimately weaken public trust in the profession overall. As a membership body, ACCA is in a similar position, which is why we expect all of our students and members to be positive role models and ambassadors of our organisation.'
In summary, professionalism encompasses every aspect of your presence as a service provider, and it may help to consider this in three layers.
At the core, professionalism means delivering your technical expertise reliably, responsibly, ethically, with continual pursuit of excellence, and in a way that adds value to your client or employer’s organisation. Supporting this are ‘soft skills’ such as written and verbal communication, team-working and leadership. And underpinning everything are personal standards such as time-keeping, appearance and your ability to treat colleagues with respect.
Combined, this builds into a cumulative reputation of trust that will ensure clients and employers see you as a valuable asset within their organisation.