Look Like a ProfessionalI’ve been an adjunct professor for most of this century, teaching graduate students quality and operations management as well as entrepreneurship.  Now, mind you, these were GRADUATE students.  For the most part, they had experience in the workplace after college.

And yet, they weren’t professionals.  By that, I mean they didn’t produce work that looked like it had been done professionally.

The level of shoddiest was shocking.

Being a professional means that you “profess” something.  And all too often, what’s professed is “what little can I do?”

For example, I was a project manager for a contract that required a technical report be submitted to the client.  The report had been prepared, edited and was “ready to be sent” before I was the project manager, but not sent.  When it was given to me, I was shocked because there was no identification on the report, no cover page, no cover – it looked like something I would expect a 10th grader to produce.  There was nothing technically wrong with the report’s substance – it just looked amateurish.  I spent an hour adding a cover page identifying the reason for the report (citing the contract number, title and clause), who produced the report and creating a cover with graphics.  Then I went to FedEx Kinkos and had the 10 copies of the report bound with a clear plastic cover on the front and back.  Then, and only then, did I approve sending it to the client.  It now looked professional.

After I had been teaching operations management a few years, I finally got tired of my students giving me crap as their deliverables.  So, I added a new module to my class – How to Look Like a Professional.  It was short – a half hour at the longest.  But I reinforced the lesson with an assignment – they had to submit their take home exam as if they were consultants to my company with me as the CEO.  The result was they quickly learned how to add the little touches that distinguishes a professional from the amateur.

Because what’s the difference between a professional and a wannabe?  Not much!  It’s attention to detail and paying attention to how your work looks.  It’s little touches.

What are those little touches?

  1. The Power of the LOOK – You don’t get a second chance at a first impression. Look like a professional – I’m all for casual work environments but looking like a professional is more than wearing a coat and tie.  Acting like a professional is more than clothes you wear – it’s your tone and words, your body language and how you treat people.  You’ve seen professionals – act like them!
  2. Have a “LOOK” – When the Homeland Security Institute was set up, one of the first things we decided on was what our reports would look like. We chose lime green as the background color for all report covers.  It would be recognizable from across the room and no one would be able to miss it.  It wasn’t beautiful – but it was noticed!  And that’s what you want for you work when you are a professional.  You want your work to be noticed.  In any position I worked in, I would create a template for memos, papers and reports – it saved time in creating the documents while also creating my “trademark” – people knew that I created the document.  If you do good work, why won’t you want people to know who did it?
    1. Cover pages are easy! Create a standard cover page for your work.
    2. Think! What’s my brand?
    3. Something that will stand out across the room
    4. Extend the look throughout the document
  3. Completed Staff Work – I touched on this in the last blog. CEOs (and colonels and generals) don’t have time to look up anything for themselves, that’s why they have you.  Provide all the information for them to act with the product you give them.  Make it easy for the reader/decision maker to understand.
    1. Create a structure that leads the reader
    2. Remind the reader before presenting the what (answer)
    3. What do you want the reader to do? Don’t make them guess
    4. Have a place for the decision maker to sign their decision at the front of the document.
  4. If It’s Hard, You Lose – Make the decision easy – This is a follow-on to Completed Staff Work. Provide information in a form that allows the decision maker to see the pros and cons in a clear, concise and FAIR manner.  It will never help you in the long run to try to manipulate your customer – they will realize it and never trust you.
    1. I’ve said it before but Rank * Intelligence = Constant. Executives are busy = they don’t have time to work at understanding what you are trying to say.
    2. If it’s more than one page, have a summary at the beginning.
    3. Put detailed explanations in the appendix
    4. If it’s electronic, think about putting the important stuff in the first screen and how it will look printed

That’s it – it’s not hard to look like a professional, but you have to pay attention to the details and work at it.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.