During my senior year at the University of Notre Dame, I had the honor (and unbridled fun) of being the mascot. Yep, I was the Leprechaun. In that role, I got to know some of the football players pretty well, and I spent a lot of time in close proximity to the team. At that level of Division I college ball, all the players are good--and most of them are pretty big, too. However, only a small fraction of those players at Notre Dame, or any other Division I (now FBS) school, would go on to play in the NFL. Of the best football players in the country, only a handful would turn pro.
When the guys who did go to the NFL came back to visit campus, the change was obvious. They were even bigger, more fit, and with better skills than when they were in college. They truly had become professionals. A common definition of professional is “being a member of a vocation founded upon specialized education and training.” There may also be a standard of ethical and moral regulations to be considered a professional. In the world of sports, we use financial compensation to draw the line between “amateur” and “professional.” However, when we think of a professional, we are generally talking about someone executing at a very high level of competence and probably getting paid well to do it. This excellence in execution demands continued study and pursuit. By definition, and by conventional wisdom, professionals are among the best at what they do.
Golf magazine recently focused on the relationship between the NFL and the game of golf. In fact, we often see professional athletes playing golf, sometimes pretty well. When a team loses in the playoffs, the joke is they will be on the golf course the next day. Many pro athletes talk about wanting to play pro golf when they retire from their current sport. But the reality is that very few come close to being competitive in the professional ranks of golf. Why? While they may have been professional football (baseball, hockey, etc.) players, they simply don’t have the skills needed for pro golf. Going back to our common understanding of professionals, they haven’t put in years of blood, sweat, and tears in the pursuit of golfing excellence.
The pro athletes go to play golf on nice courses that are in great condition. Like you and I, they can even play on some of the courses where the pros play. However, when Joe Public or Joe Athlete plays on those courses, they are nowhere near as difficult as when the pro golfers play there. It is amazing how mowing of grass can increase the degree of difficulty of a golf course. Move some tee boxes and pin positions, and the difficulty goes up again. In fact, while the game may be called golf, the actual event in which they are competing bears little resemblance to what you and I and the pro football player do when we play golf. That doesn’t mean we don’t harbor a secret joy when we make par on the same hole they made par. In fact, some people begin to talk themselves into an “I can play like that” mentality.
My chapter of the National Speakers Association brings in experts once a quarter to educate and inspire our members. Often, these speakers are the best of the best. They are professionals in every sense of the word. I will never forget the time I was talking to a visitor who was new to the speaking business. When I asked her what she thought of the presentation, she replied, “Oh, I can do that.” I smiled, said, “Good for you,” and walked away. She had no clue as to how good our guest speaker actually was. She’d made it look so easy onstage. The visitor didn’t recognize the amount of work that went into reaching that level. Her flip “I can do that” comment was as naive as the high school field goal kicker watching the game winner being kicked at the Super Bowl and saying, “Oh, I can do that.” Sure, perhaps someday, but not today, not now.
What does all this have to do with you? Simple. Are you a professional business manager/leader? You probably have incredible technical expertise which may, in fact, make you a professional at that task. You may be a doctor, architect, professional engineer, or construction manager, for example. But now you have moved into a position of management. Not only has the task changed, as in moving from football to golf, but there are people out there who truly are professional managers. They approach the entire concept of managing differently from the way you might. They approach it as a profession.
I need to go one step further and point out that leadership is yet another part of your progression of becoming a professional. You may be wearing a “manager” hat today, and a “leader” hat tomorrow. The higher in the organization you go, the more you will wear that “leader” hat. What you must realize is there are people who view management and leadership as fulltime professions in and of themselves. They dedicate years to the study and practice of managing and leading, putting in as much time and hard work as any NFL athlete. Because of this, they very well may be better at it than you--and that puts you, and your firm, at risk. They may be beating you. Of course, the score isn’t head-to-head, but financials don’t lie. Growth, profitability, return on equity, and the like are all measures to confirm how well a business is being managed. Other measures confirm the quality of their leadership. Professionals have made their companies Best of Class because of their vigorous attention to management and leadership.
In commenting on those pro athletes who try to transition to pro golf, Golf magazine wrote; “the overriding lesson: golf is hard.” About professional golfers, it said, “The skill set difference is glaring. There’s a small gap between the best players in golf and guys on the mini-tours (the minor leagues) – and a large gap between those players and the rest of us.”
Extending that thought process to business, we know that some managers and leaders are truly elite. A few more are excellent, but not quite elite. Then there is the rest of the pack. The things that move a golfer up in the ranks toward excellence are the same things that move a manager or leader up in the ranks toward excellence: practice, study, thought, and application over time. It may not be easy, but it can certainly be rewarding.
A few years back, the PGA ran an ad campaign with the tag line, “These guys are good.” They pointed out the extreme talent of the professional golfer. It was amusing and thought-provoking. It reminded us they were consummate professionals. The same can be said about some people in the world of business. There are professional managers. There are professional leaders. The important question today is… can this be said about you? Are you working at it? Are you educating yourself to improve? ‘Getting any coaching? Sadly, the vast majority of managers and leaders in business don’t work at it. They do a good-enough job, but they could do so much more. Study and thoughtful practice are part and parcel to being a professional. With the challenges facing American business today, I contend we need professional managers and leaders. We need professionals at the Excellent and Elite levels. We have too many who are in the pack and doing nothing to move out of it. This amateurish approach to business is a weakness that must be addressed.
These guys are good. What about you?
Wally Adamchik is President of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting. Visit the website at www.beaFireStarter.com. He can be reached at 919-673-9499 or wally@beaFireStarter.com.
"At first I was a bit skeptical... but you were able to slowly rule over my skepticism with your candid stories, accurate information on ‘true’ leadership and your closing statement. “Here are the tools; I have not given you application but merely the tools to be great leaders.” Your stories about the next generation and not forcing them to “pay their dues” really struck a chord as well as your analysis of generation Y and their constant need for information…"
JP Cullen & Sons, Inc.