Last night I watched the film of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, in which Dame Maggie Smith plays Mary Shepherd, a malodorous, dishevelled, but equally imperious version of ‘Lady Grantham’ in Downton Abbey. The mentally fragile Miss Shepherd, a former pianist and nun, in flight from an imagined crime, took up residence in a van in Alan Bennett’s London driveway in the 1980s and stayed there until her death 15 years later.
Step by step, though with characteristic indecision, the playwright becomes involved in her life. At one point a social worker asks Alan Bennett:
‘Are you her carer?’
He recoils from the word.
‘I hate the word carer,’ he says.
And one can see why. You can care about someone, care for someone, take care of this or that, but who, or what, exactly, is a carer? Are not all human beings carers?
For similar reasons, I’m always puzzled when someone’s behaviour is described as ‘unprofessional’. It’s usually meant as criticism, but when I hear the word I’m always cautiously optimistic that something interesting has happened.
I hate ‘professionalism’. But what I mean is that I hate the idea that there’s something more than doing a good job, with all that implies in terms of skill, knowledge, experience, courtesy, pragmatism and economy. What does ‘professionalism’ add to the mix?
What people often mean by a professional style is a gloss of conformity with some entirely artificial notions of standard business behaviour.
I’m still angry with something a client once said to me twenty years ago. I was working on a systems implementation project for an international company that involved simultaneous implementations of SunSystems in both Prague and Budapest. I was shuttling between the two and on one occasion I worked until the early hours of the morning at the company’s Prague office before flying to Budapest to continue working there. The question arose, at around 7pm, towards the end of a very long day, as to whether we should begin a new task or down tools for the day.
‘I’m rather tired,’ I said. ‘We need to be very precise with what we’re about to do, so it probably makes sense to continue in the morning.’
Everyone agreed, but later it transpired that one of the young, arrogant, financial controllers had remarked that to say that you’re tired is ‘unprofessional’. He had worked for Arthur Andersen, and at Arthur Andersen no one would have dreamt of saying such a thing.
I’m still angry. I was being entirely honest and sensible and I expected a little sympathy.
I strongly believe that we should be entirely ourselves at work, not some ‘professional’ other self. We should neither look alike, nor behave alike. Diversity brings creativity to teamwork, and the less energy that we spend on attempting to be a person other than we are, the more energy there is available for the task in hand.
History, I think, is on my side. The worlds of work and leisure have coalesced. We work from home, we work on holiday, we don’t quite watch the clock as assiduously as we used to. We are flexible, and we are more ourselves, and, in my company at least, we rarely wear suits. Technology has made it possible for us to live and work in different ways.
Social media also reflect this change. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, these are tools that blur the edges between workplace and home. We no longer project a ‘professional’ and a ‘domestic’ style in carefully separated ways. When marketing ourselves and our values, especially if we work for a consulting company, we present ourselves as real, diverse and whole people, not as androids formed from pliable material in a specific professional mould.
From left to right:
- Veselina Portarska, Administration and Marketing Assistant at LLP Bulgaria is passionate about driving.
- Adam Bager, LLP Group’s Chairman, plays the oboe.
- Alinka Varhegyi, Chief Accountant at LLP Hungary, trains dogs.
- Irina Ilieva, Country Manager at LLP Bulgaria, does anti-gravity yoga.
- Gabor Varadi, Consultant at LLP Hungary, loves surfing.
- Valeri Yordanov, Technical Consultant at LLP Bulgaria, races cars.
- Dimitar Dimitrov, Consultant at LLP Luxembourg, enjoys skydiving.
- Lada Svecena, Senior Consultant at LLP Czech Republic, runs marathons all over the world.
- Dana Benakova, Senior Consultant at LLP Czech Republic, sings in a choir.
Let us all be interesting!