Business Image and Professionalism

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.

Facebook is where this is most evident, and to that end we have recently published a new Facebook banner for LLP Group which celebrates our diversity and individuality. Have a look at it here.

LLP Group

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!

Inclusion and Diversity

It’s Gay Pride week in Prague, and as well as all the fun and festivity (which is, to my mind, completely unendurable during a 36C heat wave) there’s also some serious talk about diversity and inclusion – and some heavyweights to do it.

Yesterday’s Gay Business Forum, at the Hilton Hotel, was moderated by Evan Davies, the BBC’s Newsnight anchor, and presenter of Dragon’s Den. Whether he got back to London in time for Newsnight I don’t know, but we were lucky that he could spare a whole afternoon for the cause.

The first guest speaker was Lord John Browne, former CEO of BP, and architect of the company’s huge expansion in the 1990s and 2000s. He’s a formidable man, one of the world’s most prominent oil businessmen, and now Chairman of a new Russian-financed oil company, L1.

lord browne

In 2007 Lord Browne was ‘outed’ as gay by one of the UK’s gutter newspapers, and he resigned from his position as CEO, not because of the disclosure that he was gay, but because he had briefly lied in his attempt to prevent publication.

Following which, by his own admission he has never been happier.

I read Lord Browne’s book, The Glass Closet – Why Coming Out is Good Business, last year. As well as explaining how foolishly he had lived most of his life, attempting to conceal his sexuality (which everyone seemed to know about, and no one cared about) he argues forcibly that corporations of all kinds must be inclusive of all kinds of difference if they are to cast the net for the world’s best talent as wisely and widely as possible. The best might be black, white, blue, green, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, young, old, female, male, physically handicapped – whatever. All must feel comfortable in the workplace – and (to repeat a word that he uses frequently) ‘authentic’.

Some clever statistician in the audience claimed later in the afternoon that 300 Billion EUR of productivity are lost to Europe because ‘closet cases’ in the workplace are 30% less productive than the typical worker (a claim that could not, I think, be made about Lord Browne, who though securely in the closet, was, and probably is, an extreme example of the workaholic).

But I agree about authenticity. When I’m training consultants in soft skills I stress that we must be the same selves at home as in the office, merits and faults. And I encourage difference. Anything to avoid what is dull! Technology has blurred the edges of the workplace, and even the workday, so it’s less easy to define the limits of ‘work’ and ‘life’. We’re sometimes on holiday at work, and at work on holiday. At least I am.

But, most of all, it was moving to hear Lord Browne talk of the overwhelming support he received after his ‘outing’ and it’s clear that he is now a happy and entirely authentic man, and just as big an oil man as before. We were lucky to hear him speak and it is impressive that he devotes some considerable time to making the argument for diversity and inclusion.