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!

Facebooks before Facebook

It’s the time of year when pupils are graduating from secondary schools all over Europe. You notice it particularly here in Central and Eastern Europe because each graduating class creates a kind of Facebook and places it in the window of their town’s most prestigious café, department store or bookshop.

facebook 2

It used to charm me in the late 1980s when I lived in Budapest, since we never did this when I was at school, but what’s depressing is that, although 28 years have passed, these pre-Facebook Facebooks haven’t changed at all.

Graphical styles have undergone all sorts of revolutions since 1987, and the whole of Communist Eastern Europe has revolted politically and been liberated from the straitjacket of Marxist orthodoxy, (which has always given a rather serious cast to education) but it might as well never have happened. These displays of (probably) bright young lives and their teachers are still as dull, as dreary, as empty of originality and promise, as they always were. See a particularly dire example, above, from a window (albeit of a religious bookshop) in Debrecen.

Look carefully. The only male teacher without a tie is the drama teacher (you wonder if he will ever be promoted after this sartorial dare) – and only he and his theatrical colleague permit themselves a slightly open-mouthed smile. Of course, a certain license has always been permitted to the more expressive arts. Otherwise it’s all pursed lips, at least for male teachers of mathematics, chemistry, history, and literature. And men, of course, have their greater dignity to consider, whilst women may smile a little more informally.

drama smiles

‘Kati Neni’ (‘Auntie Kate’), plum centre of the picture, and this year’s class teacher, has something rather unsurprising to say.

‘Finally, it’s over!’

kati neni

I imagine she says this every year, but whether in sadness or relief we cannot tell from her expression.

Deputy Director Katalin is a dead ringer for a 1970s Miss Moneypenny

deputy director

And her colleague, the second deputy director, looks a tiny bit mad – a good candidate for Q.

other deputy director

As for the pupils, properly relegated to the lower ranks, the only one who looks remotely like fun is Mizi Marietta, who, with a name like that must go on to a starring role in a new operetta by the dead but much-loved Franz Lehar.

mizi marietta

20 girls, 7 boys. What’s happening in Debrecen? Are boys now exposed at birth on the Puszta to be picked at by vultures?

And why do they all wear black and black ties? Is graduation a kind of funeral?

Now, I must also confess that although I have a particular love for Hungary, since, in a certain sense, I grew up there, I couldn’t help thinking, when I saw the Czechoslovak Facebooks in all the shops in Prague in the same late 1980s that they did it rather better there. They were funny, irreverent, imaginative, unconventional. Is there a deep-seated conservatism about Hungary that has resisted change over the last 28 years (and for how many decades before)? Or is it just this eastern part of Hungary that is stuck in the Puszta mud?

Anyway, boys and girls, do try harder!