According to Merriam Webster, professionalism is “the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person“. The U.S. Department of Labor gives a different, in my opinion much better because more precise, definition:
“Professionalism does not mean wearing a suit or carrying a briefcase; rather, it means conducting oneself with responsibility, integrity, accountability, and excellence. It means communicating effectively and appropriately and always finding a way to be productive.”
All the qualities mentioned above are soft-skills, and they are probably more important than ever to succeed in today’s job market (see this study for more). That is not to say they are impossible to attain. While the term “learning” might mislead for soft-skills (everybody has in him-/herself already the foundation for soft-skills, so learning is not truly an addition of knowledge or a skill in this case), I believe that everybody can hone these skills, and it’s about time to do so!
I have had the great privilege to work with some incredibly bright and capable classmates and friends during my entire period of study at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). Together we achieved results that we never thought would even be possible at the outset of our “quests”. In the following I would like to point out a few factors that have immensely contributed to fostering soft-skills not just in me, but in all of us:
- Cross-cultural teams. This is a no-brainer when we’re talking about (cross-cultural) communication, but its benefits actually stem not just from communication. These include: developing an intuition for different working styles and problem-solving approaches; (understanding) beginning to understand different cultures; and benefiting from different perspectives
- Teammates with a common goal. I believe that at HKUST few students are content with being “good enough”, or fulfilling minimum requirements. I’ve had the great experience of working with those who reach for the limit(s), who are willing to go the extra mile or work through the extra night. It has taught me several things: 1) As a team, nothing is impossible if we set our mind to doing it. 2) We usually don’t even have an idea of what we are truly capable of achieving. 3) There is immense joy in overcoming one’s inner reservations and in outdoing one’s own expectations!
- Striving for perfectionism. This relates closely to the previous point about not settling for “good enough”. I recall that in my second semester at HKUST a Professor told us: “Better make sure there are no typos in your presentation/files. If you can’t even get grammar and spelling right, what does this say about your content?” And that is actually strikingly true. To a broader extent, don’t deliver something until you’re sure it is the best you could have come up with.
- Developing a results-oriented culture. As a team, we have always strived to set ourselves goals, to assign tasks, and to work in an effective and efficient way by drawing on everyone’s unique talents. It is, however, vitally important to avoid a sort of “self-focus”. Teamwork should be about getting things done, and about doing so in an effective, efficient, and simply awesome way! It is not the purpose of team-meetings to discuss the guidelines of assigning work and getting work done. In my experience, if a team is dealing too much with itself, it might be time for a wake-up call in order to focus on the true purpose: Getting things done!
- Randomly assigned teams. This was by far the biggest lesson for me. Most of the random-assigning happened in my second semester at HKUST. I’ve worked with people from different cultural and educational backgrounds, and that has taught me a big lesson: Yes, there were times when I was not too happy with how our group-work or how the dynamics played out. But getting over that has truly been an important lesson: No matter what your first perception about your respective others has been, don’t let them cloud your future judgment. Stay positive, stay open, and stay fact-oriented.
In conclusion, I believe that teamwork is a great way to develop and hone the skill set that constitutes professionalism. When courses at university rely on teamwork and group-projects, though, it is always a question of what the individual seeks to take away from it (in excess of a course grade). Teamwork truly starts at the individual, because it is inextricably linked to one’s personal attitude, expectations, and, in a somewhat anachronistically and fuzzy way, profesisonalism itself.
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