The only way to professional excellence in the 21st century

Kevin Turner, the COO of Microsoft advises, “The only job security we have is our commitment to continuing personal growth.”


Disruption. Turnover. Irrelevance. Outsourcing. Declining pay scales.

No, I am not attempting to spray scary words carefully chosen from market jargon. If you haven’t heard these words in a while, there are only two possibilities – either you have been living in a cave, or you are not paying enough attention to trends in your career and industry.


Every manager, CEO, leader or business owner desires to find ‘professional’ employees. And if you are a ‘professional’, then you want to excel ‘professionally’ in order to keep growing and succeeding in your career. But haven’t you wondered why these terms are often not defined clearly – in a way you can apply and measure them? Or at least in a way that offers a roadmap?

We are in the second decade of this century. As of today, two things are very clear – businesses and industries are growing more complex, thus demanding more professionalism and excellence. At the same time, those very two qualities are in sharp decline, possibly becoming rare and precious commodities.


If you are like me, you won’t be satisfied being an ‘also-ran’ in your career.

  • You want to do more and learn more.
  • You want to add enormous value, contribute to meaningful work while playing in your strength zone.
  • And you want to stay ahead of the upcoming trends and shifts, so that you can capitalize on the future.


How do you do that? Here’s a map to remember and carry with you, to help you chart the course, navigate your path well, avoid pitfalls and position yourself strategically.


The Class-Act Professional Thinking : Professionalism 3.0


If you aspire to be a class-act professional, you must engage in some deep thinking along the lines given below. Then filter your insights thru this four-step funnel and emerge at the other end with a clear strategy and roadmap to implement starting today.

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First, discover your Portfolio of Passions:

In the excellent book, Success Built to Last: Creating a Life that Matters, the authors suggest that each of us have 2-3 affinities, interests or ‘likings’ that fall under our “portfolio of passions” which, if focused on, can create lasting success, achievement and meaning in our life. How do you find your portfolio of passions? Here’s how:

  • Write down the top 10 things you love to do and love to be. (These are activities, pursuits, hobbies, things that make you happy)
  • Write down the top 10 skills you have (These are things you are particularly good at, you can do them better than most people, and others commend you and are wowed when you do them)
  • Write down the top 10 ways you would like to give to the world around you (These are disciplines, industries, causes and entities that you particularly care about. You like to read about them, you feel strongly and passionately about happenings related to these aspects)
  • Now, find an intersection of the above 3 questions. Identify 3-5 things that fall in the intersection, i.e., find something you absolutely love to do, that you are particularly awesome at doing, and doing which you can contribute to the world (or engage with the outside world). Repeat this process till you find at least 3 such things. This makes your portfolio of passions.
  • Now, take some time to brainstorm ways to craft a career that combines all 3 items on your portfolio. Or think of a few ways you could design/ redesign your career around it. This is not going to be easy. You will really have to suspend your disbelief, discount your presumptions and go for some “improbable” thinking. Come up with outrageous ideas if you must. But write down at least 10 ways you can build a career that combines your 3 passions.

If you manage to really engage in this exercise and find your portfolio of passions, invent some options for yourself, and set about making them a reality, you will have discovered career-nirvana. What’s more, success and genius will find you.


Second, analyze your intelligences:

Noted professor and researcher Howard Gardner theorised that we are gifted with multiple intelligences (9 in all…the list may expand in the future, who knows). These are verbal, mathematical, visual, kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic and existential. Out of the 9, you have a few in which you are particularly strong, and skilled in the way you express your capability to interact with the world.


How does this help? Here’s a quick plan:

  • Give yourself a score from 1 to 10 for each of these intelligences, (1- weak, 10-strong). Base your answers on how you work, how you learn and how you prefer to think on a daily basis.
  • List out your top 3.
  • Then, reflect on how much of your work (in terms of time and projects) really allow you to use and develop these 3 intelligences.
  • Write down a list of 10 things (however small) you could start doing immediately during your work-day to align your task with your intelligences.

(Hardly a scientific method, I know. In fact, there probably are some validated assessment tools out there to help you analyze your intelligences and integrate them into your career. If you want to use those, by all means, go for it. Here, I want to help you quickly use what you already know about yourself. And there’s no better tool for that than self-reflection!)


Third, understand your 3 layers of knowledge:

In his insightful book, The Professional, author and business leader Subroto Bagchi talks about the 3 layers of knowledge people exhibit in today’s marketplace. The first level is technical knowledge – knowing your job, specifications and the how-to. The second layer is experiential knowledge – knowing from the experience of the end-user. The third layer is existential knowledge – going beyond experiences, into the mind of the end-user.


I believe, we can look at this framework from another perspective to apply it in a personal context:

  • First, assess your base level of theoretical knowledge in your field of work. Next, assess how much you have managed to learn from real-world experience working in your field. It also includes what you have learned from other people’s experiences, not just your own. Then, assess how good you are in existential thinking (identifying trends, finding possibilities, predicting the future, understanding people, etc).
  • If you don’t score well in any one layer, you must think of specific ways to strengthen this layer daily – perhaps by learning more, getting mentorship, volunteering for new projects etc.
  • The key is to strengthen layer by layer, but eventually you want to be a master of the existential layer. This is the place where all experts, authorities and legends hang out.


 Fourth, know your action/ leadership style:

When you work and/ or lead, where’s your usual focus?

  • Do you gravitate towards ideas and possibilities?
  • Or are you a people-person drawn towards teams and human interaction?
  • Or are you mainly about the job at hand – getting the work done and completing the task-list?
  • Or are you naturally drawn towards the big picture and systems thinking?


You will find that you have a predominant action/ leadership style, with possibly one other strong area. For example, I tend to naturally veer towards ideas (my predominant style) and systems (my other strong area).

But, you may ask, don’t you need all four for professional success? Absolutely, but that perfect world doesn’t exist for anyone, not even the legendary geniuses. So, then, what’s the solution? Play with what you have got, and find a way to build your weak areas at least to an acceptable level. For example, while I am not naturally a people-person, I have been able to build up my people skills to a reasonable level through learning and practice. Also, using some productivity practices, I am now able to work through my task-lists with ease and timeliness.


As you grow in leadership and build an effective team around you, it’s quite possible that you will be able to offset some of your weak styles (or make them irrelevant) by having team members with complementary skills.


There you have it.


Take some time out this week to be by yourself, get a cup of coffee, and spend some time thinking about your work and career. Get clarity on your portfolio of passions, intelligences, knowledge layers and action styles.


What can you do immediately to play at world-class with what you have got at your disposal?


Make it a practice to review your “Class-Act ness” (ok, I made up that word) every year using the above thinking. Every year, you will have had new experiences, learnt new things, met new people and discovered new insights about yourself. Why not exploit it to your advantage to become a Class-Act Professional?


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