Professional Excellence: Beyond Technical Competence
Alan P. Rositer
What exactly is a professional? You must admit, it’s one of the more challenging words in the English language.
Sometimes it’s an adjective, one often applied to adults paid to play children’s games. Sometimes it’s a noun, intended to convey that the person identifying with it is more rigorously schooled and trained in a particular body of knowledge. Sometimes it’s an adjective with that same meaning.
Though it is a terribly serious word, it’s often used ironically. I’ve met clerks, garbagemen and cooks who’ve all asked me to stop what I’m doing and let a professional handle a given task. Usually, they’re correct to do so.
Put that aside for a moment. Let’s turn our attention to excellence. I find the dictionary less than useful here. It offers me two definitions: the quality of being excellent and an excellent quality.
Even looking up the noun doesn’t help. Excellent, Wesbter tells me, no longer means superior. It means a very good example of its kind, that “most excellent meal” a former boss of mine was trained to offer prospective buyers of pots and pans back when such things were sold door-to-door. I can hear my grandmother saying, “Blessed be they that go in circles, for they shall be called wheels.”
Can any good result from combing two such words? The short answer is, perhaps.
Luckily, the man who’s going to try and answer that question seems up to the task. Alan Rositer is a chemical engineer who has built a reputation in what are known as the process industries. Though he holds a doctorate, he’s more apt to reach beyond the merely technical than some of his peers.
His writing conveys a lively personality alive with the possibilities and aware of the rewards–blessings might be a more appropriate word–that can accompany a successful professional life.
I suppose at this point I should ‘fess up. Many years ago I was introduced to Dr. Rositer. He is an active member of his professional association (an activity he recommends in his book) and at the time I was working on the organization’s staff. I found Rositer the man and Rositer the author to be the same person. I suspect that’s not always the case and I suppose I was relieved.
So why is an engineer writing such a book? I’ll let the man answer for himself:
“I shouldn’t have written this book. I am an engineer, not a leadership guru or a management consultant–much less a philosopher, psychologist or ethicist. Yet after working as an engineer in industry for fifteen years. I felt that I had learned a bit about what was really important in the workplace, and felt compelled to share it.”
Those are the first words our author cares to share with us. I’m not quite sure if they’re offered as a warning or a promise, but whichever it is, it’s pretty indicative of the tone and viewpoint you’ll encounter over the balance of this brief, readable book.
Rositer divides the book into two parts, the world of work and elements of professional excellence. As organizing principles go it’s not terrible and it appears, to this non-engineer, reasonably consistent with what I take to be engineering practice: assess the situation and needs and then formulate a response. In that way, it’s not terribly dissimilar to sound marketing practice.
Almost immediately, though, we encounter a roadblock. Okay, I encounter a roadblock, an all too- familiar one. It’s one that suggests our author has spent more time in training sessions and consultant-led ‘professional development’ than even he may be aware.
I speak, of course, of Abraham Maslow and his ever-popular hierarchy of needs. I could probably get a series of posts out of the good Doctor but that would be fruitless. Adherents far outnumber critics and, like our politics, fervor matters more than reason.
The appeal, I think, is that especially in its most commonly-represented pyramidal form, the hierarchy appears inarguable. It suggests, common-sensically, that worry about lacking the basics of life might drive out room for higher-order thinking and activity. It is, as they say, intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer.
As a story, it works just fine. As science, it’s methodological crap, built on a cherry-picked dataset that, in the face of criticism, miraculously expanded to encompass missing elements all of which fit the model perfectly. The whole ramshackle affair rests on an almost quicksand-like foundation of selection processes and rules of evidence.
Given that, I wonder how anyone could build an observational framework or robust process. Sometimes I think engineers are unduly deferential to scientists. In a field like psychology, which, depending on the institution, can as easily live in the social sciences as natural sciences department, healthy skepticism is in order. You can, and should, follow durable constructs like the second law of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law. There is nothing comparable in all of social science.
Where does that leave us with regard to the present volume? Despite the guffaws that always seem to accompany me saying this, I like to think I’m a practical person. I always say if you get one new idea, or are reminded of something important you’d forgotten, then a book, lecture or course is worth your time. The truth is, Dr. Rositer does an incredibly efficient job of delivering some important points that bear repeating even to grizzled veterans.
If I had to sum it up, and I’m approaching my self-imposed limit so I really should, I’d say his advice boils down to be a complete person. What do I mean by that? Like Rositer, I take competence as a given and something that it’s going to take you at least a few years to develop. You can be inventive, brilliant even, and still have just gotten lucky. Competence is actually the ability to engage in your craft or discipline at the highest level repeatedly.
What Rositer suggests is working on what are sometimes known as soft skills. Communicating effectively. Being responsible and meeting your commitments. Being aware of your limits and that the people you are dealing with are humans facing similar stresses as you. Giving back and allowing yourself to have a full family life. It’s not a program so much as sound advice.
Alan always manages to amuse me in some unintended way. So I’ll leave you with the biggest chuckle this book gave me. Early on he lists the ‘soft skills‘ technical professionals are increasingly expected to have. The list includes marketing and economics.
Since I believe marketing is about thinking I can accept that. I just don’t know about my economist friends. I’m pretty sure they believe their work is equivalent to physics.