Professionalism: A Tale of Two Young Professionals

Posted In: The Office
Posted On: 9/21/2015

career advice, young professionals, millennials

Trish Thomas is a fellow CEO, community leader and good friend of mine who knows a lot about what it takes to lead. When you read Trish’s blog, think about which professional you are!


Trish Thomas | CEO, Atomic20 |

Being in the advertising business, I encounter a lot of YPs (young professionals).  Our industry is full of sharp, young creative minds clambering for a slightly higher rung up the ladder. 

Personally, I love millennials.  I know they cause a lot of angst with some ‘mature leaders’ with a traditional management style, but most of the traits millennials exhibit that are pegged as unprofessional by the boomer crowd are really just typical youthful questioning and enthusiasm.  For generations we’ve seen the cycle of the aging executive bemoaning “these kids today” – it’s so cliché.

The traits that legitimately are unique to this generation are largely driven by the fact that they aren’t buying what we’re selling.  That’s annoying when you’re the one doing the selling, but let’s be honest; millennials have grown up observing the old ways not working so hot.  So if they are somewhat jaded toward 20th century jingles about hard work paying off or not challenging authority or making fashion or timeliness the pinnacle of your career focus, I think we may forgive them.  Historically they’ve seen promises broken and bubbles burst enough that cynicism is woven into the fabric of their being.

What do I appreciate about millennials?  I like people who question assumptions, who focus on big strategic moves over minutiae, who push back on BS, think for themselves, and believe at their core that they can make a real impact. Their appreciation of the environment and ethics is admirable.  Their affinity for technology is amazing (when they don’t text the day away at work!).  As a leader, I don’t care as much about what someone is wearing or how long they’re gone at lunch, or whether they prefer to work early in the morning or at midnight… I care that they do a great job, deliver real solutions, and advocate for our clients and team.

'Strong skills' can actually make more of a difference than all the business suits and on-time arrivals in the world.

That being said, I have some pet peeves around professionalism in the workplace. 

A few years ago I had the experience of working with two millennials, and their workplace attitude and actions and results were so diametrically opposed as to warrant A Tale of Two YPs.

YP #1 was incredibly smart, having attended an Ivy League university and received every accolade and award you can think of.  Unfortunately she also struggled with some basic tenets of professionalism.  She expected to be praised constantly, and not just for heroic effort or an exceptional job but just for showing up.  She stirred up trouble in the office; gossiping, sharing information inappropriately, and exacerbating already heated issues through mindless chatter.  She didn’t just challenge assumptions, she became a constant obstacle to progress and held an attitude of perpetual superiority that made her insufferable to work with.  In spite of her stellar academic pedigree and high intelligence, she was let go after about 8 months.

YP #2 had attended a local college and while she had done very well, did not have a stand-out CV.  Her saving grace and catapult to the top was that once hired she did everything right.  She took charge of her destiny and continually delivered good ideas and helpful solutions to problems.  Constructive criticism was greeted with gratitude and real effort to improve.  Gossip was deflected and account secrets stayed private.  She came in every day and put her head down to tackle the tasks in front of her with minimal fanfare and fuss.  Four years later she is in a Director role with the company earning six figures and managing a large team.

What were the defining facets of professionalism that helped one millennial shine and derailed the career track of the other?

  • Refusing to go with the flow.  Questions don’t bother me – roadblocks do.  Fresh ideas are appreciated – constant naysaying makes me want to punch people.  Recognize when you’re challenging the status quo or asking for clarification in positive, productive ways and when you’re just being change averse or acting as an obstacle to progress for no good reason.
  • Demanding a rah-rah response for mediocre results.  I’m a naturally optimistic, positive and appreciative leader by nature, but I’ll call a spade a spade and I don’t cheer when things are screwed up.  I critique kindly when it’s required and have high performance expectations all the time.  When you can’t get through the day without being told 10 times how fabulous you are, you need to find some confidence outside of work and lower your expectations for praise.
  • Loose lips.  I’ll just say it: I hate loose lips.  Whether it’s inter-office gossip, saying mean things that don’t need to be said, or sharing confidential information outside the agency, I can’t stand people who don’t know when to shut-up.  Showing off or buying collegiality through inappropriate sharing is the pinnacle of unprofessionalism.  Don’t do it.

Most conversations around professionalism focus on things like appearance, manners, showing up on time and meeting deadlines.  While all those things are very important, they are really just the basics that every employed person should pay attention to.  Soft Skills (or as Jane is calling them Strong Skills) can actually make more of a difference than all the business suits and on-time arrivals in the world.

Put your ear right up to the screen…

Be a team player, solve problems rather than causing them, do what you say you’re going to do, listen when a leader shares tough feedback, shut your mouth when there’s nothing useful to say, and recognize that no one owes you anything.

Got it?