Remember the Chinese Parable

At the outset of this book Mark and I described a career as a series of choices that determine what we do during the majority of our waking hours. The implication is that usually we make the choices and are generally in charge of our own destinies. Sometimes this is true, but not always. Occasionally the choices of others seem to determine our fate. Economies take a nosedive. Staffs are reduced in size. Departments and entire organizations are restructured. New leadership imposes different requirements throughout an agency. Organizations are organic, after all, and subject to the same shifts, growth cycles, and metamorphoses as individuals. They, too, are buffeted by external forces. Sometimes our job search at a particular time is set in motion not by our own choices but by the decisions of others. Often this appears, at least at first, to be a tragic occurrence, but it need not turn out that way. As colleagues who were fired attest, they were forced to grow and stretch, learn new skills, and often found themselves in new jobs more satisfying than those they had assumed they wanted to keep.

The moral is that we cannot be sure if a particular career experience (or a personal one, for that matter) is in the longer term positive or negative. Remember the Chinese parable: There was a peasant family. One day their only horse and source of livelihood escaped—a "bad" thing. The next day the horse returned with another horse. Their herd doubled—a "good" thing. The next day when the eldest son was trying to ride the new horse, he fell off and broke his leg—a "bad" thing. The next day war broke out and the injured son was not required to fight—a "good" thing. You get the idea. The important thing is what we do when certain choices are made for us. We cannot judge immediately if an event is good or bad for the evolution of a career. The operative questions are "What lessons can I distill from this experience?" and "What do these lessons suggest for my job search?"


Frequently, people are designated professionals because they have attained certain academic qualifications or positions. They have earned medical or engineering degrees, for instance. Often, it implies that they are equipped to, and in fact do, handle specific responsibilities. Lawyers must have earned a law degree and passed the bar to defend clients in the courtroom. Professors of Russian must have a certain level of proficiency and command of the language. Only professors with PhDs are considered qualified to teach higher-level courses.

Nonetheless, in many offices, employees at every level are routinely admonished to behave professionally or act like a professional. In that context, professionalism is an unwritten code of conduct you are expected to observe. What it means to be professional may vary considerably depending on the field and the internal culture of the organization in question.

Regardless of your role within an organization, it behooves you to behave professionally. Whether or not your supervisor articulates just what being a professional means, she undoubtedly has a notion of appropriate behavior (even if subconscious) against which she judges your actions and those of your colleagues.

What follows is my own, admittedly parochial, understanding of this elusive concept. I offer it not as the ultimate definition of professionalism but rather as a way to help you think about your behavior—as a job seeker and as an employee in a specific workplace.

Character Counts—Honesty and Dependability

For me, and I would venture to say that for most managers, the first measure of professionalism is character. Above all, I want people on my staff who are honest and have integrity. I need to know that I can count on that person. If my assistant says she will be there at 7:30 am to be sure that the breakfast for a meeting we are hosting is indeed what we ordered and set up as requested, I can trust that she will arrive on time. If a colleague submits a receipt for a given amount, I know that is exactly the amount she paid for that taxi ride. If a colleague promised to complete a newsletter article or grant proposal by noon on Thursday, I have confidence that the article or proposal will be submitted on time. I no longer have to exert any mental energy considering those tasks. I can depend on these colleagues. They do precisely what they say they will do. They are professionals.

Ambassador Kenton Keith underscored this point in our profile interview with him: "No matter how good your excuse is, if at the end of the day you have not achieved what you committed to achieving, that's what is going to be remembered."

If a mistake happens or a problem arises, a professional quickly informs a supervisor so they can resolve the problem. A professional always passes along useful information promptly to those who need to know. And in certain cases, he makes sure he has done so in writing. The old paper trail concept may have morphed into an electronic record, but the fundamental principle is the same. Hone your judgment regarding who needs what information and when it is needed.

This is a much bigger challenge now than when I started my career because an avalanche of messages in many forms buffets us daily. Sifting through those messages and deciding which are relevant to various colleagues is an enormous task. Years ago I would return from a lunch meeting to find four or five pink slips on my desk documenting phone messages. My last year at the National Council for International Visitors (NCIV), an alarming number of e-mails and other messages had accumulated during a luncheon meeting.

In 1982, when I assumed my first managerial position, the comptroller of the Institute of International Education gave me one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received: "Remember, Sherry, never surprise anyone." This has been a guiding principle for me ever since. Whether it's reporting a problem or passing along information in a timely manner, don't let colleagues find out from other sources what should have come from you.

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