Valuing professional mindsets

Dr Kay Kimber, Director of the Centre for Professional Practice

Our Year 12s are standing on the cusp of their professional lives. When those final assemblies marking the end of their secondary schooling conclude, they will be poised to commit to the tertiary studies that will shape the nucleus of their professional identity. This article proposes that in their career transformations beyond the picket fence, a layering of the concept of professional mindsets could well prove to be a lynchpin for their continued professional growth.

Frequently in our work with pre-service teachers at the School, we promote the mantra, Protect the personal; project the professional. With these words, the aspiring teachers are prompted towards mindful consideration of every moment — to respect the fragility of the private-public boundary and to act professionally at all times. To move beyond the student identity they have comfortably inhabited for at least sixteen years, they need to try on the mantle of their own professional identity. While its fabric is undisputedly their subject expertise, to wear this mantle well, they also need to adopt particular ways of acting, thinking and being.

According to Hargeaves (2000), a professional identity involves both ‘being professional’ and ‘being a professional’ (p. 152). While the former equates to acting according to accepted standards and beliefs, the latter requires an individual to be sensitive to how their actions might be perceived by others. Hargreaves’ parameters indicate how a professional identity is all-consuming — a total way of being — one where actions and standards of behaviour must bring credit to one’s chosen profession and one’s own status across a professional lifetime. Yet indications of the kinds of career opportunities awaiting our Year 12s suggest the essence of ‘being professional … [and] being a professional’ is becoming more challenging.

In recent years we have been led to understand the prospect of several career changes await our young people throughout their working lives. Forbes (2013) has noted ‘the traditional, single-track career pattern of the last century (think ladder) is now more difficult to find’ (p. 1). Two distinct trends in career shaping, particularly for young people, have already emerged: ‘portfolio careers’ (Forbes, 2013) and ‘slashers’ (Nathanson, 2012). These concepts embrace multiple professions, passions and interests. The first draws together chronologically sequenced career positions or successive short-term contracts into one portfolio. By contrast, the slasher holds concurrent positions, either by choice or necessity. Both types of career-shapers demand multiple sets of knowledge bases, efficient organisational skills, and social adaptability. Both prompt speculation on whether such a phenomenon will shape or fracture the development of a robust professional identity.

In the ‘ladder’ career-progression scenario, a person progressively builds her professional identity, simultaneously establishing credibility and status within that profession. The exponential growth of technological advances and social media innovations, however, creates an additional challenge for the portfolio and slasher devotees. This challenge lies in the virtual intersection of private and public worlds.

Our information economy has spawned a highly visible, tarnishable, reputation economy, one that has fallen hostage to the blurring of public-private boundaries. Essentially more a cultural shift than a technological one, its reality is with us now. Instances of supposedly private postings of images or comments on social media reaching the attention of employers, current or future, have been publicised, often with sad consequences. Mindfulness of knowing what and when to post should govern the content and focus of actual and virtual conversations more than it does. Connectivity does facilitate social and professional networks, but one can never forget that digital footprints can never be erased. Rather, they can unexpectedly haemorrhage into professional lives. In this reputation economy, one circulated in virtual as well as real-world action, professional identities can be negatively (and positively) impacted by lack of mindfulness — in nanoseconds. This is where the concept of professional mindsets could become the lynchpin.

In conceptualising ‘professional mindsets’, I draw on the notions of professional capital (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012), quality conversations (Scott, 2009), and deep, active listening (Scharmer, 2009). All three promise a focused layering to being a professional. They help balance thought and action for strengthening workplace relationships and reputations.

Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) couched the building of professionalism in economic terms. For these respected educators, the value of the professional cannot not be gifted or bought; rather, its status is earned through personal investment. In fact, it is the manner of development, circulation and reinvestment that determines its ultimate value. Its accrual requires three kinds of capital investment: human, social and decisional. The character of human investment is always unique, reflecting the talents, qualifications and experiences of the individual; however, it is the strength of that individual’s social and decisional capital that can elevate or sink their professional status or reputation.

Hargreaves and Fullan’s ‘social capital’ concerns relationships, conversations, trust, respect and consistency of behaviour. Its worth can be measured by the frequency and focus of conversations between team members. Scott (2009) would agree, conflating relationships and conversations. She cautioned that ‘while no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a company, a relationship, or a life — any single conversation can’ (p. 15).

For Scott, this interrelationship was cast as ‘emotional capital’ and ‘your most valuable currency’ (p. 20). She cited research with over 300 top-level executives from fifteen global companies that showed how ‘emotional competencies’ (p. 76) distinguished the stars from the average team players. By recognising the importance of maintaining quality control of the focus of conversations, workplace and personal relationships can also be enhanced.

Significantly, it is ‘decisional capital’ that confirms the measure of one’s professional reputation and status. Yes, options in complex situations need to be weighed up and judgements based on professional knowledge, experience and evidence. From inspired and innovative to difficult and competent, everyday and especially long term, the impact of good and bad decisions cannot be underestimated. Professionals’ decisional capital enables them ‘to make wise judgements where there is no fixed rule or piece of incontrovertible evidence to guide them’ (Hargeaves & Fullan, 2012, p. 94). Through self-listening or self-questioning, the quality of that actual or virtual conversation can be improved, and thus the quality of the relationship and one’s social and decisional capital.

How can self-listening help? Otto Scharmer (2007) claimed that our own ‘voice[s] of judgment, cynicism and fear’ (pp. 42–3) block our receptiveness to other viewpoints or actions, each in different ways. He urged people to recognise and eliminate their own obstacles to active or ‘deep listening’. Perhaps the listener is not open to other ideas because her habitual ways of acting are considered to be the best and only way to act. Perhaps the should-be listener actually becomes a rarely-listened-to because she is a compulsive or high-volume talker who effectively closes down any opportunity for hearing other perspectives of value. Self-critical classification of talk-in-action (or talk-before-action) helps stimulate the quality of one’s critical reflection and conversation, as well as the future quality of one’s professional relationships.

Perhaps the ideas outlined here could be explored in family conversations. Test the merit of the claim that we live in a reputation economy tied to media power. Speculate on how the world of work might impact future career options or advancement. Debate the validity of human, social and decisional capital for thinking about the forging of professional identity beyond a university qualification. Map those ideal thinking modes and attributes that could ideally trigger the launch of highly successful careers and enrich the value of one’s professional reputation.

In moving across and between multiple career paths, our aspiring young professionals may find many challenges, but by aiming to shape the consistency and depth of their own professional mindset from the beginning, they should be well equipped to build robust professional identities with admirable reputations.

References (2013). Portfolio careers: Is the latest work trend right for you? Personal Finance, 27 February. Retrieved 26 October, 2014, from 

Hargreaves, A. (2000). Four ages of professionalism and professional learning. Teachers and Teaching: History and Practice, 6(2), 151–182.

Hargreaves, A. & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York, NY: Teachers College Columbia University.

Nathanson, H. (2012, 7 September). Meet the Slashies … the savvy Londoners holding down more than one job. The London Evening Standard. Retrieved 26 October, 2014, from

Scott, S. (2009). Fierce leadership: a bold alternative to the worst ‘best practices’ of business today. Cornwall, Great Britain: Piatkus.

Scharmer, C. Otto. (2007). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.