Building Credible Professions for a Sustainable Future

An increasing number of professional bodies are starting to sound the alarm bell. There is something wrong in the society from which we fish our professionals. There is something fundamentally wrong when pass rates of board exams, that test competence, drop to record lows – especially when this is observed across multiple disciplines. The voices of those who cry ‘skills shortage’ are growing louder. Mine does too, and I am worried.

Most recently there has been a significant focus on the failures of auditors in their duty to protect the interest of the public. However, we have been silently, and sometimes loudly, lamenting the drop in standards of professional competence, ethics as well as work ethic across multiple disciplines such as education, journalism, law, medicine etc.

We all sense that something is wrong.

There are many reasons for this worrying trend that include inter alia:

  • An education system that is failing us. Most notably the one common denominator, when one listens closely to the professional bodies, is that they observe a significant lack of critical thinking. Deep application of mind is a requirement across all professions. If critical thinking is not a skill we’re building, what does that mean for us as a society?
  • Young people are less willing to “sweat in the trenches” and expect that their degrees alone should propel them to higher heights faster than the pace needed to gain the right depth of exposure. Thus, we observe job hopping which may add the breadth of experience, but not necessarily the depth that creates wisdom and acumen. Much of this has to do with the need for instant gratification, which we have created. My advocacy for the development of depth in our young people should not be confused with the practice of deliberately holding people back on the basis of their race or gender, nor with the unwillingness to provide the necessary exposure and training that could fast track people where appropriate. It is quite clear to me that I would have messed up royally in my current role if I had been appointed in the role soon after my first degree had been conferred on me. I had to sweat in the trenches first to build enough wisdom which would enable me to deal with the storms later.
  • Too many organisations want to attract skill, but are not willing to make the necessary sacrifices to develop skill. I find it absolutely mindboggling that organisations can be run by people smart enough to build empires, but not smart enough to understand that their empires do not have a sustainable future unless we all work together to increase the skills base as well as chip away at the frighteningly high youth unemployment rate.

Too many people confuse an academic qualification with competence. Competence is the ability to demonstrate that I can do the job at a certain standard. Analogies that I like to use are those of a chef and a surgeon. Although I think that I can cook a few decent dishes, I have to acknowledge that I could most definitely not compete with a chef. The fact that I can read a recipe that tells me what ingredients to use and in what order I should add them, does not mean that my dish would be at the same standard as the one a chef can whip up. Thus, knowing the theory does not mean that one is competent at the standard of a professional. This is particularly true for professions where critical thinking, deep application of mind, is necessary.

For a moment, imagine that you were admitted to hospital and are wheeled into theatre for a surgical procedure. The anaesthetist administers the anaesthetic and you know that any second now you will be enveloped in darkness as you lose consciousness. Whilst you are under, you have absolutely no control over your body or your surroundings. You are at the mercy of the surgeon and her team. Now imagine her leaning over, just as your eyes are becoming heavy, and whispers to you: “I am so excited! You’re my first!” None of us would want to be under the scalpel of an inexperienced surgeon. Yet, so many want to ascend to leadership positions without gaining the experience necessary to execute the duties in that role without negatively affecting those who are dependent on the outcome of actions and decisions made in that role.

Another area which clearly demonstrates my point is in law. Too many organisations want their commercial legal disputes decided by competent judges with experience and skill in commercial law, but are not willing to make the necessary sacrifices to develop that skill and experience in the growing number of women lawyers and advocates. Where are these women lawyers and advocates to gain that experience and skill when business does not help develop it by engaging them in commercial legal work?

In my doctoral thesis I developed a model that differentiates between capability, competencies and competence. In subsequent years I have developed it further to what I now refer to as the 8 Cs to being a Captain Commandeering your Professional Destiny. The eight concepts coincidentally all start with a C, which made it difficult for me to resist clustering them together. They are in ascending order (and illustrated in the diagram below):

  • Capability refers to the potential we are born with. How far this potential is able to stretch does however depend on how much we are exposed to. I like to use the analogy of a foundation when talking about capability. The higher the building needs to be, the deeper the foundation must be.
  • Competencies are those knowledge, skills, behaviours and attitudes we pick up on our education journey. Universities impart theoretical knowledge, but hardly skills, behaviours and attitudes.
  • Competence is your ability to demonstrate that you can do the job. This comes after relevant experience is added to your theoretical knowledge. Here on-the-job training is important, as that exposure under the guidance of an experienced professional helps to build the competence. In most, what I refer to as A-grade professions, graduates are expected to serve an internship, articleship, learnership or apprenticeship to ensure that they become competent in their discipline or craft. Thus serving at the feet of a master is a vital element in shaping professional competence.
  • Once you have reached the required level of competence, as a professional this should be recognised by your professional body through the awarding of a credential often referred to as you being Certified. In South Africa this credential is referred to as a professional designation. Local examples of designations include the Professional Internal Auditor, the Chartered Accountant, the Chartered Director, the Chartered Marketer and the Certified Financial Planner.
  • Once certified, it is important to stay abreast of new developments through the process of Continuous professional development (CPD). I would also not want to be operated on by an older surgeon who has not kept up with the latest developments in biotechnology.
  • A lifelong learner can then be Confident that he will produce the best work as a professional.
  • The combination of the above gives the professional Credibility among her peers and in the market.
  • It is of course expected of an accomplished professional to give back to society by Coaching

In order for us to ensure a sustainable future for our country, it is imperative that everyone works together to build stronger professions, right from the individuals to the education system, employers and professional bodies. The integrity of our institutions and the next generation, to whom we need to hand over batons, depends on it.