It’s not necessarily a profound notion, but it was to me when I first realized it. I had always thought that to be professional meant, at it’s heart, to be frank with people. After all, beating around the bush is bad news in business. So are things like fine print, political-correctness and breaking things easy to people. Business is about relationships, but it’s also about numbers, and while relationships can often require a bit of fineness and polish, numbers are cold and hard. Numbers don’t have feelings. People often say that numbers don’t lie. Well in that way, numbers are like words. Word don’t lie either, but you can arrange them in a way that makes them misrepresent the truth. The same goes for numbers. The difference is, that whether the numbers are lying or not, they say it without emotion, without courtesy, but without being abrasive as well. They just say what they have to say, frank and matter of fact.
But as I grow older I find that while I might have said that business is always about relationships and numbers, I’ve always unwittingly sped across the relationships and emphasized the numbers. Numbers are the frank part, but relationships are what makes the professional part professional. The question I’ve yet to answer is how to be truthful, up front, say what you need to say, and yet still be enigmatic enough to conceal details about your own business that are, frankly, nobody else’s business. Sometimes what you need to conceal is the very thing you need to reveal in order to truly get your very relevant point across.
Like a game of poker, its understood that we all have enough relationship to play the game and keep to the rules, and I’ll even show you, or at least make you feel as though I’ve shown you, my cards in so long as it helps move the game forward. But also like poker, it’s also understood that I’m not showing you everything, and that anything I do show you is either by design so that you’ll give me what I want, or a slip up on my part to be taken advantage of. Now of course in theory, and in the practice of most honest businessmen, the idea of the game, unlike poker, is not to see you go bankrupt. After all the world runs by all of us moving and gaining and losing and doing and creating and destroying in a big self-perpetuating network of activity. But there is a certain sense that aside from ideas like true modesty and true humility, there is an element of professionalism is only modest with respect to the idea that my modest keeps you from thinking I’ve got a good hand, or that my stiff upper lip keeps you from realizing that I’m on the ropes and that one well placed sucker punch could finish me at this moment. I suppose like most other things in life, it involves a balance, two poles of tension on which one end is complete divulgence of pertinent and relevant information and the other is stone-faced bluffing.
There is another professionalism however, an older, more noble sense in which there is nothing necessarily to gain from the situation, and yet I’m still going to protect the names or reputations of the parties involved in a various matter. Something like a journalist protecting his sources, or and executive taking full responsibility for a mishap that actually involved a few of his underlings as well. But perhaps these are the situations that so perplex me at times. When truth and information matter to a situation, how does one appropriately say what is true, while still not throwing others under the bus. If you want an accurate solution, is it not prudent to collect real data? Suppose I had better work on my poker face.