What does it mean to be professional?

Published by Nela Dunato on in Business, Mindset

Popular marketing advice for small business owners is to “be authentic and transparent” online. But some of us who may be careful about what we put out in public are asking ourselves the question:

Is too much authenticity unprofessional?

That’s a valid question. After all, we grew up in a society that generally shuns authenticity like the plague, and showing our true self to the world feels extremely risky.

What does it mean to be professional?

Some entrepreneurs are taking the authenticity road with a stride, and their blog and social media feeds feature family snapshots, bountiful cursing, and medical information—things that would not sit well with our bosses in a corporate setting.

When we became business owners, we may feel like our clients became our “bosses”. Now we want them to like us, because if they don’t, they won’t buy anything from us.

Here’s where things get all tangled up.

If we were to think about every person on the planet as our potential client, we might never say, do, or publish anything, because every single thing will offend someone.

That’s why I emphasize so much the importance of identifying your right people or ideal clients. We don’t call them ideal for nothing. We want to pick and choose the people who are already likely to be interested in what we’re selling, and appreciate our unique approach to business and life, so we don’t have to be all awkward and maintain a facade.

We want to work with clients who share our core personal values.

You might have realized already that professionalism is subject to people’s opinion. If you happen to work with suit-and-tie corporate CEOs, their standards are going to be very different from what a small mom-and-pop business expects, and this is yet very different from what a rock band might expect.

Some may find discussing religion on their blogs distasteful, but for a designer specializing in Christian church websites, it makes sense to talk about Jesus on their blog. That way they ensure that a priest or a pastor will realize they’re not in it only for the money, and end up hiring them instead of a heathen like me (who paints crucified fairies in her spare time).

You may think I’m unprofessional for discussing depression openly, but I know a lot of my right people have experienced it as well, and I want them to know I get them and would never judge them for having mental health issues. If you’re bothered by it, I’m sure you’ll be able to find plenty of artists and designers who don’t talk about their emotions at all.

Some creatives feel like they have an ethical responsibility to speak out about issues that are important to us.

This is not “just business” for us, it’s a core part of our personality. Of course, no one is obliged to engage in activities that may paint a target on their backs. I’m not saying that everyone should be outspoken. What I am saying is that being one of those outspoken people doesn’t mean you’re torpedoing your career.

I’ve been speaking out against racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and religious cults for years, and I still haven’t been “canceled”. Maybe it’s because I’m such a small fish that the groups I’m criticizing don’t even notice me. The bigger your platform, the bigger the chance of backlash. Listen to your own voice of reason before you decide how to engage these issues.

There are less “musts” in professionalism than you may think

You must deliver what you promised, in the time-frame you promised. In order to do that, you need to have an established process of creating the good or service that gives reliable results. (Before you can do that, you’re a student or an amateur—not a professional).

Your standards of integrity, honesty, and respect need to be equal to or higher than those you maintain in your personal relationships.

Every “rule” of professionalism stems for that. For example:

  • Perform your work with the highest quality standards (integrity).
  • Quality test (integrity).
  • Reply to inquiries in a timely manner (respect).
  • Keep any information provided by your clients private (respect).
  • Send the buyer exactly what they ordered (integrity).
  • Publish clear images of your product (honesty).
  • Make it clear what is included in the price, and what is charged extra (honesty).
  • Don’t spam people who aren’t subscribed to your list (respect).

I’m sure you can extrapolate more of them for yourself.

But the way you dress, talk, walk, and share your personality online is up to you and who you want to invite under your umbrella. Don’t water yourself down for your clients.

Some people will see you, scream “Disgrace!” and run in the opposite direction. That’s a great sign. Polarization in branding is good. If every single person you meet likes you, it means you’re not remarkable—you’re just fine.

If you’re satisfied with being “fine” that’s cool, but more often than not, “fine” doesn’t pay the bills.

Decide for yourself what is professional

Are you addressing your clients by their first name, or last name and title?

Are you willing to share information about your illness when it causes a delay in the project?

Are you accepting phone calls, video calls or live meetings as a means of client communication? You’re not obliged to do them, you know.

Are you sending holiday or birthday cards to your clients?

Are you giving discounts to new clients, repeat clients, on special occasions, or not at all?

Are you willing to share information and photos of yourself, your family or pets on your blog and social media?

Do you want every piece of business communication that leaves your office stamped with your logo? Just because I’m telling you it’s a good idea because it helps in establishing your brand, it doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have your own opinion about it. Of course you are.

Do you want to use your headshot or your logo as a profile picture on social media?

Do you want to use your headshot in your website header? Just because Marie Forleo or Ali Brown told you that you should, you really don’t have to.

Are you willing to do cold calls or e-mail pitches, or send postcards to potential clients?

Will you add a business card or a flyer to the orders you send, or would you rather write a thank you note, or both?

Will you publish a price range for custom projects on the sales page, or do you want to hear the requirements first?

Do you want to write your opinions about politics, spirituality, health, or other sensitive subjects?

It’s your business.

You get to decide how you want to do it, and it will be much easier for you if you choose a way that’s aligned with your personality.

It’s best to think about this before you find yourself in a situation where you need to react. Set standards for yourself, and stick to them. If they don’t work for you, change them. But do it consciously, and more importantly—make them clear to your clients.

That way you’ll end up serving people who want exactly what you want to provide.


Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon or Jackson's Art Supplies. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

8 responses to “What does it mean to be professional?”

  1. Nela! This post is on-point. I agree with everything you shared about professionalism and how you version of professionalism is determined by your authenticity as well as your ideal customers’ likes and expectations. Also, your painting “Crucify” is amazing!

  2. I agree professionalism definitely varies person to person and the best biz is when the person is acting in full alignment with themselves.

  3. How love your “rules” for being professional! This is the same as my list too. You can be professional being who you are as long as you approach your business with integrity. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I think you make a great point about there being different definitions of professionalism depending on your business and your ideal clients. I’ve always said I love that I have clients to whom I can send minion stickers and they send them right back. Some people might think that’s unprofessional but I (and my ideal clients) just think it’s funny. I like being able to show my true self in my business because I think that’s what sets me apart from all the other web designers out there.

  5. Thank you all! I’m so glad to hear this post has struck a chord with so many other small business owners :)

    @Jamie: Thank you so much for your kind words! So glad to hear you like the painting :)

    @Kimber: That’s the most important thing – full alignment! Great things happen when you’re true to yourself.

    @Lily: Sharing little geeky things with your clients is a great way to foster a real human connection! Setting yourself apart is very important, and there’s a place in this world for all of us :)

  6. Aric, thanks for sharing your thoughts. People’s opinions differ on this subject.
    Beards are in fashion now, so it’s more common to see professional men (even higher up on the company ladder) to grow beards than it was 10-15 years ago. Some of those beards look more impressive than others :)

Leave a Reply

If you're new here, please read the commenting guidelines before posting. By submitting your comment, you consent to your comment and personal information being collected in accordance with the Privacy Policy.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *