What Does “Professional” Look Like Today? by Allison Fine


According to a Booz & Company/Buddy Media survey released last October of more than 100 large companies, only a third have a senior executive charged with overseeing social media. And just over a third (38%) reported social media as a CEO-level agenda item. There are nearly a billion people on Facebook — just about everyone, that is, except CEOs.

Since 2005, I have spoken to thousands of executives from corporations, government agencies and nonprofit organizations about their discomfort using social media for business purposes. The problem for them isn’t learning which button to push; if that were difficult seniors wouldn’t be the fastest growing segment on Facebook. The real problem is that using social media challenges their basic assumptions of what it means to be “professional.” The definition of professional behavior is an immutable set of behaviors developed early in one’s career.

For most people over forty it means wearing a uniform of some kind, talking in a certain language, carrying a briefcase (or more recently a Blackberry or iPhone), and perhaps, most important, keeping one’s private life private. Gen Y, or Millennials, — late teens to thirty year-olds, — have a vastly different notion of what it means to present oneself to the world wearing their business hat (so to speak.) The huge organizational chasm between Gen Y and Gen X and Boomers, is less a technological problem than a psychological one, and it manifests itself in the use of social media.

Social media’s threat to professional behavior for older generations is often expressed like this:

  • We’ll be off message if our organization doesn’t speak with one institutional voice.
  • I will be attacked out there by the wingnuts/trolls/nuts.
  • We cannot have blog posts and Tweets go up and out with typos in it
  • We cannot share plans and ideas in public before they’re fully vetted internally.

These concerns are understandable in a gotcha media world where every misstep is immediately uploaded, “liked”, and tweeted around the world. But as the Komen incident illustrates, hiding behind high walls and wide moats isn’t the answer. Charlene Li writes inOpen Leadership, “The question isn’t whether you will be transparent, authentic and real, but rather, how much you will let go and be open in the face of new technologies.”

A new definition of professional behavior is developing in this social world. Here is the transition:

Social media enable people to be their best selves: honest, open, fallible, funny, and connected, but too many people and organizations are still trying their best to imitate automatons. Your organization, reputation, logo and staff are living, breathing entities that need to be out in the world to be effective.

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