The term “professional certification” is only two words, but it is difficult to describe what exactly it means. The second word is easy to understand – certification is recognition of an achievement. The difficulty in understanding what is meant by “professional certification” is in the first word – professional.
One definition of professional is somebody who is paid for what they do. Olympic athletes are usually amateur, because they are not paid. Professional athletes, on the other hand, are paid. Does this mean that if you are paid to be an accountant that you are a professional accountant? I contend that it does not, and that how we use the term professional in the business world is different than how it is used for athletes. There are some people who have earned a professional certification who are not professionals, and there are professionals who have not earned a professional certification.
I see three distinct phases in a person’s work life. If they get to the third phase, then they are a professional. Many people do not get to the third phase, and while this is not inherently bad, it just means that they see themselves in a slightly different way than a professional does.
The first stage in a person’s work life is that of a job. At this stage, the person identifies themselves with the title that they have, the specific work that they do, and the specific place that they work. When you ask this person what they do, they answer with something along the lines of, “I am a financial analyst at ABC Company,” or “I am an accounts receivable accountant at XYZ Corporation.” Their focus is on their job at that specific moment in time. I say that their focus is downward – they are looking at themselves and at the present moment.
After a few years at the same job, many people enter the next stage, which is career. At this stage, people are still looking only at themselves, but they are starting to make a plan of where they want to go in the future. When you ask a person at this stage what they do, they will answer with something like, “I am working at ABC Company right now, but I would like to become the Controller at XYZ Corporation,” or “Right now I am an accounts receivable accountant, but I am looking for my next opportunity because I do not want to do this for the rest of my life.” I describe this perspective as looking upward. They are still focused on themselves, but now they are looking at the future.
It is only at the third stage of work life when a person becomes a professional. When a person is a professional, their identification is not entirely with their specific position or the company that they work for. They have realized that their future success is tied to other people and that they do not do things in isolation – there is a connection between themselves and others working in their profession. When you ask this person what they do, they may answer, “I am an accountant,” or “I am a financial professional.” They may add the company that they work for, but you get the sense that that is secondary to the way they see themselves. At this point, they recognize that there is a connection between themselves and others who say that they are in the same profession. There is a realization that if other people who are accountants act dishonestly and provide poor services, others will think that all accountants are the same (guilt by association). Because of this interconnectedness, a professional has a commitment to others in the same profession and will do things that do not benefit themselves directly, but rather help the profession as a whole. For this person, their perspective is around. They are aware others and they are also looking into their future and the future of their profession.
From the perspective of a professional certification, this means that there is a connection between [for example] one CIA and all CIAs. When a professional certification carries no legal weight in a country (as many do not), the value of that certification is only as high as the business community values it. Therefore, each CIA has a responsibility to other CIAs to conduct themselves in a way that will reflect well on all CIAs because all CIAs benefit (or are harmed) from the actions of others.
While not every person will reach the stage of being a professional, the most important thing for professionals to remember is that we are all connected. Just as we do not want other people to give us a bad name through their behavior, we should do the same and protect the name of our profession for others.
Brian Hock, CMA, CIA