Thoughts on Organizational Ethos, Incentives and Structure Required to Promote Quiet Professionalism 

By Rob Shaul

Years of organizational observation, and several months of work with MTI’s Quiet Professional Discussion Groups, have reinforced for me that most Quiet Professionals are so in spite of their unit or company culture, not because of it. 

This is disappointing but understandable. Self-promotion and individual advancement dominate the cultures of most tactical units, private companies, and government organizations. The up-and-out promotional pressure of the military, and financial compensation for advancement and increased responsibility at private companies, by their nature, don’t readily reward “quiet” team members who consistently put mission ahead of self, i.e. Quiet Professionals. 

Indeed, the idea of “rewarding” Quiet Professionalism seems an oxymoron. True Quiet Professionals would not welcome or appreciate the attention. 

This is a problem. How can an organization which values Quiet Professionalism, incentivize or promote it, without betraying its ethic? 

This was the question the three participants in an MTI Quiet Professional discussion group and myself tackled over the past 5-6 weeks. What follows is an initial answer to the question, “How can an organization identify, honor, and promote Quiet Professionalism?”

Step 1: Identify a Clear and Common Definition of a Quiet Professional and Craftsmanship.

This was ours. A Quiet Professional is …

  • Quiet. Not a self-promoter. 
  • Puts Mission above Self.
  • Is Humble, but Confident.
  • Hard Working.
  • Technically skilled.
  • Embraces Craftsmanship, and aspires to be a Master Craftsman.

We dug deeper into our definition of “Craftsmanship.” Craftsmanship = 

  • Understanding/knowledge of what is essential/important, and having the “maturity” to focus only on that
  • Uncommon attention to detail
  • Quality Work – identifying what is essential/important, and giving it the attention to detail to take it to a higher level. 
  • Deep, intentional investment in the process of the task.
  • Commitment to learn and improve. The work is never finished.
  • Doing the right thing when nobody is looking. 
  • Driven by an internal standard and commitment to continuous improvement
  • Craftsmanship is an important ideal all quiet professionals aspire, but having a “master craftsman” level of technical skill is not required to be a Quiet Professional. For example, an Apprentice Electrician can’t be a Quiet Professional because he or she doesn’t have a high enough level of technical expertise, however, a Journeyman Electrician can be. One doesn’t need to be a Master Electrician to be a Quiet Professional in that field. So, a high level of technical expertise is required to be a Quiet Professional, but not a “master” level. What this means practically is it takes a significant time investment in the trade or profession to gain this technical expertise, and thus, be a Quiet Professional. 

Step 2: Clearly define and communicate the Unit’s Mission, including demonstrated actionable priorities.

It’s very difficult for the aspiring Quiet Professionals in the organization to put “Mission” first, if the mission is fuzzy, and/or work priorities don’t align with the state mission.

Examples of organizations who get it wrong:

  • A restaurant who’s stated mission is “high-quality food” but takes shortcuts on ingredients and chefs.
  • A tactical unit that supposedly prioritizes fitness, but doesn’t provide members with time, equipment or programming.
  • An online store whose stated mission is “customer first” but who’s marketing staff is twice the size of its customer service staff. 

The one clear example of a company that got this right was an element of Toyota’s “Kaizen” continuous improvement approach to manufacturing implemented in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Toyota’s mission was a continuous improvement, with the goal of continuously improving quality. As part of its commitment to this mission, Toyota’s management empowered any employee in any job or at any level, who saw a quality control issue, to stop the production line and bring attention to the problem. When attention was subsequently brought to bear on the problem, the focus was on fixing the problem and the process flaw that led to it, not fixing blame on an individual or team. 

This clearly communicated and prioritized mission, backed up by action, led to car manufacturing prowess, vehicle reliability, and durability, and has resulted in Toyota today having the most vehicle sales in North America. 

Employees were empowered to have direct impact on quality. They didn’t have to ask or seek permission. 

Step 3: Translate the “soft” Quiet Professional ideals into “hard” organizational expected standards: 

 

Step 4: Establish a Quiet Professional company “Ethos” by clearly communicating these “hard” standards and enforce them completely and consistently.

These “hard” standards are a significant break the typical mold of touchy-feely, wellness-centered employee messaging favored by tactical units, private companies and most organizations today. 

Publishing and identifying these as a unit “standard” for individual behavior will immediately communicate how your unit is different. 

Publishing and enforcing these standards will simultaneously turn some employees off, and inspire others. We’d expect significant employee turnover when these standards are initially published and enforced. But the standards will also attract desirable employees and dissuade undesirable ones from applying. Ultimately we’d expect the unit to be stronger for it. 

Enforcing these standards “completely” means they apply to everyone, up and down the chain. Everyone meets the standards. Rank, relationship, nor talent is never an excuse not to meet the standard. No one is “special.” No exceptions.

Consistent enforcement of these standards is the hard part, but as Toyota proved above, it needn’t always be negative. It can also be empowering to employees who aspire to the Quiet Professional ethic. 

Step 5: Promote Quiet Professionalism by empowering employees who act on the hard standards.

Quiet Professionals want to impact mission success. They naturally have an ownership mentality and with this ownership comes effort and pride. 

The best way to promote Quiet Professionalism is to empower this impact. 

An employee identifies a quality issue? Empower him or her by acting on it. 

Seek advice. Ask for ideas. Solicit feedback. Expect employees to be confident and candid in their responses and listen, then act. 

Empower their ownership by giving them real impact. 

Further, we’d expect organizations who don’t enforce stated standards, enforce them selectively, and/or don’t allow aspiring Quiet Professionals to have impact, to eventually lose these individuals to organizations that do. 

We’ve heard of this at first responder units where poor fitness and professional cultures turn off young hard charging officers and firemen. These young professionals eventually quit, and move to other first responder units whose unit culture isn’t professionally bankrupt. 

Bonus #1  Should you promote Quiet Professionals to leadership positions? If not, how should you compensate Quiet Professionals financially?

Should you promote the Quiet Professionals in your organization? We’re not sure. 

Understand that one key requirement of quiet professionalism is technical expertise, and if you promote a Quiet Professional away from his or her area of expertise, they are no longer a Quiet Professional until they get up to speed in their new role. 

Also, many Quiet Professionals won’t want to be promoted. They are good at what they do, have more to learn, and are happy where they are at. 

However, this goes against typical organizational advancement. Most organizations naturally aim to promote high performers into managerial positions.

Interesting is the way the corporate world and military approach “technical” and “managerial” career track. 

Both have two “tracks” of employees – a managerial track and a technical track. 

The separation between the officer corps and non-commissioned officer corps in the military is the most obvious. Officers require a bachelors degree, have strong “up or out” pressure (and with that the strong self-promotional pressure as you’re competing directly with your peers for a future job), and clearly laid out career steps or “boxes to check.”

NCOs also have “up and out” pressure, but less, and it’s possible, as a satisfied Quiet Professional, to sit and hold for longer at a unit, rank and position. Examples are most clear in Special Forces where enlisted personnel can remain on SEAL, Pj/CCT, Green Beret,  or SFOD-D teams for the bulk of their careers. Officers, however, are forced by the requisite up and out career check marks to move in and out of these units. 

The corporate managerial world is similar. Entry-level managers often require a bachelors degree, there is  strong “up or out” pressure and requisite career steps positions in marketing, operations, manufacturing, finance, etc. 

One partial exception in the military is aviation. For most service branches, a pilots are commissioned officers and technical experts. While there is up and out pressure and increasing managerial responsibility, it is possible for senior aviators to continue flying and being technical experts well into the latter stages of their careers.  

However, aviators must continue to advance in rank. An Air Force Captain fighter pilot and aspiring Quiet Professional can’t “sit” in that role continuing to learn and develop his or her craft. He is pushed to increase rank, leadership responsibility, and into new airframes. 

Organizationally, the question is why? Should technically skilled high performers be allowed, or even made, to stay in their craftmanship-focused roles?

Some in the military decide this for themselves. One of the participants in our Quiet Professional discussion groups related a story of a friend who was a Navy SEAL officer facing rotation away from the teams. Not wanting this, the individual resigned his commission, and enlisted so he could remain. I’ve heard of similar stories of Green Berets who’ve done similar to remain on ODAs.

The organizational structure of first responder units will allow aspiring Quiet Professionals to stay in their roles. No officer and NCO dichotomy exists at origin in first responder units. All new hires enter at the lowest rank – regardless of educational background, and the “up and out” pressure is less. Employees who want to move into leadership self-select and chose to apply for leadership positions, take requisite exams, etc. 

In the software world, we’ve heard of “10x engineers” – software engineers so technically skilled that they produce 10x the value of regular engineers. Often they are compensated accordingly, and not pushed into leadership positions unless they choose. 

Bonus #2  How should you compensate Quiet Professionals financially?

Quiet Professionals by definition have a high level of technical expertise and competency, and put mission first. They provide significant value to any organization. 

However, typical compensation models link salary primarily to rank/managerial responsibility. 

A 2nd LT platoon leader gets paid more than the Platoon 1st Sgt. The software company CEO makes more money than the “10x engineer” driving product development and improvement. 

But, is “managerial responsibility” and competency where the most value to the organization is wielded? Certainly on the battlefield a Quiet Professional Platoon 1st Sgt brings more value than the new Platoon Leader who simply doesn’t have enough experience yet to have tactical mastery. 

On the software side, there are examples where an exceptional product has survived an incompetent CEO or questionable corporate strategy. 

We did find a couple of exceptions to the typical managerial compensation standard. 

In the trades, a master electrician makes more than a journeyman electrician who makes more than an apprentice electrician. Salary is tied to technical expertise, not managerial responsibility. But still, even if this example, the company operations manager likely makes more than the master electrician. 

The only complete exception we could find to this model is professional sports teams. On professional sports teams, the technical experts – the players – make significantly more money than the coaches. 

Why? The selection process. According to the NCAA, Roughly speaking, there were 1,083,308 high school football players competing, and eventually, 251 made it to pro. The chance of going pro is approximately 0.023% – only the best athletes make the cut. 

Though there isn’t data available on the coaching side, we’d wager that the odds of becoming an NFL coach are exponentially higher. 

Some food for thought. 

We know that a high level of technical expertise is required to be a Quiet Professional. And, we know that technical expertise is a huge contributor to product or service quality and performance. Product/service performance often determines mission success – even on the battlefield. 

Compensation is one way to assign value. But, for most organizations, technical expertise is second to managerial responsibility in determining financial compensation. 

Should the Company Commander make more money than the Company 1st Sgt? Should the software CEO make more money than the 10x engineers on staff? 

Conclusion

Quiet Professionals are rare. And in most organizations, they happen by accident, not design. 

Quiet Professionals are not hard-charging, self-promoting, high performers. They are not highly skilled, but arrogant, prima-donna technical, wizards. 

They stand out, but only if you are looking for the right signals: competence, skill, quality, humility, hard work, mission-first. They don’t want recognition. They do want impact. 

Creating an organization that fosters Quiet Professionalism takes a paradigm shift in promotions, compensation, standards, enforcement, recognition, and team member empowerment. 

Your thoughts? Your ideas? Please comment below or email rob@mtntactical.com.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Organizational Ethos, Incentives and Structure Required to Promote Quiet Professionalism 

  1. Outstanding article and well discussed. Love these thoughtful posts that your team develops. Thanks for what you are doing. Lew.

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