Professionalism in the Workplace Series: Part V

This is part five of our series on professionalism. Chris Hemerly, ERAU Alumni and Technical Specialist - Fan & Compressor Aerodynamics for Rolls-Royce answers a few questions as to why professionalism is essential in our ever evolving workplace.

What is your personal definition of professionalism?

My definition of professionalism has changed over my career, from what I expected it to be like when I was a student at ERAU hoping to work for a great aerospace company, to day 1 as a young engineer, and now year 13 in industry. So with this variability in my view of professionalism, I thought it would be easier to share my mindset through a couple of personal examples; but I feel the underlying theme is to pay attention to your inputs and outputs, no matter how general or specific they might be.

I first started out focused on trying to cram as much information into my brain to learn & wanting to finish tasks quickly, as if it were a homework assignment. However this approach didn’t last long as you learn that you’re not getting a grade for the assignment, but rather your answer might end up in a product flying around. There are a lot more variables in industry and you can’t check the back of the book to see if you got the problem right, so taking it slow & methodical, checking and documenting your work as you go, is how you best learn and perform.

Then came the period of time, still early in my career, when I was the lead on a design aspect, but despite knowing the details of a particular component, you may not be seen as the authority for it and responses are met with doubt. This is where you need to recollect your engineering lessons, along with lingo that you’ve developed since joining industry, and show confidence without being cocky. Communicating the tasks, actions, and answer clearly, showing diligence in your work, will help build that trust with colleagues and managers.

Working for an international company, projects I worked on meant interfacing with people around the globe who I may have never met before. Sometimes I would have the opportunity to meet that person face to face, which made future communication that much easier and more relaxed, but before that point, formalities should still be in place. For example, while I was still working at Rolls-Royce in the US, I was informed of some research that a colleague at Rolls-Royce Germany was doing and that it might aid in my current design work. My first email to this person started with “Dr. Nipkau, …” and provided a formal request for information, then about eight months later I was able to meet this person during a business trip to Germany and work with him on an engine test. Following that phase, emails or phone calls quickly simplified to “hey, can you send me that data”. And now that I work closely with him being in a position at Rolls-Royce Germany, I usually call him by his nickname and we grab a coffee about once a week. So long story short, creating professional relationships helps to establish long-standing professionalism without the pomp and circumstance, allowing for a more relaxed and fruitful work environment.

With more years’ experience and time spent at engineering facilities in the US, UK, and Germany, I have slowly transitioned from the one asking how to do something to now being asked how to do something, but sometimes it is still ‘two steps forward & one step back’ with progress. When you first start at a company, transition to another group, or move to a different site, you may not know where you fall in the hierarchy. But as part of the team, you should not feel threatened by someone who has more knowledge or capability than you, but rather try to learn from that person or utilize them in the successes of the team; you should always be seeking to learn more, even if you get to a point in your career when you are labelled as “the expert”. Therefore, it is always important to treat your colleagues with the same level of patience and openness, regardless of if they have 30 days’ or 30 years’ experience as you can still learn from everyone.

In this new virtual world, has professionalism changed? If yes, for the better or worse?

Yes, the form of professionalism has shifted, where you certainly need to be more creative to present yourself. And I do feel that virtual meetings are a little harder to fully bestow a definitive address, especially when there is buffering, people talking at the same time over the phone, or “a participant has joined the call” is announced while you’re mid-sentence. I will say that the coffee-kitchen or water cooler discussions are sometimes where the technical problems are solved or where job opportunities are discussed; they are also usually where you get to know your colleagues a little better personally.

What is your advice if someone does not agree on a decision by their supervisor? What is the best professional approach in this situation?

It depends on the forum that you’re in when the discrepancy arises, but one needs to feel open about communicating any relevant issues. If it’s a personal matter, there are usually multiple avenues within a company to share concerns. If your manager isn’t receptive, then contacting Human Resources or perhaps, if available, a mentor at the company to discuss the concerns. In regards to a technical disagreement, make sure you have supporting justification instead of just an inquiry or inclining of doubt. If your decision is sound, you should bring it to the table immediately, and if your clarification is still work in progress, then share the activities and timescales for which you want to share your rebuttal.

Aviation is a close-knit community. How does the industry perceive individuals who have a reputation for unprofessionalism or unprofessional behavior?

Even with the growth of the aviation industry over the last 20 years, you will still see the same names and faces at the AIAA & ASME conference, or across the table from you when working with various customer. Word of mouth travels quickly, even quicker now with platforms like LinkedIn, so it is easy enough to check one’s background. For example, I was involved in recruitment for Rolls-Royce Corporation at the ERAU Daytona Beach campus. With attending the University, having an assistantship with the College of Engineering during my Masters’ degree, and then also being an adjunct professor for the Aerospace Engineering and Mechanical Engineering Departments, I know the majority of the professors. What that allowed me to do after interviewing a potential candidate, i.e. a student, was ask one of the professors about their attitude and aptitude during that particular course, basically like a reference. Also, internal to a company, one’s abilities & demeanor definitely resonates throughout the office, and opportunities or interactions can be limited if you’re known for being unprofessional.

What final advice do you have for students/alumni to continue to always be professional in the workplace?

Be respectful and genuine, competency will develop in time. There will be countless disagreements or frustrating occurrences in your career, but staying focused, fair, and true to the integrity of the subject/project should cement a positive standing with your colleagues, managers, and customers (internal or external).