We all know people who bull****. The ones who speak with ease and with endless reserves of confidence. Nothing shakes them when they are challenged as they have an answer for everything. They sound convincing. Their sureness instils doubt in your mind about your own view. They get rewarded by those who don’t pay close enough attention. Scratch the surface and their front can be exposed for what it is – bluff and bluster, and sometimes dishonesty and manipulation. What does the opposite look like? What are the qualities and behaviours of someone of substance to which a young professional can aspire?

Commentators and ex-footballers justify stopping another player deliberately and illegally as a ‘professional foul’. In that context, professional describes an action that is expedient, a lesser evil than letting in a goal (‘taking one for the team’) and an acceptable part of the culture. The same mentality pervades other areas of public life, including politics and the world of work, for example, large organisations screwing down small business suppliers on margins and payment terms. Professional is what professional is perceived and permitted to be. Time for a paradigm shift.

Here are 6 elements that I believe make a young professional of substance in the 21st Century:

The real deal with integrity

Authenticity has become an over-used word today for a reason. It’s absence. A soundbite, short-attention-span, and technology-driven world often fuel shorthand approaches to communicating complexity. The downsides are superficiality, loss of nuance and a lack of critical challenge. It makes it harder to discern what is real and genuine. How do you recognise someone who is the real deal?

The clues lie in depth, consistency, and alignment – they own their deeply-held beliefs, they have defined personal values and principles, they act and behave consistently in ways that align with what they stand for, and they have reliable and validated evidence to back it up. They don’t just talk to, they engage with, deliver and achieve. You get what it says on the tin.

Purpose-driven and inspiring

Passivity and lack of conviction are anathemas to being a young professional of substance. Having a sense of purpose fuels your direction and actions. It helps shape how you take other people with you. Purpose-driven professionals know and articulate their why. They express it from the head, heart and gut, and use it where and when it matters. They engender emotions in others that make those people step forward to be alongside them willingly and to do the same in their own way. Their drive inspires others to be fellow travellers and creates momentum. They lead.


Ethics can be sacrificed on the altar of expediency and the bottom line in the world of work. We have numerous examples in recent times from the banking crisis to self-serving politicians, the BHS, Sports Direct and South Yorkshire Police debacles to name but a few. A young professional of substance carries their moral compass with them at all times. They use it to guide them through uncertainty and ambiguity, and under pressure when they are the minority view. They stand up for what is right, knowing the consequences of their actions may have adverse implications for them. Behaving ethically requires resilience and mental toughness. Find out your ethical awareness and reaction style here.

Open and honest

Being open and honest is as much about mindset as behaviours. It often involves a judgement call. How open and honest are you when things go wrong? How do you approach giving bad news to your boss, colleagues, customers or users? A young professional with substance considers the impact on the other person of being open and honest. They think about if and how their actions are going to lead to the response they want. They are open and honest about what they are willing and able to do, and what they are not. They dare to dream and are not afraid of failing. They temper this with optimistic realism. They share their ethos, what they expect of others (including their manager) and what people can expect of them.

Outward-looking and curious

Learning is lifelong and lifewide. A young professional gains more substance and depth through looking beyond the boundaries of their existing experience and circumstances. They seek new knowledge, insights and alternative perspectives by embracing difference and new experiences. They are curious and questioning. Their sources of learning and inspiration come from a whole life perspective. They bring their whole person to work. They have a hinterland.

Emotionally intelligent

Work gets done with and through people despite the increasing automation of jobs and roles. A young professional of substance builds and maintains relationships of substance. They take an interest in other people and seek an understanding of their world. They invest in their self-awareness and seek out feedback on their strengths, weaknesses and how they come across. They use their natural talents to get on with people and consciously work on managing themselves. They constantly reflect and practise.

These are not the only things that make a young professional of substance. However, I guarantee you will make a difference to yourself and the world if all you do is focus on these ones.

Young professionals are influenced by their peers and need role models. If not you, who?