The job for life no longer exists. The average (median) tenure for people’s current jobs in the UK is now significantly less than 4 years, yet only 25 years ago it was almost 10 years. The average number of different jobs held in a lifetime is now 11.8 for men and 10.6 for women.

For young professionals, the stats are even more surprising. Professionally qualified individuals under the age of 35 move jobs, on average, every 2 years 2 months. Once that age profile moves to 35-45 it improves, but only to 3 years 1 month.

Many, amid this landscape of increasing mobility, turn the notion of a permanent job on its head and become self-employed or freelance – a trend that’s increased since the onset of the recession.  There are now 367,000 more people who are self-employed than there were in 2008, the UK Office for National Statistics said, with the total now standing at 4.2 million. More than 200,000, or 60% of these, became self-employed between 2011 and 2012. Across Europe, by country, between 11% and 39% of the workforce is self-employed.

Even within interim management – a profession in which practitioners by definition trade independently, delivering assignments via their own service companies, a trend is visible towards fragmentation and diversity of work patterns: open relationships, is it were, rather than serial monogamy. According to recent data published in Executives Online’s “The Interim Report”, the portion of senior managers and executives conducting their interim management career by engaging in a number of concurrent clients and assignments, each part-time, has doubled over the past 10 years.

These “portfolio careers” for interim managers are part of a greater trend.  Over the last decade there has been a growth in livelihoods earned via multiple simultaneous jobs on a part-time, flexible, non-executive, consulting or interim basis.

The positives of this way of working are well-documented:

  • Freedom – to choose one’s work, the ability to steer the work in directions of interest.
  • Flexibility – greater control over working hours, and the ability (at least in theory) to plan periods of downtime.
  • Variety – avoiding rut and repetition by having a variety of projects on the go.

The negatives are less talked-about, and in many cases are mirror images of the positives:

  • Insecurity – those with portfolio careers may not see an income stream beyond the next few months, and there is constant pressure to deliver on current work while simultaneously looking for more.
  • Repetition – a twist on the idea of variety: the client environment is different, but the work is the same. Clients engaging an independent often do so to de-risk a situation, bringing in someone with proven skills, which can mean practitioners often find themselves doing the same work over and over again.
  • Over-commitment – as they seek to build a pipeline of work, portfolio careerists can find themselves beholden to multiple clients, more busy than when they were employed, yet with no one but themselves to delegate work to.

If you’re considering a change to a portfolio career, here are some things to consider:

  • Do your CV and LinkedIn profile show an excellent track record of achievement, illustrating quickly and clearly what you can do? If not, invest some time (and perhaps some coaching on how to position yourself as a portfolio practitioner) in developing the documentation that will be your calling card. Before meeting you, prospective clients will Google you and seek you out on LinkedIn.  Be sure what they find reflects who you are and what you can do.
  • Are you physically and mentally fit enough to start a new project every six months? For all its attractions and PR, variety is not for everyone. Some who try interim management or other forms of independent/portfolio work find that they miss seeing the follow-on impact of their work, and the longer-term rewards and satisfaction of being part of an organisation.
  • Are you financially secure enough to survive some bumps? Portfolio careerists almost without exception sometimes find themselves with less work on than they’d like. Is a drop in work and income a disaster for you and those close to you, or is it truly a welcome breather – and an opportunity to search for new work?
  • Do you have a circle of business and professional relationships you can draw upon to source your first pieces of work? Many corporate roles and careers, while vital and interesting, can be somewhat inward-looking, or have stakeholders who would never be in the position to engage an independent. Who knows your work, whom you could call on for a project? This will make your business development easier. (Any contact is useful as a reference, so stay in touch even if a contact isn’t likely to hire you.)
  • Do you interview well? The selection process for interim and project positions is much shorter and sharper than the corporate recruitment process. You must be able to sell yourself quickly and confidently.
  • Do you have the skills to quickly assess what's going on in a totally new environment?  You need to be able to analyse quickly, develop solutions and then deliver those solutions on time and within budget.
  • Do you have good networking skills?  You will need these skills – in person and online – to secure opportunities.
  • Are you happy to live out of a suitcase when necessary?  Projects will frequently be too far from your home location to allow you to commute daily.
  • Can you multi-task? The very essence of portfolio working is keeping multiple bodies of work progressing all at the same time. If you prefer focusing on one thing, doing it very well, and then moving on, a true portfolio career may not be for you, although other forms of self-employment (such as interim management) may fit well.

Aspiring portfolio careerists who can answer "yes" to enough of these questions can forge for themselves a vibrant new career that satisfies their intellectual and financial needs. If you need help or advice, contact me or your nearest Executives Online office.

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