In 2016, at 42 years of age, I enjoyed what I suspect was my last full-time corporate pay cheque. To be clear, I haven’t retired. I need to earn money. I have a mortgage and a range of dodgy start-up investments and I have a wife and three children who count on me to generate income for the family.
But a few things became crystal clear 12 months ago that have led me to embrace a different approach to my professional endeavours:
- Security in corporate employment is illusory – I haven’t served out a notice period since Ricky Martin was Livin’ la Vida Loca in 1999. My senior executive contracts at two major Australian companies and one global company gave unilateral termination rights of my contract for ‘no cause’. With no access to wrongful termination legislation, the only real ‘security’ is your notice period or a prohibitively expensive court proceeding;
- Everything in my life was upside-down and inside-out – I was an empty vessel at the end of each day and week. I wasn’t sleeping and was not my best in any of the important contexts like husband, father, friend. The key reward for this sacrifice went invisibly into my bank account monthly; and
- I didn’t want what ‘they’ had anymore – I could see what was happening in the rare air of the C-suite of big corporate and regardless of whether I could have made it there, I knew I didn’t want what they had.
In the past 12 months, I have tested and learned, I have pushed myself out of my comfort zone and I have worked hard. Where I have landed has been surprising, satisfying and rewarding in all relevant senses. I’m not stressed, but I am happier, healthier and I have found important things like creativity, enthusiasm and light heartedness have returned to levels I haven’t enjoyed for a decade.
A Portfolio Career
I have always enjoyed variety in my roles. Over the past decade, I’ve parlayed that interest into making investments in promising start-ups. While of dubious (and as yet unrealised) financial value, the experiences gave me interests outside of my corporate gigs and exposure to other industries, directorships and the world of venture funding.
When I left Medibank about 12 months ago, I both needed and wanted to try something different. I was fortunate to find two quite different opportunities of two days per week each. I spend one day a week on ‘other things’ that feed my soul.
To discover that there was a term, ‘portfolio career’, that described what I was doing, and had been talked about since the 90’s was strangely comforting. In “The Empty Raincoat”, first published in 1994, Charles Handy described a portfolio career as being where you exchange working full time for one company with working on multiple things at once. Built around the notion of the paradoxes that impact our lives, together with his thoughts around paths to navigate those paradoxes, Handy’s book is extraordinarily relevant notwithstanding the time that has passed since its first publication.
What has been most important in my transition from corporate executive to a portfolio careerist has been the flip on the learnings I mentioned above.
First, security. Diversification of my income stream has an inherent element of security. It would be extremely unlucky (though not impossible) for both paid roles to finish at the same time, which gives me a reasonable level of comfort and sense of security.
Second, turning things right side up. Each week I feel like I’m starting at zero, and that the work I’m doing is so inextricably linked to value I create for my clients and the money I make as a result that I feel a connection between effort and return. I also know I’m bringing the best version of myself to the workplace, with energy and enthusiasm replacing stress and exhaustion.
Third, no more next level. Two days per week means the people I work with understand that I’m working to make them successful, not to get their jobs, or the corner office. I feel a genuine sense of purpose, without any of the politics, jostling or general carry on that is such an intrinsic part of corporate life.
Finally, I’m fortunate to have found a way to make as much or more money as I did in my former life, with greater fulfillment and purpose, and a sense that my ‘career’ is back in my control and on my terms.
Is a Portfolio Career for you?
When I chose this path, I felt my way through. I did not even know of the term portfolio career until recently. For me, I am sure that a portfolio career is the right path. I’m keen to connect up with others who feel the same and to find a way to provide some support for those that are looking to make a change.
It is not without risk.
In the Harvard Business Review this month, Michael Greenspan writes about some of the key considerations before you quit to embark on a portfolio career. The article is worth reading in full, but the point that resonated most for me was the change in pace that could come as a shock when you’re used to 200+ emails a day, the feelings of importance when you’re a senior leader and the contrast that comes when you’re in your house hoping the phone will ring or your email will be replied to.
Undoubtedly, finding the right clients that see the value of what it is you offer in the time you’re prepared to offer it is a daunting prospect. I’ve been using my spare time to work on something to make this element of a transition a bit less daunting, and will be announcing it later this week, so watch this space.
For me, the important question was what did I ‘need’ in order to be free. What I found tremendously empowering was being able to say that once I’d hit a certain number for the week, that anything else was a bonus, and I really feel that when I’m working.
Charles Handy’s equivalent of this idea used a doughnut analogy. He suggested that like a doughnut, you need to be clear on what is the core part of your portfolio, being how you make sure you earn enough for you and your family’s needs. But beyond that core, other ‘work’ you did could be for interest, for a cause, for the stretch or because it was fascinating or fun.
What now brown cow?
I am a lucky Gen X’er. I see Millennials for whom the idea of a portfolio career is as obvious as the fact that Facebook is so yesterday. And I see the search for meaning and purpose hitting senior people in and around my vintage, and the feeling of being trapped by the illusion of certainty and security, the legacy of their parents approach to employment and the fear of being left behind, cast aside or being unable to pay for kids school fees or the family holiday. I understand those feelings very much.
But if you’ve read to this point, then I suspect you’re either
- someone who has already liberated themselves, but wants to feel less like Robinson Crusoe and connect with others going through the same experience; or
- someone who is thinking about making a change for themselves and their loved ones.
Whichever one you are, please send me a LinkedIn invitation and you may also like to request an invite to a new LinkedIn Group I’ve set up here. called the Portfolio Career Group.