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Portfolio Careers: The Business of Pluralism

"Chris, it's Walter again. Contracting has worked out really well. I now have a  couple of contacts who want me for a couple of days a week each, so I'm going to run a portfolio career."Chris Seel.jpg

The Portfolio Career! Sounds grand until I realise the guy painting the front of my house has had one for years.

So why, when applied to senior interim roles, does it raise such worry/scepticism/confusion? As before, my limited experience in this field means that I will share the experience of my network with you.  I will quote those who have established portfolio careers, helping you to understand some of their day-to-day challenges and how they approach them.

So what is a Portfolio Career? For me, it is the provision of service to multiple clients simultaneously, as a primary mode of engagement and over a prolonged period of time. Using the word career means it can't simply be the thing you do between your normal contracts. Your flexibility and availability are now core parts of your offering. So far so good, so where are the problems? Well for one, how do you fill five days of work with simultaneous contracts for the foreseeable without your own BD team? If someone comes to you with a juicy, full time interim role, do you just turn it down because you are committed to one day a week elsewhere? Do you run a NED portfolio alongside? Can you advise and transform on different days?
Quite honestly, the uncertainty would be too much for me, so what is the reality of this world and how do people make it work?

When did you know it was the right time to start a Portfolio Career'?

"At the point when I had found myself either 100% engrossed into a project or running around trying to identify the next project. It made sense to look at ways in which I could remove the peaks and troughs."
(Interim MD, Manufacturing Sector)

"I was in my early 50's and I had the opportunity to become independent after a redundancy. I had just got frustrated with working for other people in a single role. I was in the SME sector so intuitively pursued work on a portfolio basis."
(Interim CRO, Media Sector)

"Having been a CEO/MD of some major organisations, I wanted to do something 'different'. It was fair to say that I was not totally clear what 'different' meant but I had a view that it would involve some form of pluralism. The reasons for my choice were a bit of 'been there, done that', a desire to focus on the stuff I was interested/good at and some more flexibility in my life. Interestingly, I discounted standard NED work (sometimes a bit too hands off and remote for me) and found it hard just to settle on one thing. It then emerged for me that I really enjoyed the coaching of good people at a senior level. I also enjoyed problem solving, the creation of strategy and plans and I had not lost my appetite for running businesses with significant challenges, hence the interim approach."
(Interim CEO Retail Sector)

"My previous employed career had been characterised by a series of major projects and I didn't enjoy the micromanagement experienced in the corporate world. I also tend to get bored quickly so when I decided that I wanted the freedom to work for myself, it was natural to adopt a portfolio approach. The opportunities that arose were short term so to some extent I fell into it too!"
(Interim GM/FD, Leisure Sector)

How do you effectively manage your pipeline?

"I use three approaches. Coaching is mainly recommendation as I limit the number of people I work with and don't really want to be fed a 'pipeline' of people through organised providers. With the interim work, I use providers like yourself and Harvey Nash, and with the advisory work (which has been the smallest part so far), I have used some recommendations, The Chambers and consultancies."
(Interim CEO, Retail Sector)

"This is the hardest part; varying from too busy to not busy enough. To some extent I adopted the portfolio approach so that I wasn't dependent on a single client, allowing me some freedom to network for additional work. Also, I try to work four days per week if possible; leaving one day for pipeline management."
(Interim GM/FD, Leisure Sector)

"I try to have a pipeline of at least five potentials at any one time. At the moment, about one in four convert. I sometimes have to express an interest in a role by saying that I am currently available but qualify this with "but I have a few things in the pipeline at the moment so of course this could change. If so I will let you know."
(Interim CRO, Media Sector)

What is the hardest thing about running a portfolio of assignments?

"The diversity and ball juggling. To remain focused and able to keep on top of all issues across multiple clients is challenging, as is the moving from one environment to another."
(Interim MD, Manufacturing Sector)

"The hardest bit about doing this is either too little or too much! When on assignment it is hard to keep generating leads for the other areas, although the coaching has held up reasonably well and I've had to turn down some interesting projects. When off assignment, the lead generation has to start again and can often take a bit of time to generate a head of steam."
(Interim CEO, Retail Sector)

"You have to be able to give each client 100% when you are with them or on their clock. You have to be able to compartmentalise the other clients; even if there is a challenging issue or a situation that demands a lot of emotional investment. The mental discipline is much more than just time management."
(Interim CRO, Media Sector)

"For the client, it helps to give them some space to deliver on the delegated activities, however, it means a constant need for me to review where I left off - keeping good notes is imperative and being able to compartmentalise each project is vital. This is difficult and sometimes leads to confusion as to what was said to which client/staff member; particularly when coaching. Focusing on maintaining progress can be difficult so being clear on what I need to deliver is even more important. The employees at some clients have said it is like the headmaster coming in when I am due, as all the directors etc. run around doing their "homework" before I arrive."
(Interim GM/FD, Leisure Sector)

What is the single biggest difference between an interim and portfolio career?

"I'm not sure there is a big difference; other than the removal of peaks and troughs."
(Interim M,D Manufacturing Sector)

"I'm not sure that there is a massive difference between the skill sets of the classic interim and the portfolio approach. The way it occurs to me is a bit of a matrix approach with the interim work being the classic, comprehensive horizontal process; with the other stuff being the vertical, functional specialisms that interest me."
(Interim CEO, Retail Sector)
"It has been very fulfilling as I can often work with a client in a time intensive hands-on role at first, then scale back as he becomes more self-sufficient. This provides the satisfaction of being able to see things through to a conclusion. I have done some classic interim roles where the role has concluded with the job half done and that is much less rewarding."
(Interim CRO, Media Sector)

During my on-going research for this (some quoted, most not), a number of very clear themes presented themselves.
People who have tried to run full time portfolio careers as a means to gaining greater breadth and extending reach have struggled with pipeline. Those who have chosen the portfolio path because they already have breadth and network reach have done fantastically well. More so than interim, this is not a career for the cripplingly modest, you will have to self-promote and 'work the network' as a BAU activity. Attending networking events, traveling to see former colleagues for a catch up, and taking on loss leading, one off days of consultancy to hunt the more consistent business are all essential to ensure you don't experience a drop in demand.
The cardinal sin for those who have made the leap is doing it without the financial resources to sustain the quieter periods; again this is similar to classic interim but even more acute as you continually balance your diary around sporadic work. 
The stand out thing for me when talking to those who run portfolio careers is that they describe their existence much less in terms of providing a service and much more like running a business. It's rewarding, for sure, with unrivalled access to diverse and interesting challenges, but it will fail without a continuous focus on marketing, sales, financial management, time management..........and no shortage of nerve.