By Michel Greenspan.
As the head of a leadership assessment, development, and coaching firm, I spend a lot of time with successful executives talking about their work lives — and in the past few years, many of those conversations have centered on an increasingly popular, and increasingly idealized, imagined next step: the so-called “portfolio career.” Leave behind the strain, messiness and day-in, day-out concerns of full-time corporate life for a curated and interesting medley of part-time roles — board seats, adjunct professorships, consulting roles, some lectures, some writing, maybe even a book contract —and you’ll still be in the career game, still earning money, but happier, more intellectually fulfilled, and with infinitely more flexibility… or so the thinking goes.
In our firm’s coaching and counseling of senior executives who have made, or are actively trying to make, the move to a portfolio career (a maneuver we refer to as “going plural”), we’ve repeatedly seen that the transition itself is much more difficult than most anticipate — and that the reality of the career differs significantly from the imagination of it. Don’t get me wrong: A portfolio career can be rewarding, but there are several things that every smart executive needs to know — and do — to transition effectively:
Make yourself an outlier. Every portfolio has an investment thesis. What’s yours — and how is it compellingly differentiated from the many other portfolios out there? The more specific and unique your skill set and experience, the more valuable your portfolio will be. An expert in banking regulation or solar energy production — or any other niche, challenging area — will find good opportunities to apply their skills. But if you attempt to transition to a portfolio role by marketing yourself simply as a capable, experienced executive, good work will be much harder to come by.
Be clear on why. Have a clear, articulated view on why you’re going plural, and what you want to achieve. Is it flexibility and less travel? The opportunity to give back? The chance to focus on the activity you really love to do — e.g., coach, counsel, write? Without a clear view, it’s all too easy to end up with a portfolio career you don’t enjoy, or even really want. One of my clients recently “downshifted” into a “better lifestyle” (his words) plural career — only to find the consulting roles he was offered required twice the travel as his corporate job, and to parts of the world he had no interest in going. Wherever possible, think ahead and manage around this: be clear on what specific outcomes you’re shooting for, and actively seek ones that fit this profile. And then be prepared to compromise.
Do it before you do it. If you want to peg your portfolio career to board service, get on at least a few boards now. If you want to write, be sure you’ve published before you make the leap. Without the track record of success in a function or area, good opportunities will be hard to source — and execute. But our clients who plan at least 3-4 years ahead, and engage in a few relevant extracurriculars — speaking at universities, publishing op-eds, and the like — find themselves in a good position to go plural doing exactly those same activities.