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Exploring the rise of the portfolio career

Why have one job when you can have many? Sandra Haurant explores the rise of the portfolio career and the challenges it presents for professionals.

“So, what do you do?” It’s a classic conversation starter. But for people with a portfolio career, it’s a tricky question. There is no one answer – and rarely a simple one.

For many in finance, the idea of a portfolio career conjures up thoughts of a collection of non-executive director (NED) roles, perhaps built up towards the end of a career. But the term is more often used to describe a multi-faceted employment, where more than one kind of part-time role makes up a bigger working picture. In other words, the kind of career where one job title doesn’t quite seem to cover it.

“When you’re an accountant in practice, everyone knows what you do – or at least thinks they do. But when you have a portfolio career and are putting yourself out there as a consultant of some sort, people don’t know what that means,” explains Mark Lee, who has developed his own personal brand to create a many-stringed career based around the world of accountancy.

I got a call from Mamma Mia!, the musical, who wanted me
to be the finance director. It was just as it was going global

It is an increasingly appealing choice says Jordan Marshall, policy development manager at the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE). “People want greater variety and control in how and where they work. Portfolio working enables you to build your career and focus on the issues and sectors that really matter to you,” he says.

It certainly works for Lee; a decade ago he chose to eschew a one-track role as a tax adviser in favour of a varied work life, and he hasn’t looked back. Lee qualified as a chartered accountant in 1982 and built up a very solid position in the profession. In common with many others, though, he experienced the lows as well as the highs.

His career had been forging ahead, he had been a partner at BDO and had been headhunted several times, but he had also found himself made redundant twice. The second time, in 2006, brought to a close his role in a joint venture and left him thinking very seriously about his next move.

“I had become chairman of ICAEW’s Tax Faculty and I was building my profile, so I sat back and thought ‘what do I really enjoy, out of all the things I enjoy doing?’ and continuing as a tax consultant was not in the top five, or even 10 things I wanted to do.”

Lee decided to take his career in a different direction. He had previously thought of turning one of his main interests, keynote speaking, into
a full-time job and began to research the possibility. But, he says: “I didn’t have the credibility, audience, or content for standing on a stage speaking right then.” Instead, he set about creating a variety of different roles he could develop into a cohesive self-employed career.

He set up the Tax Advice Network nine years ago, which, he says, has been described as “a tax dating agency”. As well as this, he now offers consultancy and training services to software companies who work with accountants, mentoring for sole practitioners. He also maintains a range of online e-learning materials for smaller practices.

But, above all, he is a professional speaker. “None of my activities brings in more than 50% of my income, but probably my main job is keynote speaking,” he says.

Jane Cody, also a chartered accountant, has built a career that allows her to simultaneously pursue several key interests. These days Cody is mainly a writer, specialising in travel, trail writing and marinas, but she is also a NED for a theatre lighting company. Her qualifications have allowed her to travel, working remotely from overseas locations but have also allowed her to try out different avenues within her own portfolio career.

“I was a chartered accountant in a practice for about 11 years, and then I joined my favourite client, who was in the theatre industry,” she explains. She began as financial controller, then later moved into the consultancy role she still holds. She decided to move abroad, and lived in Croatia, returning one week a month for her job and for family commitments.

We often see people who are returning from a career break choosing a more flexible career path

Sharron Gunn, executive director, commercial at ICAEW


Alongside this, she set up her own practice working for a number of clients, including a theatre production company, while also carrying out research for companies looking to invest in Croatia.

Before long she was attracted back into full-time work. “I got a call from Mamma Mia!, the musical, who wanted me to be the finance director. It was just as it was going global, and I went full time. It was an incredibly busy time, just when it was opening on Broadway.” After an intense year with the company, Cody decided it was time to move on, heading back to Croatia to take stock.

She decided she wanted a real change, and looked into retraining as a journalist. A distance learning course along with some well timed opportunities allowed her to add another string to her professional bow. Time Out magazine was looking for writers with detailed, specialist knowledge of Croatia, and she and her husband, a sailor, were asked to write a travel guide to the country’s coastlines too.

“I got very lucky,” she says. “I had 10 years there [in Croatia], mostly writing but still continuing to act as a consultant for my old company.” Cody is now back in the UK, where she continues to balance writing with consultancy as well as managing the accounts of various charities. For Matt Quinn, having one job at a time never seemed quite enough, either.

Quinn worked at PwC for three and a half years, but after the first year he was already working on outside projects. “I started doing consultancy work alongside my day job, more digital-based and marketing-based work, work that wasn’t relevant to PwC. That allowed me to segue out into starting my own company,” he says. He set up a tech business working on ecommerce, and more recently launched a new start-up, Flex.tv, which offers live-streamed fitness classes.

Since the credit crunch, a lot of people have been asking themselves what life is all about,” says Rachel Brushfield, a careers coach with a portfolio career, specialising in helping people build their own. “A lot of my clients are wanting to do something with meaning and purpose, something where they can make a difference. They want to have better work/life balance. I love the variety, I love learning, doing something different – it comes down to matching my values.”

For some, , building variety into a career is born of necessity. “Technology is replacing many jobs, middle layers of management are being cut out to save money and there is an overall lean trend in business,” says Brushfield. “There is a lot of disruption in different markets. In accountancy, as in the legal profession, and publishing, for example, there are a lot of redundancies. People are living longer, pensions are uncertain. There is a lot of uncertainty in general.”

You have to be incredibly organised, otherwise you are toast

Mark Freebairn, partner and head of the CFO practice at Odgers Berndtson


For those with an accountancy background, having a skill which is very much in demand helps to alleviate some of those risks. Building a flexible career can allow people to work more when they need or want to, and less when they don’t. But it is not right for everybody.

“People need to ask themselves what their attitude to risk is,” says Brushfield. “What are their financial security thresholds? Most people need a certain amount of security. How much is that? Two weeks’ money in the bank? Or two years’? That is a really important thing to put in place and it gives them the chance to work out what they need in terms of work. It might be some regular freelance work where they know they can cover their mortgage, or a couple of days work a month.”

Professional development courses will teach you how to deal with tough situations in a business environment. It takes patience, hard work and a whole lot of research and planning.

“It took me 10 years,” says Lee, who researched heavily before making the leap. “You can jump in with both feet, but you will probably sink, unless you are well connected and have a clear story.”

Connections are essential. Starting self-employed work is easier if you have built up contacts and created a name for yourself within your chosen field – and it is all the more important if you want to be trusted in more than one area of work. Mark Freebairn, partner and head of the CFO practice at Odgers Berndtson, says: “One of the main challenges is that you need to have built up enough experience to become credible.” But you don’t need to be at the end of your career to make it work. While traditional collections of NED roles tend to belong to those in their 50s, who have built up the necessary skills, experience and a network of contacts, portfolio careers encompassing different types of roles can work at different career stages.

“We often see people who are returning from a career break choosing a more flexible career path,” says Sharron Gunn, executive director, commercial at ICAEW. “It offers a lot of flexibility if you have young children, or if you are a carer.”

It also lends itself to certain sectors of work particularly well, she adds. “I see a lot of people in training who have several different jobs at the same time. Similarly, a lot of our members are passionate about coaching and will combine careers as coaches with accountancy roles.”

Of course, it is not always easy to keep several balls in the air at once. “Having a portfolio career can be incredibly rewarding, but it is hard work, and you can often face challenges full-time employees don’t experience,” says IPSE’s Marshall. “This can include managing your time effectively, working with reduced employee benefits, having to account for multiple sources of income and defining yourself as a professional to potential clients.”

You also need to be particularly disciplined: “You have to be incredibly organised, otherwise you are toast,” cautions Freebairn. Which is, say Lee and Brushfield, why it helps to learn to delegate. “The biggest mistake I made at the start was trying to do everything myself,” says Lee. “I have a couple of virtual assistants who I pay on an hourly basis for the support they provide.”

Brushfield takes the same approach. “I would go insane without one,” she says. “I mainly use my virtual PA to source information, which I create or curate, for help in writing articles, planning ahead, researching and booking conferences and events. And all the things where you should be doing something else, like sitting in a customer care line on hold when you have other things to do. It’s worth every single penny.”

But perhaps the biggest challenge for people with a portfolio career is to ensure they are seen as an expert in their chosen field. To find the right answer to that question, “what do you do?”.

“You have to learn how to explain it in a sentence or two so that your compelling story is repeatable by the people you meet,” says Lee. “And very few accountants naturally have these skills – though it is all learnable.” You need, says Brushfield, a personal brand, or what she calls a “verbal business card”.

Lee explains: “I help accountants who want to build more successful practices, and I help organisations who want to better engage with accountants, and depending on who I am talking to I will say one of those things.” The answer to the question, then, really is: it depends on who’s asking.

Sandra Haurant

Originally published in Economia, October 2016