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The building blocks of a successful portfolio career

A portfolio career can be rewarding, remunerative and enable you to build the work-life balance that you want, which means taking control of the number of hours that you want to work.

Like anything this sort of career does not “just happen” and needs to be planned, executed and your strategy constantly subject to self challenge.

You are responsible not only for delivering your work but also for marketing, branding and selling yourself. A clear strategy will not only differentiate you from those who are “filling in” between more traditional roles, it will enable you to consider objectively the opportunities that present themselves and pursue those that fit best with your personal goals and the other areas in which you wish to invest that most precious commodity - your time.

Having pursued a portfolio career for over 20 years I have identified three types of engagement with which to structure your portfolio. Each have their own merits and disadvantages. The mixture of the different types that you aim to achieve will depend upon your other objectives but you should be clear on the nature of each type of work and the time commitment that each will demand out of your planned working hours budget.

Failure to consider each assignment objectively can lead you to pursue every opportunity that presents itself. In the case of those which do not fit with your strategy the result will be disappointment for you and your client- and potentially damage that other most precious asset-your reputation.

In all cases you must be particularly careful about sharing appropriately in the value you create. A value based pricing approach should always be considered above, or at least alongside, a daily rate. Remember that you are charging for a lifetime’s experience, not the number of hours you spend on site. Be careful not to work for “free” and if you do decide to take part of your remuneration as equity make sure that it is as part of a balanced package that is right for you.

The Executive role

Executive roles require you to be embedded within the client management team. You will be expected to be briefed on all major strategic issues in the business and make a time commitment of typically no less than one day a week on site. Much of this will be spent in team and one to one meetings, often working on projects that you may consider to be outside your core area of expertise.

These roles are good to “cornerstone” your income and can be particularly good early in your career as the wide business expertise they bring will help develop new skills. On the downside they tend to be fixed fee arrangements at a lower daily rate to reflect the long term commitment from you and the client.

You must be careful that you are not drawn into doing lower level work for which you are overqualified or have to waste time or in developing otherwise irrelevant expertise that can be acquired more cheaply. In such circumstances you should consider subcontracting the work. This has the added benefit of developing your professional network – which might reciprocate!

The Non-Executive role

These assignments are typically structured around two days or so per month-one focused on actions around the Board meeting, the other often spent offsite, working on more general advice, representing  the business or supporting a specific project or corporate transaction.

Non executive roles have the advantage of greater flexibility as with a commitment of just two days per month clients will be more receptive to “buying” additional days, particularly if they are associated with a specific deliverable. As with any assignment you too must be prepared to be flexible. Remember that the opportunity to take on a larger number of roles with less chargeable time scheduled for each requires good diary management.

You must also have excellent communication skills and make sure that you engage proactively with the business so that you do not miss any items of significance.

The Consultancy role

This is the most flexible type of engagement, usually commanding the highest day rate, coming into the company to address a specific problem or work on a particular project.

These are interesting assignments that draw heavily on your unique knowledge and are generally the most challenging and rewarding. As typically short term assignments they do not provide a stable income stream and generating these roles requires a constant attention to your marketing and branding to secure new assignments at the same time as delivering existing work


Whatever the mix of roles you decide to adopt to build your portfolio and how you decide to vary the mix over time your career will demand

  • Flexibility to allow you to meet the needs of multiple clients at the same time
  • Careful planning, with capacity built into your schedule so that you can win as well as deliver business and absorb short term increases in the intensity of work
  • Strong people skills to help you in selling yourself and developing good working relationships.

An appreciation of those fundamental requirements together with the types of engagement you can use as building blocks will enable you to build a portfolio that will address your personal and professional goals as well as add real value to your clients.

David M Blair MA FCA MBA CF

DBA Group