10 Tips For Thriving in a Portfolio Career

By Rachel Collis

In the new world of work, many people are adopting a portfolio approach to their career. This involves crafting a full time role out of a number of part-time jobs. Sometimes the part-time roles are permanent roles but more often the portfolio includes a changing patchwork of freelance roles, temporary roles, project work and self-employment.

There are a lot of potential benefits to a portfolio career. However it isn’t necessarily easy to make it work, there are some traps. I have had a portfolio career for almost 15 years and I love it! However, I have made some mistakes and mis-steps. Here is what I have learnt along the way:

1. Does your portfolio work as a whole?

Make sure the different parts of your portfolio work together so that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. For example, one part of my portfolio is as an Executive Coach in my own consulting business and another part is as a lecturer in the Executive MBA program at Queensland University of Technology These roles support each other. The coaching gives me plenty of current, practical experience to draw on when teaching my MBA students and the leadership and business theory I cover in the MBA is invaluable in my 1:1 coaching.

2. Keep it moving

Maintain momentum in all parts of your portfolio; don’t focus on one aspect and neglect another for too long – try to keep all the plates spinning! This can be hard when you are busy but it doesn’t have to be much, just an email or quick call to keep in contact with the people you like working with.

3. Bring your rare and valuable skills

Be ‘So good they can’t ignore you’. The worst kind of portfolio career involves juggling a string of part-time, low paid jobs. Avoid that if at all possible! If you have rare and valuable skills that are in high demand, your portfolio can be made up of interesting and reasonably paid work.

3.1 How do you become ‘So good they can’t ignore you’?

• Know your strengths and be clear on how to capitalize on them (a good coach can help you to work out how to do this).

• Watch for trends in your profession, so that you can make an informed prediction about which skills are likely to be in demand in the future.

• Keep developing your skills. Put aside time and money for your own learning and development.

• Make time for reflection. After and during each project do a review, what did you do well? What could you do better next time?

• Get good quality feedback from others about what you are doing that genuinely adds value and also where you could improve.

4. Who do you want to work with?

Adopt a ‘red velvet rope’ policy. Choose to only work with employers and clients who bring out your best work. Again, if you have rare and valuable skills it will be easier to be picky about who you will and won’t work with.

5. Don’t undercharge

Know the market rate for what you are offering. If the work is casual – make sure you include extra to compensate for the uncertainty, lack of sick pay etc. Value what you bring.

Sometimes you will need to volunteer your time to your employers but have boundaries – don’t do a full time workload on part time pay!

6. Don’t just be a hanger on

Build meaningful relationships with people in the different parts of your portfolio. Pause and have a coffee or eat your lunch in the common area and take the opportunity to chat with your colleagues. It can be so easy to just do your work and leave but it is well worth nurturing good relationships with your coworkers. A portfolio career can be lonely, you can feel like a bit of an outsider everywhere. Don’t accept that as inevitable. Not only will these relationships make you happier, they will also have a positive impact on your career. Innovative ideas and interesting projects often emerge from informal conversations in the tea room. If you want your portfolio to evolve and remain interesting, you need to be part of that process of innovation.

7. Make frugality a virtue!

Reduce any debt as fast as you can; have some ‘running away/rainy day’ money saved. Portfolio careers tend to have more income variability than traditional careers. If you are under pressure to pay off a mortgage or service an expensive lifestyle, then a fluctuating income is very stressful.

8. Don’t play it too safe or too small

As an outsider; you have an unique perspective to offer each team in your portfolio. Be willing to courageously and thoughtfully offer your perspective and know when to shut up and listen. Know when to drop a viewpoint that isn’t going to fly and also when not to get involved because it really isn’t your business!

9. Know your values

Build a consistent brand by knowing your values and consciously living them. This gives you a feeling of consistency across different settings and also will improve both your performance and your wellbeing. There is more information about values in a previous blog here.

10.  Schedule holidays

Block out time in your diary well in advance and take time to explore, refresh and rest. Recovery time is important for your long term wellbeing; you will also do better work if you take regular breaks.

Portfolio careers aren’t for everyone. They can be hard work. The uncertainty can be stressful and juggling different roles is demanding. However, the capacity to build your own patchwork of interesting work is very rewarding.

For further reading you may be interested in a past blog on portfolio careers here. If you’d like to discuss this article or any points raised within it, please get in touch.

Career Change, Getting Unstuck coaching

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