Freedom or identity crisis? The portfolio career mystery

Herminia Ibarra Career Management The Financial Times

Taking on a variety of roles is not easy, especially when young, writes Herminia Ibarra

“My friends tell me I’m too young to have a portfolio career,” confessed one of my former MBA students when I asked what he was up to. Recently, he had left a lifetime career in finance to pursue a mix of things: some private investments, non-executive director roles, and pro-bono consulting for a school trying to shift to a more progressive educational model.

His new work gave him a sense of purpose that was lacking in his old career as a banker. Yet something was missing. Often he wonders, “How am I doing? How do I know if I’m progressing?”

Like so many others, my student moved into what Charles Handy called a “portfolio career”, replacing a single, salaried job with a combination of self-directed activities: some for pay, some for good causes; some to exploit one’s competencies, some to learn new ones.

Pundits have hailed such arrangements as the future of work, offering flexibility, novelty and autonomy. But numbers relating to who does this and how are scarce, buried in general statistics on self-employment.

What it requires, a colleague told me, is meaningful work, coupled with community and structure. She had an anchor role in her portfolio career, as “senior adviser” (on a retainer) to a former employer. Just recently, the firm had terminated that arrangement, preferring to hire her on a project basis. It was the same work, but the attachment to a community and the structure of a dedicated set of days was severed. She felt a bit adrift.

One way people deal with isolation is by forming or joining a collective of kindred spirits, who might share as little as office space or as much as common projects and clients. When a friend lost his high-profile corporate post, he shared office space with three former school mates in the same boat, who pooled resources and offered camaraderie, easing his transition to self-employment.

While portfolio work shares benefits and drawbacks with other forms of self-employment, what is unique is the problem of identity: “Who am I if not one thing?” There is no easy label, no shorthand. Inevitably, one resorts to explaining oneself with a laundry list, when the culturally appropriate answer is what the psychologist Kenneth Gergen called the progressive narrative: a story of hard work and linear ascent culminating in a recognisably top role. “I divide my time between four different things” has no heroic myth as yet.

The freedom to diverge — to give rein to disparate passions and interests rather than sacrifice most to invest in one — is one of the great joys reported by portfolio workers. But, “the notion of the narrowly focused life is highly romanticised in our culture”, observes TED speaker Emilie Wapnik. People who are and do very different things, are too often seen as scattered.

Not everyone fits that mould, of course, as evidenced by the explosive growth of firms like London-based consultancy Eden McCallum. The firm places highly skilled consultants in all-manner of part-time arrangements that allow them to make full use of their capacities while also reserving time for other things they want to do. Its roster is now 500-strong.

Still, transitioning into a portfolio career after corporate life is not easy. “My identity was so entangled with my former employer, it was like clothes that wouldn’t come off they were so stuck to my skin,” one new portfolio worker told me. “I didn’t even know what I looked like without them.”

Probably the biggest stigma is the one my student named: the assumption that portfolio working is for the old, when one has given up on striving and is preparing to hand over the reins to a younger generation.

In the world of linear progression — learn, earn, return — the appropriate stage for portfolios is late life. But, if living for a hundred years and working productively for the greater part of that will soon be a reality, as argue London Business School professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott in The 100-Year Life , their forthcoming book, life stages will have to be reinvented.

Examples abound of people of all ages who are using portfolio work as building blocks for a career with very different contours and success definitions. Now we need to study what it takes to thrive in a portfolio career, rather than simply touting its virtues with a few anecdotes.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015 (registration required).