Defend Truth


Working on a resolution toward a ‘portfolio life’

Johann Redelinghuys is previously founder and chairman of Heidrick & Struggles South Africa, now The Director of the Chairman's Institute and of Portfolio&Co

In the City of London a retiring chief executive would collect two or three board appointments, take on the chairmanship of a suitable charity, perhaps do some teaching at a business school, with a little travel and golf thrown in and then be satisfied he had created a “portfolio life”.

Then the idea caught on and spreading one’s talents and interests into several distinct career “streams” became appealing to people well before retirement. Bright, well-informed professionals came to like the flexibility and challenge of a more expanded lifestyle. Working at a “portfolio life” became better known and quite an accepted way of packaging one’s years.

The concept and term – a portfolio life – was first coined by Charles Handy, renowned author of such books as The Empty Raincoat and The Age of Unreason, when he was working for Shell Oil and doing a stint as a lecturer on strategy at the London Business School. He named it a “portfolio life”, trying to convey a sense of several streams of concurrent work. Although it sounded like an interesting and an appealing new way of doing things, it had, of course, been done for centuries.

Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, an engineer, a sculptor and an inventor. King David was a soldier, a poet, a musician and a king. In modern times many high net-worth people have been living with their careers exactly like this. Just this week in Business Day, Wendy Applebaum was described as a “Philanthropist, entrepreneur, wine farmer and horse breeder, besides serving on several boards”. Ernie Els is not just a golfer. He is a property developer, wine estate entrepreneur and active supporter of the cause of autistic children. The chairman of a bank owns a wine farm and a restaurant, and devotes himself to his famous art collection. Tom Boardman, when he was CEO of Nedbank, not only served on boards of other companies, but played an active role working with Prince Charles in saving the rain forests. South African members of parliament have full-time duties when parliament is in session. But then in the recess they can have their fingers in all kinds of other pies.

Many quite ordinary people who still have full-time jobs, do other things as well – home renovations, or investing with a spouse in a home-based business, or nurturing some covert idea for an entrepreneurial business, or whatever. Of course, artists and musicians and writers have been doing freelance work all the time simply to make ends meet. These people earn a living by working at several different concurrent job-streams.

It’s interesting then that this trend is occurring at the same time that many countries are experiencing high levels of unemployment. Unemployed graduates are now a fixture on the social scene. The problem with finding jobs is that, despite everyone’s best efforts there are not enough full-time jobs to go round. Or the people who are looking for them don’t have the skills or experience needed. The security and benefits of a good full-time job are not to be doubted, but for increasing numbers of people this will remain an unattainable dream. They end up doing part-time work and longing for someone to employ them.

But if it is perfectly possible to make a living without having a full time job, shouldn’t we be coaching people to embrace a portfolio life and make it a respectable and accepted lifestyle?

We have been so conditioned to believing that one proper full-time job in a good company is the only way forward that we fail to see this viable alternative.

Tina Brown in New York, writing for the Daily Beast describes, “The Gig Economy” and says, “No one has a job anymore. They’ve got gigs, a bunch of free-floating projects, consultancies and bits and pieces which they stitch together to… hang on to the apartment, pay for healthcare and find the school fees. Now that everyone has a project-to-project freelance career everyone is a hustler.”

Well, not everyone. And a portfolio life is not for everyone either, but it does have a number of benefits for some. Firstly, it is a way of managing risk. In these uncertain times job security is no longer a given and having several balls in the air will give you something to fall back on if your main income is threatened or falls away completely. But even more importantly, many people feel hemmed in and frustrated by doing just one thing. A dentist might like to know that he could make a living doing something completely different if he should get fed up with dentistry. An accountant or lawyer or whoever else, might want the same.

A portfolio life can be a collection of part-time commitments, like some non-executive directors already have, or it could be a full-time job with several other active involvements. Not just hobbies. They should be income-earning to create real focus.

If we could make peace with the idea of part-time contract-work, the country could have access to a vast reservoir of skills currently untapped. Take women who have left the teaching profession to raise a family. They may be adequately provided for and might not want the commitment of a full-time working life, but a well-designed portfolio would bring them back into productive work. The same applies to retired people who are healthy and well, wiling away their days with day-time television instead of coming back on part-time contract to their professions or applying their corporate experience.

I hear some hard-working people say. “Where do you get the energy?” The truth is that in many companies a great deal of time is wasted by unnecessary meetings and created activities, answering hundreds of FYI emails and bumping into people in the corridors because being busy and frenetic is what is expected. Instead of paying people for how many hours they are at the office and compensating only for work delivered, can have a dramatic impact. This is what freelancers understand so well.

If more people had portfolio lives the greater flexibility would enable them to give something back and devote themselves to one of the many good causes begging for active support from well-connected people. Serving actively on committees or the boards of organisations such as Noah or Starfish or Child Welfare could make a great difference. 

The unbundling of working lives is a worldwide trend of benefit to people wanting more from their lives, and also to potential cost-conscious employers. It should be established as a meaningful alternative to a single full-time job for people at all stages. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted