Denise Kingsmill: Caffeinated ambition

More companies should consider hiring those talented free-wheelers who pursue a 'suite career'...

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 09 May 2013

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JK Rowling famously wrote the first Harry Potter book in an Edinburgh coffee shop - for her, the modern-day equivalent of the artist's garret. Go to any Caffe Nero or Starbucks in London's West End today and you'll see large numbers of men and women hunched over their laptops, apparently doing the same thing. But although many of them may be working on their magnum opus, it is unlikely to be a mega-selling novel. More typically, far from being struggling wannabe writers, they will be successful 30-somethings crafting a proposal or business plan to reinforce the 'elevator' presentation they have just made at a meeting in a bank or corporation.

They are representatives of a new class of worker with no fixed office abode, moving from meeting to meeting via the coffee shop. From accountants to ad people, from music and media types to engineers and academics, these are citizens who have opted for a multi-layered, multi-tasking work style, labelled by one as a 'suite career'.

The pun is intentional, as for many this is indeed a sweet way of working. A range and variety of jobs sometimes based on a core skill, parlayed into a rich and rewarding career free of conventional corporate constraint, is the goal of the suite careerist. And the coffee shop is the ideal place to pursue this, fortified by the stimulating qualities of the beverage and the opportunity to network and discuss business ideas with colleagues. It's just as Pepys and his contemporaries did in the 17th and 18th centuries - although today's habitues use Facebook and Skype.

The suite career is similar to the portfolio career, made famous in the '90s by the management guru Charles Handy, but differs in a significant way. Whereas the portfolio career was seen as a way for baby-boomers to extend their working lives after retirement or redundancy, the suite career is often the first choice for a younger generation of workers seeking more challenge, fulfilment and reward than they see available to them in a conventional career.

Usually highly qualified, they sell their expertise and time to a number of different employers, adding to their experience and knowledge with each venture. They aim to have a suite of projects on the go at any one time, preferably at different stages of development to avoid over-commitment. Financial reward is a motivating factor, but not the only one.

One young woman I know is a very successful freelance PR, representing some of the biggest names in the restaurant world, but she turns away work rather than compromise her glamorous social life. She argues that networking in St Tropez or Ibiza over the summer is an absolutely necessary part of the job.

Another suite careerist started his working life as a builder, qualified as an engineer and now consults widely for international companies, and manages to dash off the odd book in his spare time - all before the age of 40. He says, with disarming frankness, that he takes on projects based on three different criteria - for money, interest or prestige - having learnt that it is impossible to get all three in one role. He admits that, although he'll always go the extra mile for a client, he has never been able to bear having a boss.

In Australia earlier this year, I met an interesting group of escapees from the financial meltdown who were developing a new model for an internet bank. The details are still confidential, but it was their method of working that intrigued me. Based in different cities across the world, they would interact on a daily basis but would meet up physically only three times a year in whichever venue suited their respective domestic, social and sporting lives. All had at least one other job, but they were excited by the entrepreneurial challenge of a fresh project to add to their existing suite.

It takes a certain kind of person to make a suite career work. Good time-management and organisational skills are essential, as is a high tolerance of risk, together with high energy and flexibility. People who are able to move easily outside their comfort zone and embrace change are the ones who enjoy a range of different roles and thrive in an uncertain world.

They can be difficult people for organisations to accommodate, with a low boredom threshold and an unwillingness to conform to corporate norms and the usual hierarchical structures. Their skills and talents may well be sought after, but they tend to be round pegs in square holes as conventional employees, and so the clever company will find other ways to manage them.

Freelance working, part-time and short-term contracts are all familiar ways of employing talent in the creative industries, where it is well established that people will sell their services to a range of employers. A wider variety of companies could do the same in these tough times to access good people and to save costs.

Throughout my career, I have never had only one job at a time. It has always seemed to me that there's interest and reward to be found in a multiplicity of roles: from selling books on a market stall on a Saturday to fund the childcare necessary to pursue my early legal career, through executive and professional responsibilities of many kinds, to non-executive directorships and the House of Lords. Life is long and you only get one bite of the cherry, so why not try different things? There is an alternative to bashing your head against the brick wall of a mono career. To adapt an old Lefty phrase: workers of the world, wake up and smell the coffee! You have nothing to lose but your open-plan cubicle.

Baroness Kingsmill CBE has been a non-executive director of plc, private, charitable, arts and government boards. She is a non-executive director of British Airways

In today's bulletin:

eBay to cut its losses on Skype gamble?
PR firm finds itself with a PR problem
Denise Kingsmill: Caffeinated ambition
Nick Hood: Belgium battles recession
MT Expert's Ten Top Tips: Getting ready for the CRC

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