THE PORTFOLIO LIFE: Your nine-to-five career has run its course but you're not ready to shut your business diary. A selection of advisory roles might just suit. Winston Fletcher explains how he built his wardrobe of new interests

THE PORTFOLIO LIFE: Your nine-to-five career has run its course but you're not ready to shut your business diary. A selection of advisory roles might just suit. Winston Fletcher explains how he built his wardrobe of new interests - Charles Handy started i

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Charles Handy started it. In his best-selling classic The Age of Unreason, and frequently thereafter, he promoted the concept of portfolio work, done by portfolio people. Portfolio people have a wardrobe of jobs and work at different ones from day to day. A portfolio person, says Handy, is someone who, when you ask them what work they do, replies: 'It will take a while to tell you it all - which bit would you like?'

According to Handy, having a portfolio of jobs is the way of the future.

'Sooner or later,' he says, 'we shall all be portfolio people. In the past, for most of us our work portfolio had only one item in it - at least for men. It was their job, or more grandiosely, their career.' And for most of us, being a portfolio person sounds devilishly attractive. Lots of interests, lots of challenges, lots of employers.

When I first read The Age of Unreason, Handy's words cut through the chilly mists of mid-life insecurity like a shaft of sunlight. I had worked in advertising for three decades and was beginning to doubt whether it was a suitable occupation for a senior citizen. But how could I switch to a new occupation in my fifties?

What was I qualified to do except make ads? Who would employ me as anything more than a second-rate roadsweeper?

Similar gloomy thoughts, I now know, invade the minds of most managers as they approach their ultimate leaving party. They're scared of doing nothing, even if they can afford to (and nowadays many can). How will the days pass? Maybe it's a sad comment on life in the 21st century, but human beings who have spent four decades or so as workaholics flinch at the melancholy prospect of a never-ending holiday. A 24/7 life of leisure and long lunches has little appeal for work junkies addicted to incessant hassle.

On the other hand, they do not want to continue with the same work they have been doing all their lives. Nor is there much likelihood that they'll be offered the chance, as their companies believe them to be plummeting past their sell-by date. So the portfolio life sounds like the answer to a greybeard's prayers. Although I suspected nobody in their right mind would want to employ me full-time, with luck I might be able to find a few guys daft enough to employ me part-time and I could fill my job wardrobe with a host of corporate logos. It has not been quite that easy.

Re-reading Handy's book now, I wonder whether he ever got round to living the portfolio life himself. The picture he paints is idyllic, but unreal.

He makes no attempt to identify the strains involved, for both portfolio people and for the organisations that employ them. Don't get me wrong.

I am now a fully fledged portfolio gaffer, and delighted to be one. I have, as Handy recommends, re-engineered my life from a single job to a multiple-job portfolio.

I have become chairman of organisations as diverse as the Royal Institution - where I work closely with Professor Susan Greenfield - and of television documentary makers Brooke Lapping, and I am on the board of Barnado's and I've even become a professor at Lancaster Management School, which would utterly bewilder my old schoolteachers if ever they heard about it. I consider myself fabulously lucky, and it's all great - but it isn't all Wimbledon strawberries and share options.

I now have about 11 jobs, some still associated with advertising, most not. And I've had a few I quit quite quickly. The imprecision of the phrase 'about 11 jobs' reflects the inherent imprecision of portfolio life. It isn't always clear what is and what isn't a 'job'. None of them (and this is one of the smaller problems) could be called a career, grandiosely or otherwise, because none of them is really going anywhere. Some involve little time, maybe no more than a brief meeting every few months. Some occasionally demand several days at a time. Some pay reasonable money, some pay tiny honorariums, some don't pay a cent.

In any event, at my level - I dare say it's different for Lord Marshall and those nestling at the top of the portfolio tree - remuneration isn't the name of the game. As somebody said when I took on one job: 'You'll still be drinking the same wine, but you'll be able to afford a slightly better vintage.' And that's about it.

Like most people, I willingly work for charities and the like for free, but I see no reason why commercial enterprises shouldn't cough up a commercial rate. That's generally about pounds 15,000 to pounds 20,000 a year for a non-executive directorship. Chairmanships are a matter of negotiation, and pay will depend on the size of the company, the nature of the job to be done and the time involved.

Working with small companies - it's different with a plc - means you can be creative about your remuneration. Sometimes I've accepted share options instead of hard cash; sometimes I've asked for a titchy starter salary, which escalates rapidly if they (and I) want to continue. This keeps their initial costs small and gives me an incentive to make a big contribution. It's a simple payment-by-results system. Given my natural indolence, I have always been in favour of sticking carrots in front of my own nose.

But when I first made the stirring decision to embrace the portfolio life, I had no idea how to set about it. Handy offers little advice on this crucial subject. He seems to imagine that anyone wanting to become a portfolio person can be one at the drop of a paperclip. That has not been my experience.

My first move was to send my CV to about 40 top head-hunters to let them know I was willing, ready and able to have a go at the portfolio lark.

I hadn't produced a full CV in years and only later did one head-hunter tell me my effort was pathetic. Since I wasn't seeking a job in advertising, there was no point in dwelling lovingly on my long-past advertising career.

Being cruel to be kind (I hope), he said: 'Nobody is remotely interested in why you were promoted 30 years ago. We want to know what you can offer now.'

Despite the inept CV, about 50% of the head-hunters invited me to see them. A further 25% wrote politely saying they would keep my details on file, exactly the same letter as I have written over the years to thousands of applicants whose qualifications were as impressive as a lethargic chimp's.

The final 25% were so commendably cost-conscious that they refused to waste either time or money on a reply.

It took some years for non-executive jobs of various kinds to materialise.

The wardrobe was slow to fill. Some jobs came as a result of dogged persistence on my part, some appeared inexplicably out of thin air. Like wire hangers in a real wardrobe, wardrobe jobs seem mysteriously to spawn other wardrobe jobs. Maybe the fact that somebody else is employing you in portfolio mode gives other portfolio punters confidence.

And keen though I was to be a portfolio bloke, it was obvious from the start that some of the jobs offered would not suit my personal wardrobe. To some degree, the offers are self-selecting. Having worked in advertising most of my life, nobody looking for special expertise in finance or IT is likely to approach me. Normally, I will meet anyone at least once, to find out what's on offer. (Maybe I should play harder to get, but I've never been much cop at that.)

At the first meeting, I am much more interested in the people than the job. There is no point in agreeing to work with people you find unsympathetic - if you are working for fun, why give yourself grief? But even if you like the people there are occasions when you know you just can't make a worthwhile contribution, so it's pointless trying. (I became chairman of a small company I greatly liked, but after two years of feebly failing to help them in any way, I decided it was time to quit - before they noticed, I hope.)

Although it sounds beatifically simple, the portfolio life is full of unexpected complications. First, portfolio people have no real colleagues.

They are hired for themselves alone. This is deliciously flattering, but means you can't call substitutes onto the pitch. You have to be at every game yourself - well prepared and fighting fit. Nor is there much team training: an occasional awayday at best. Compared to working in an organisation, it's a mildly lonely life.

Second, portfolio work means forever scurrying hither and thither. A portfolio person's best friend is their mobile; sometimes it seems to be one's only friend. Portfolio jobs do not collect themselves tidily in one area of the country and, unless you have a chauffeur, this means dashing about in taxis, trains or driving yourself. (And if you drive yourself everywhere you can't even mug up on the papers on your way to the meeting.)

Third, unless you are taking the chair - and sometimes not even then - you have little or no say over the date and time of meetings. Less still will you be able to move them. Most of the meetings you attend will also be attended by a phalanx of others, and making changes will be impossible.

(This has its advantages. In my previous incarnation, an inordinate amount of time was spent playing move-the-meeting, then move it again, and again.)

Fourth, portfolio employers do not, by and large, provide either secretaries or offices. In these days of laptops, e-mails and faxes, you might think such privations would not matter. They do. As it happens, I am fortunate: two of my jobs provide offices and secretarial help. Many portfolio people have neither and, trivial though it may sound, they grumble about it incessantly.

The delightful thing about portfolio life - Handy was right about this - is that it constantly provides a diversity of new mental challenges and stimulation. It provides them in an environment where you can usually be completely honest about what you think and say. The money isn't important and you have other irons in the fire. During most of your career you have had to hone and trim your comments to be acceptable to bosses, customers and clients (especially in advertising). Now you can let fly. That, indeed, is what they want from you.

The downside is that you are not truly responsible for running any of the shows in which you appear. You have influence but little or no power.

The managers of the organisation propose actions and you respond. You can guide, supervise, advise and network. You can and must be objective and above company politics. You can take a long view, a broad view and occasionally a downright cussed view. You will find yourself giving more negative than positive advice. The people doing the business will listen, take note and then do what they want. It's inevitable: they know much more about the business than you do, they toil at it every day.

If you have spent your life running things, as most business people have, it is all a tad insubstantial. Portfolio jobs provide lots of opportunities for pride but few for ambition. Handy is right about how difficult it is to tell people what you do when you inhabit portfolioland. And questionnaires of all kinds assume that everyone has just one job - so does the law.

All that will have to change.

But Handy is wrong about portfolio work being the way of the future.

That's codswallop. It would be a hopeless way for CEOs and other top managers to operate. They need to be zealously focused on their jobs, with total commitment. Yet despite its little inconveniences, the portfolio life offers a wonderfully fulfilling future for those of us with little more to offer than a lengthy past.


Communications director FCB Europe

Chairman The Royal Institution, Advertising Standards Board of Finance, Brook Lapping Productions

Non-executive director, Bray Leino Group

Trustee Barnado's, Open College of the Arts

Advisory council Barbican Centre Complaints panel Portman Group

Visiting professor Lancaster Management School.

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