Portfolio Careers, Portfolio Careers and Serial Careerists

October 5, 2016

The term “portfolio career” is bandied about a fair bit, however, many are confused because it has two different meanings. The terms are fairly new in the employment vocabulary, and their increased use is a consequence of the changes in the workplace and employment relationships that have developed over the forty years or so.

Up until the mid to late 1970s a person would enter the world of work and, if they wanted it, could reasonably expect long-term job security.  There were many employers, commercial and not-for profit, for whom, unless you committed some sackable offence, you could work your entire working life and retire at the end with a handshake and a gold watch.

A strong, stable economy in which non-western competition was not much of a threat, and the slow pace of change meant that reasonably well-run, decently resourced organisations were fairly invulnerable.  Globalisation and technology have changed all that.

Nowadays stable employment is far from guaranteed.  The concept of the job for life no longer exists in any sphere as all organisations are constantly looking to stay relevant and competitive. In an economy where human resources are almost always the most expensive cost on the balance sheet, and the easiest to adjust, the employee – employer relationship has changed from one of almost paternalist responsibility on the part of the employer, to that of a simple business transaction. The employer buys the services of the employee for as long as those services are required.

The most common use of the term “portfolio career” refers to a collection of part-time jobs a person may do at any one time. That might include jobs in which a person is formally employed, jobs for which they work as a contractor, activities for which they operate on a self-employed basis or voluntary positions. Since a person’s skills may be of some use to an employer for part of the time, and since employers no longer see a need to “own” the skills required to deliver its products or services, those skills are hired for just the number of hours a week they are needed. The human resource has been outsourced just like many other components of the business operation have been. Employers can no longer afford to have their staff working at anything other than optimum efficiency, and they carefully monitor their use of that particular asset to ensure they are achieving best value from it.


All you need for a successful portfolio career is to be able to remember where you’re supposed to be on any given day.

A second, less frequently used application of the term refers to the notion that a career is the process of gathering skills, knowledge and experience over time, and that we go through our working life offering employers this “portfolio” of skills which we are constantly updating and adding to. This concept of a portfolio career acknowledges an important aspect of the world of work today – that we as individuals are responsible for our career development, and to succeed we must always be looking out for opportunities that will keep our skills relevant and marketable. Over the years I have had several clients who have found themselves at a point where their capabilities have become obsolete, and this has made it very difficult for them to find work. Like an artist’s portfolio, it must be up to date and relevant.

Another terms is “serial careerist”.  I came up with this term some years ago to describe myself. I can’t say for sure that I invented the term – there are ample uses of it on the internet and I doubt they all got it from me, but I like to think I got there first.

A serial careerist is someone who changes career, not just their job, their entire career, every few years. There have always been serial careerists but the conditions outlined above have made it an imperative for some, as whole careers disappear in very short periods of time.  Just look at how the music industry has changed in recent years.

A further factor here is societal change. We may not have quite become hedonists, but young people are perhaps more thoughtful about how they use their time.  Working at something they don’t enjoy is less acceptable that it might have been for previous generations. Boredom thresholds are lower than they were, possibly as a result of today’s fast paced, tweet dominated world.  Change and moving on are how we live now.

These are the conditions into which my children are now entering the workplace and I am observing it with a sense of excitement and trepidation.  Their careers look like they might be much more interesting than ours, but it also seems it will be much harder for them to progress vertically in a world where careers are horizontal processes. How this will impact on their ability to maintain the standard of living they grew up with remains to be seen.

Five Lessons from Leicester 

May 3, 2016

Unless you are from another galaxy, or America, it’s unlikely that the David and Goliath story that is this season’s English Premier League has passed you by.

As such, I feel it is my duty to attempt what pretty much every other business commentator will be doing; make profound connections between sporting and business success.  I just hope you read mine before you are fed up with everyone else’s.


Obligatory picture of Leicester City football players teaching business a spurious lesson about something or other.

1 Take the team for a pizza for the slightest reason

Pundits have snorted at manager Claudio Ranieri’s motivational tool of taking his players out for a pizza when they finished a game without conceding a goal. How could such a pathetic reward motivate high earning sportsmen?

It’s not about the reward, it’s about celebrating small successes together, and importantly, spending time outside of the workplace getting to know each other. Seeing each other in a different way, learning to be around each other, learning to care for each other. That’s team-building.

2 Know your job and keep it simple

Leicester City are not a team made up of high flyers by top professional footballing standards. They are competent individuals at their level, no more. What’s important is that each of them knows his job, believes in his ability to do it well, understands how his role contributes to the whole, and gets on with what he is supposed to do.

At the point of winning the title Leicester City had the fourth best disciplinary record in the division. Maintaining discipline translates to maintaining individual focus in the world of work, not resisting the urge to gouge your competitors’ eyes out. When an employee maintains focus on their task they make fewer mistakes.

3 Minimise mistakes

If you can get your team members to do their job well, mistakes are minimised. A high number of mistakes leads failure, and no matter how talented your team is on the attack – innovating, selling, marketing – if you can’t get the basics of the operation right you’ll lose customers (or let in goals) faster than you can gain (score) them, and as everyone knows, customer acquisition costs about five times as much as customer retention. Leicester have conceded fewer goals than all but two teams in the division.

4 Minimise staff turnover

Leicester City have used fewer players than any other team during the Premiership campaign. Every time someone leaves or joins it causes disruption. Disruption means performance is compromised. Staff retention is absolutely crucial to the success of any team.

5 Don’t work too hard

Actually I have no idea whether Leicester’s training schedule was more or less arduous than that of other teams. I’m just chucking this in here because I want to.

Training too hard increases the chances of injury. In terms of business, working too hard reduces motivation and life balance. Being healthy is critical to performing well at work. Strings of late nights in the office are not good for the individual, the business or the customers. Balancing work with other activities; physical, social and intellectual, is good for business.


So, if you adopt some of these ideas for your team, who knows, maybe next year they will win all sorts of awards for their performance?

And then the following year they’ll probably be struggling to avoid relegation again.




Getting the cover letter right

February 16, 2016

It often happens that a particular issue pops up several times in a short space of time. Recently I’ve been asked to help a few people with their cover letters.

Many think the cover letter is less important than getting the application form or CV right.  That’s a mistake because while there are many who take little notice of cover letters, there will certainly be those for whom it makes the difference between getting past the first stage of selection or not.

Some employers specifically ask applicants to deliver their application form or CV with a cover letter.  This is clearly an opportunity to impress over your competitors who may not have taken it as seriously.

So what can you do to make the most of the cover letter?  As always, ask yourself what the reader will be looking for.  Some people read the cover letter before looking at the rest of the application, which is what you would assume, but some read it after.  It’s safe to assume that those who read it first are expecting you to provide them with enough information to enable them to decide whether you are a credible candidate worthy of having the rest of the application materials looked at or not.

Where the cover letter is read after, you can assume that they make the decision that you are a worthy candidate from the CV or application form, and the letter is subsequently read to see how good you are at articulating your case in writing.

Either way, a good letter will help.

You therefore need to think about content and style, and you need to keep it short.  Unless otherwise stated I would not recommend more than a single side, and as usual that does not mean reducing font size and margin width.  It means 4 – 500 words as a general rule.  There are many examples online and they mostly say the same thing about format and content so I won’t dwell on it.

Think about the key competencies the employer is looking for, and mention the achievements you have that relate to those competencies.  You won’t be able to cover everything, so don’t try.  Focus on the most important two or three.

The other thing they will probably care about is your motivation, so tell them briefly why you think this role is good for your career development.

In terms of style, write in a way that is readable and flowing.  efficient lists of information may help you to get more information across but that is what your CV is for.  The letter is your chance to engage the reader, to draw them in, so it needs to be interesting to read.  Make them want to know more about you.  Don’t attempt to tell them everything you can.




Graduate Entry Schemes

January 25, 2016

I have recently been focusing my attention on graduate programmes. In particular I’ve been interested in identifying patterns that are common across schemes. In order to build my picture I conducted some fairly straightforward research amongst the UK’s largest companies, specifically the FTSE 100 and FTSE 250.

The first thing to note is that while a high proportion of the bigger companies offer graduate programmes, they are less favoured amongst the cohort of smaller companies.

Something else of note is that almost every programme states a minimum entry standard of an upper second class degree or equivalent, usually this means a GPA score of between 300 and 350.  They also typically expect a UCAS score of at least 300, sometimes more for specialist areas as opposed to general management.

The application period is usually in the autumn, and if a candidate gets through those two or three stages they will typically be invited to attend an assessment centre in the early part of the following year.  Almost all schemes appear to include an assessment centre stage.

So what’s involved here? Assessment centres will involve any combination of the following activities:

  1. Group exercises, the purpose of which is to see how an individual contributes in a team environment. They often involve role play or group discussions.
  2. Presentations, where some information, data or case study will have been provided either on the day or in advance, and the objective is to see how the candidate analyses information, synthesises ideas, and/or communicates to a group.
  3. Psychometric inventories. Companies use a variety of tests to assess personality, ability and intelligence. These tests are also sometimes administered online before the assessment day.  Occasionally, and more controversially, some tests have been developed to measure integrity and propensity to display anger.  Correctly handled, the employer will use the test results to explore relevant matters in the interview.
  4.  Work based exercises are sometimes used to see how well a candidate executes the type of task they might be required to perform in the job. They are often some type of problem solving (sometimes also done in a group setting) or as an in-tray exercise.
  5. Interviews are almost always a part of the process, sometimes linked to the other exercises, i.e. interview questions follow up on observations made during the activities. Other types of interviews are technical and competency based, and may be either be HR staff or line managers / departmental colleagues, and set up as one to one or panel.

These are the most common elements but it’s important to recognise that each company is looking for a particular combination of qualities and will possibly have specific tools to explore those factors.

This article only scratches the surface of the assessment centre.  There is much to say about each of the above elements, not to mention the various stages that take place even before the assessment centre.

If you, or someone you know is interested in learning how to make the very most of their assessment centre experience, be it for a graduate scheme or other recruitment opportunity, I am running a special workshop on the subject on February 23rd in central London.  Further details here https://event.bookitbee.com/e/c7nmy


A new thing every year

January 18, 2016

At the risk of sounding like one of those (un)charismatic life coach guru types, this week’s piece is a call to action, ra-ra-ra, go for it, just do it, bouncy encouragement thing.

A few years ago I made a decision to take on a new challenge of some type every year.  In all honesty it wasn’t planned that way.  It was retrospective in that I did a challenge then decided that I would find another one each year.

That first challenge was a physical one.  I rode a bike up a very long and steep mountain in France.  I’ve written about this challenge and the profound impact it had on me elsewhere and since then the challenges have included learning to weld, trying (again) to learn a musical instrument and this year I have taken up ballroom dancing (second lesson this evening). Perhaps one day I will summon up the courage to try to learn a foreign language.

Why do I promote this?  There’s no intrinsic benefit in taking on something new on an annual basis, but there is a benefit in continual learning.  One of the major health concerns for us as we live longer is dementia.  The Alzheimer’s Association have identified six pillars for prevention of that particular form of dementia:

  1. Regular exercise
  2. Healthy diet
  3. Mental stimulation
  4. Quality sleep
  5. Stress management
  6. An active social life

I’m particular persuaded that new activities forcing you to use parts of the brain you don’t generally use is especially good for you.

These, unsurprisingly, match the factors I have long recommended for people looking to achieve a healthy work-life balance.  A challenge a year could take care of a number of these six factors depending on what you decide to take up as your challenge.

Beyond that, pushing yourself beyond your known limits is one of the most life affirming things you can do, as I found on my cycle challenge.

Long before many of us stop working, we stop learning.  We’re just going through the motions for much of the time.  I’m not saying we’re sleepwalking through our jobs, and clearly there are some roles that require us to constantly think and learn, but for many the parts of the brain that are associated with leaning are minimally stimulated and I’m sure that the reason dementia is becoming such a concern is because we are living longer, and therefore are living for more and more years without sufficient mental stimulation.

So here’s me, standing on a big stage at the O2 with a microphone headset bullying you into committing to learn something new in 2016.  Watch out Tony Robbins. Next years’ challenge for me is to be you.



The bell-curve shaped career ladder

January 4, 2016

We tend think of careers as a process of climbing, and at the end of it we are at our highest point on the ladder.

In fact that’s never been the case and according to HM Revenue and Customs data average wages now peak at around 40 – 45 years old. In other words salaries are now highest for the average worker at around the half way point of their career. For some, salaries decline gradually after then, while for the average they fall away significantly so that someone still in work over the age of seventy will be taking home much the same as someone in their early twenties.

Our career trajectory is not a line that goes up from bottom left to top right, but more of a bell-curve.

Career Ladder

Career ladders look more like this…


…than this

This data is based on all levels.  I couldn’t find specific information for management roles, but my guess is that the pattern is similar.

If we lose our job or decide to leave, the likelihood is that at best we will find a job at a similar salary once we reach this age group and beyond.  Mostly however, we will need to make compromises and accept a lower salary.  In other words, after our mid-forties we are climbing down the ladder.

The prospect of climbing down the ladder for over twenty-five years of working life is demoralising. So what can be done?

First, accept the situation.  This is the new reality and not everyone can keep progressing in a world where people are working for longer and company structures are getting flatter. There are simply not the positions to be promoted into, and so progress stops earlier than in the past.

Next consider these options:

1 Go self-employed. Become a consultant and sell your expertise.  The likelihood for many is that earnings will still go down but fulfilment will go up. For some, working in a lower level job is humiliating, while being one’s own boss, even if that means less money, is preferable.

2 Learn new skills in order to broaden your appeal and make you more employable.  This may help to keep the salary higher than otherwise. Besides, learning is is good for the brain.  As we age, brain-training becomes more an more important.

3 Change your values.  Instead of thinking within the framework of money and status, look for fulfilment and meaning in your work. Doing something new and different makes for a more interesting life.  Work is not just about money and status, it’s a way to stay healthy in our twilight years.  It means getting out, interacting with people and thinking. Physical, social and intellectual activities are the key to a healthy balanced life.

There it is. We work for longer than ever before and our earnings decline from about half way through, but surely that’s better than years of watching daytime tv?

Time to down tools and relax

December 21, 2015

I’m so pleased that we are entering the holiday season.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. In the case of Jack Nicholson’s character in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, it made him much worse than dull.


During my working life I’ve seen the number of hours worked by white-collar employees gradually increase.  I’m not talking about the standard working week.  I’m talking about the additional hours referred to in employment contracts as “and any other times you are required” or something similar. These are the hours that you work late into the night, or early into the next morning, whenever a deadline approaches, because the alternative would be that next time there’s redundancies are in the offing your name might be on the list.

Don’t misunderstand me.  This is a fact of modern life.  I think it’s wrong but I can’t offer an alternative for a service based economy where people are the machines and being competitive requires squeezing as much out of those machines as possible. My issue is that employers on the whole, don’t appear to recognise how this relentless life is bad for business.

Workplace stress, anxiety and depression is at unprecedented levels accounting for 10 million sick days per year, that’s 43% of all days lost for reasons of ill-health. It has taken over from back pain as the top reason for absenteeism, reflecting our transition from a physical to a mental economy.

So while employers may not be moved to address the issue (and it should be stressed that the problem is far, far greater in the public than the private sector) at least this season gives employees the opportunity to turn off the technology and leave work alone until January.  That’s right.  Just put it down.  It can wait whereas your health can’t.  You need to be attending to your well-being all the time.

I’m not so naive to imagine that bosses and clients won’t try to make contact over the holiday period, and you may not want to ignore those calls, so at least try to contain dealing with those approaches to certain ring-fenced times, and relax as much as you can the rest of the time. Put messages on your voicemail and set up an “out of office” response on your email. Otherwise, coming back in January without having felt you’ve been able to re-charge the batteries will set the new year off on a bad footing.

Of course, you may be one of those people who finds being stuck with the family more stressful than work, in which case I suggest you volunteer to go in between Christmas and New New Year for your period of relaxation, after all, as we all know, nothing happens in the office then.