Thursday, November 10, 2005

Investing in the self.

Building a portfolio life

A new book promotes the idea of chucking in a conventional job for a more varied and fulfilling alternative. Mark Tran finds out more.

Thursday November 10, 2005

Fifty can be a dangerous age in the business world. In an era of downsizing, people in their 50s make tempting targets for companies seeking to cut costs.
Christopher Lyons, who spent 27 years at Abbey National before it was taken over by Banco Santander and renamed Abbey, was made redundant as he approached 50. But Mr Lyons had already decided that he had had enough of being a corporate animal and was glad to trade in his career for a "portfolio life".

In his new incarnation Mr Lyons is co-author, with Adrian Bourne and Colin McCrudden, of You Unlimited - a book on how to make that change.

Portfolio life was a term coined by the business guru Charles Handy in his book The Age of Unreason in 1989. Mr Handy explained the concept as "a portfolio of activities - some we do for money, some for interest, some for pleasure, some for a cause... the different bits fit together to form a balanced whole greater than the parts".

If this sounds familiar it is because Marx once proposed something very similar, famously describing communist society as one in which it would be possible "to do one thing today and another tomorrow; to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening and criticise after dinner, just as I please."

Mr Lyons, for instance, is non-executive director at Maritime & Underwater Security Consultants, a leading international consultancy; London Strategic Housing, a provider of affordable, keyworker housing; and an adviser for Beer Mergers, a specialist in mergers and acquisitions for small companies. Mr Lyons is also a visiting fellow at Kingston University.

His co-author Mr Bourne, formerly a managing director at Nestle UK, is now director of the Success Group, a leadership coaching service for senior executives. He also works to tackle homelessness, mainly with the Business Action on Homelessness team, part of the Business in the Community group.

And Mr McCrudden started his portfolio life when he left his job as CEO of food distributor, Cearns & Brown, in 1998. His company, Core Concepts, specialises in board-level consultancy on strategy and sales.

The authors of You Unlimited argue that a portfolio life offers people the chance to lead a more fulfilling life as they can pursue interests otherwise squeezed out by a more conventional career.

Since leaving Cearns & Brown, Mr McCrudden, for instance, has developed his oenophilia. He is parlaying his diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust into assignments as a wine competition judge and is currently writing a book on wine.

As the book states: "Being unlimited is about having a role which suits your talents best, rather than somebody's else's job spec."

You Unlimited offers plenty of advice on how to lead the portfolio life. The ideal portfolio should spread the risk with several customers but should have at least one regular source of income. "Concentrate on what you enjoy most, avoid jobs just because they're available and make sure the jobs fit with the rest of your life," it advises.

All sensible tips, but how realistic is the portfolio life for most employees? It is difficult to contemplate someone on the factory floor embarking on a portfolio life.

The authors had the great advantage of being in top executive jobs where they could build on the numerous contacts they had made during their careers. In fact, a key tip in the book is for portfolio workers to get jobs from their former full-time employers and use that as a stepping stone.

The book recounts several examples of people who have made the successful transition to a portfolio life. One interesting case study is of a man who works as a caretaker three days a week, is a bookseller at weekends and spends the rest of the time working on his novel.

The authors acknowledge that the portfolio life is not for everyone. There is a premium on networking and self-promotion, and portfolio workers have to be ultra-organised as they usually have to keep several balls in the air. Plus, pay can be irregular.

They admit that their incomes have dropped since leaving a set career, but they feel amply compensated by the increased independence and greater control over their own lives.

"What's most stressful is when something happens over which you have no control," Mr Bourne said. "I don't want to be told what to do and when to do it." As for loss of income, he pointed out that there is a difference between the income a person needs and the income a person wants.

You Unlimited shows that with planning and determination, the portfolio life, with its potential for independence and fulfilment, can be an antidote to redundancy.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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