In self-employment and freelancing circles, the concept of a ‘portfolio’ career is often discussed. It is clearly not precisely the same as freelancing, but what exactly is it? It seems to offer the best of all worlds: freedom to choose what you do, lots of variety, and more security.
What, though, does the phrase mean in practice, and what skills do you need to pursue a portfolio career?
This page explores some of the ideas behind portfolio working. It defines the concept, and discusses some of the key skills you will need to succeed.
What is Portfolio Working?
Portfolio working, or ‘having a portfolio career’ means dividing your time between several, often unrelated, tasks, jobs or projects.
Portfolio working is not the same as freelancing, where you may work on multiple projects, but all under broadly the same heading (say, ‘writing’, or ‘coding’). If you can describe what you do in one or two words, then you are probably not a portfolio worker!
Examples of Portfolio Careers
James is employed part-time as an HR officer in a large company. Outside his employment time, he provides HR consultancy services to a number of small or medium-sized firms who cannot afford, or do not want, to employ anyone full-time. He is paid on a retainer basis by some, and others employ him by the hour when they need him. He is also developing a small business selling wooden toys that he makes himself.
Lesley is a non-executive director for four different firms, all in the same sector. She is paid on a pro rata basis for each, and expects to spend about two days per month with each, although sometimes it can be more or less. She also does some freelance writing, and runs an amateur dramatic group on a voluntary basis.
Stephen is employed three days a week as an engineer in a large engineering consultancy. He spends the other two days per week doing gardening, and is also doing a major garden design project at the weekends. He hopes to expand his gardening work to three days per week within the next year or so, and eventually work full-time on it.
The Benefits of Portfolio Working
There are a number of benefits to portfolio working, even compared to other freelance work or self-employment.
- The ability to combine employment and self-employment, reducing the risks and disadvantages of either;
- Increasing variety in what you do, which may be particularly helpful if you are easily bored;
- The ability to try a new work area without being too committed, such as becoming a non-executive director, or starting up as a consultant;
- Less dependency on the market in any particular area, making you less vulnerable to downturns.
Portfolio working therefore has many advantages, but it also has a few disadvantages—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it requires some very specific skills.
Skills Required for Portfolio Working
Portfolio working is not for everyone. It has some specific challenges and limitations. For those with the right skills and attributes, however, it can prove a rewarding option.
The main skills required for portfolio working are:
Excellent time management and organisational skills
Juggling different projects has always required good time management skills, as well as the ability to organise yourself. These two areas tend to go hand-in-hand: those who are organised also tend to be better at managing their time, and ensuring that they can get everything done within the time available.
These skills can, however, be learned. With enough motivation—which might be the desire to make a success of a portfolio career—anyone can manage
For more about these key skills, you may find it helpful to read our pages on Time Management and Organisational Skills. Our guest post How to Manage Your Project Portfolio also contains some useful ideas.
Self-motivation and discipline
Just like anyone else who is self-employed or works on a freelance basis, portfolio workers need to be both self-motivated and disciplined. Only you can judge when, and whether, you need to be looking for more projects to add to your portfolio, or when you can afford to take a day off.
Developing good, strong habits of self-motivation and self-discipline will ensure that you can manage your portfolio career.
You may like to read our pages on Self-Motivation and Self-Motivation for Freelancers for more information about this key area.
Self-awareness is a combination of emotional awareness, accurate self-assessment and self-confidence. It means, therefore, knowing and understanding yourself, including your strengths and weaknesses, and having a strong sense of self-worth. This is an essential skill for anyone working for themselves, because you need to be very self-reliant, and also have a good understanding of your own skills and weaknesses.
There is more about developing this skill in our page on Self-Awareness.
Ability to network
Your next project or contract is likely to come from within your network, because that is the nature of the job market, and particularly the freelancing/contract world. You therefore need to be able to network effectively, which includes being proactive in building and maintaining your network.
There is more about this in our page on Networking for Freelancers.
A good understanding of business
Finally, like any other freelancer or self-employed person, you are running your own business, and you need to understand what you are doing.
Good business skills—otherwise known as commercial awareness—will always help.
However, this may be even more important for portfolio working, because it is possible that some of your work will actually hinge on your business skills (for example, should you wish to work as a non-executive director).
If the idea of portfolio working really excites you, but you do not feel that you have all the necessary skills, don’t worry. You can develop all these skills over time—and you will do so if you have the motivation. Probably the most important aspect is wanting to do it.