THE FIRST VIEW:
Published: September 29, 2023
The Boomer generation struggles with what they perceive as later generations’ mercurial attitude to our employers. They sought stability, worked in firms that maintained sports facilities and provided ‘a life’ and an income for life. All of that changed in the 80’s when many of those approaches were considered wasteful, sports grounds were sold off to improve balance sheets; firms started seeing people as ‘resources’ to be ramped up and down as the market demanded. This was further reinforced by the switch from defined benefits to defined contribution pension schemes.
Back in the 90’s, Charles Handy, an organisational behaviourist and author, predicted the need for building a “portfolio career” to meet the future of rapid change in the workplace. He promoted the idea of building transferable skill sets that can be used across different roles and jobs. April Rinne developed this further in her book Flux, where she describes how in a world of flux, we need to develop a mindset where we see constant change and unpredictability as a feature rather than as a bug. And one of the ways to thrive in flux is to “treat your career as a portfolio to curate rather than a path to pursue.”
Our boomer ancestors lived in a pre-digital world where things changed slowly and they could indulge the natural human instinct for stability. Our world is very different, full of rapid change and uncertainty. We need to constantly adjust and to do that we need to constantly build and develop our skills.
Continuous learning and continuous experience development are key to future-proofing a modern career – climbing the ladder, linear growth and steady promotions within one field or industry – is becoming increasingly obsolete. People, today, often value freedom, flexibility, variation and a more purpose-driven rather than profit-driven atmosphere.
If we believe there is something in this portfolio approach, consulting has an advantage over other industries; it lends itself to a portfolio career, giving people exposure to a lot of different scenarios and firms. Ideally, every role becomes a ‘stretch’ – people can execute most of it but need to stretch and learn to fully accomplish the task.
The stretch can be in any number of areas, it could be the work, the environment, team leadership, stakeholder management etc. the point is to always be challenging, not too much but enough to click on that personal engagement light. We constantly find that the best performance comes from these stretch scenarios.
Is there something more traditional firms can learn from the consulting experience? I think the stretch aspect is critical to those seeking portfolio careers. Not allowing people to get stuck in roles would be a key starting point, it may feel too disruptive to pro-actively change peoples roles but if you don’t do it they will do it for you by extending their portfolio at another firm. Learning and Developemnt are also key, giving people access to improving their knowledge and adding to their skill portfolio often in areas not related to the current task.
Of course, we aren’t all the same so the skill for leaders is in spotting those who are seeking, knowingly or unknowingly, a portfolio career and if they fit your firm then creating the flexibility to allow them to flourish. Working at a collection of firms is part of the portfolio effect but role experience and the ability to build new skills are key.