5 Characteristics of people that successfully build a work portfolio for themselves


An increasing number of us are looking, at some stage in our life, to build a portfolio of interesting work commitments rather than the traditional single employer model. The portfolio approach to work provides variety and opportunities to learn and pass on knowledge to others, at the same time as generating an income. Some people look to do this early in their career, when an appetite for experimentation is high and costs of living are low. Some choose to do this mid-career when their skills are in high demand, and some wait until later in life when experience and networks are more developed. I have spent nearly 20 years observing and speaking with people in different stages of their lives, with different approaches to building a work portfolio and with varying levels of success. The following are a few of the things I have observed in those that have succeeded:

1. They are comfortable with the uncertainty

For the vast majority of us, portfolio working carries more uncertainty than being employed by an organisation. The volume of work fluctuates, earnings fluctuate, there are more stakeholders to manage and it is less likely that you will receive the kind of support you would expect as an employee. There are exceptions, for example those whose skills and experience are much in demand, but for most of us, the upsides of having a portfolio of work come with associated uncertainties. Almost without exception, those I have seen succeed are not only aware and prepared for this uncertainty, but also genuinely comfortable with it. This means that they do not put pressure on themselves by expecting stable income, they are not anxious in periods of high or low workload and they are truly confident in themselves and their abilities.

2. They start by experimenting with small projects

In nearly 20 years I cannot remember seeing anyone make a quick decision to build a portfolio of work and succeed. Those who have successfully made the step seem to have been testing the water for some time in advance. This could mean getting involved with people, companies or projects on a low or unpaid basis, while maintaining full time work or education. Often people do this through their existing network, supporting a friend or family member, or via volunteering their time to associations or groups in their area of interest. Those who experiment with small projects get to see whether they have the potential they suspected and whether they enjoy it at the same time as gaining valuable experience.

3. They have role models to follow

If I am looking to do something new, the first thing I do is look for people that have succeeded on the same path, as proof that it is possible and for guidance. There are exceptions for true pioneers, but most of us will benefit greatly from identifying and following those that have succeeded on our desired path. This could mean finding people that have acquired several board advisory roles or people who have become established freelance website developers, depending on your desired path. Those with successful portfolios of work have role models. Some are formal and become friends or mentors, but it could also be a person who has written a book or shared their experience online, where it can be read and studied.

4. They build and maintain diverse networks

Networking means many different things to different people. To those who succeed in portfolio working, networking means building reciprocal value-adding relationships with people who are active in their fields of interest. The reciprocal aspect is critical. Networking is as much about giving as receiving, and those with strong networks spend as much time thinking about how they can support and help others, as they do asking questions or gathering information for their own value. It seems apparent that finding people with similar interests and values is the most important factor, and that value comes from open and relaxed communication with those people.

5. They are well liked by people who know them

This may sound obvious and it is hardly a surprise. Those who have succeeded in building a healthy portfolio of work commitments are well liked and have picked up most of their work through referrals. This is really a product of the previous four points. If you are comfortable with the uncertainty of portfolio working, test the water with small projects before starting, find some role models and build a network of reciprocal value relationships in your fields of interest then you are certain to be a happy and thoroughly likeable person!

This article was written by Callum Thomas, CEO of Thomas Thor Associates.

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