2008 – Portfolio careers and interim management
The grandstand view of Saturday’s Six Nations rugby
match between England and Ireland from seats high up in
the east stand at Twickenham offered an opportunity, not
only to watch a contest among opposing teams, but to see
also how they organised themselves.
The on-field spaces and the way they are filled are much
more apparent from a high vantage point than they are at
ground-level. In the same way it is possible to get a clear
understanding of how teams are working together.
As always on these occasions, my rugby-watching friend
provided a constant commentary that is far more expansive
than anything you hear on the televised reports.
His main point – more of a worry – is that
Rugby Union players are becoming more versatile. Traditionally
there was a clear demarcation of jobs within the game, particularly
of the two groups of players within the team: the running
backs who move the ball at speed and the bigger, scrapping
forwards whose job is to win the ball and hold it while
setting up a new phase of play.
But there were times on Saturday when forwards were strung
out to receive passes in the back line rather than fighting
to get the ball in the rucks. The nature of the game seems
to be changing and there are some in the southern hemisphere
who would welcome more of the running game and less of those
physical contests in the scrums and rucks.
I don’t agree. The great thing about rugby traditionally
is that it has been a game for all shapes and sizes and
never the case that one size fits all. As with rugby, so
it is in working life. Today employers are facing much greater
demands for flexibility in business and, as a result, are
demanding more flexibility from employees.
The result has been a confusing hybridisation of employment
options and managerial approaches. The downside to this
is that managerial models and attitudes are struggling to
keep pace with change.
Much of this hybridisation has been described in the works
of management writer, Charles Handy who, throughout the
late 1980s and early 1990s introduced us to concepts such
as the portfolio career.
He invited us conceptually to think of an organisation
as an “inside-out doughnut” with a core –
the dough in the middle –surrounded by peripheral
but important activities on the outside. At the same time
he asked us to superimpose a shamrock image over the doughnut
that would describe different ways of working.
The first leaf of the shamrock represents core workers,
usually permanent staff; the second consists of contract
workers doing work that is not vital but that is nevertheless
important to the organisation. The third shamrock leaf comprises
temporary and part-time workers, recruited to meet peaks
in demand for labour.
He described those serving a series of contracting needs
as portfolio workers – people who collected chunks
of work undertaken separately but within the same time frame.
The advantage of this kind of work, though less secure,
was the freedom it allowed people to arrange a portfolio
that suited their working style.
The portfolio career seemed so seductive that I opted to
create one for myself some years ago. Today it is going
well and does indeed fulfil most of my needs. But would
I describe it as a model for the future of work? Not in
a month of Sundays.
Portfolio working is rigorous, demanding and uncertain.
Unless you have the hide of a rhinoceros you should hang
on to your day job. In reality the shamrock organisation
is a myth in that it envisages three equal leaves. Work
is not divided that way. The vast majority continues to
be described by the permanent job and that may be for the
Two weeks ago I found myself counselling a young journalist
who had worked on a national newspaper – not this
one – as a part-time sub-editor, often described in
the newspaper business as a “casual.” This casual
status had existed for five years, however, allowing him
no opportunity to plan for the future.
Unwisely he complained about the arrangement in an email
that was seen by every colleague within the company, including
management. He was told to clear his desk that same day.
The suddenness of the move left him distraught and confused.
I wanted to help him because I have seen his work and know
he is a talented writer, but potential employers are suspicious
about what for them is an unknown quantity.
Career dips can occur in permanent jobs too but the protection
of a contract leaves some potential for salvation. I know
the value of a contract. Without one your working arrangement
might be fine until the individual with whom you secured
the role moves on, leaving you vulnerable to the new broom
But this is the nature of uncertainty. Those with a robust-enough
portfolio will find that as one door closes another opens.
All the same, it would be disingenuous to claim that there
is no pain in rejection.
Actors must deal with uncertainty in every audition in
the knowledge that sometimes the pain of rejection is tempered
with the elation of landing a plum part. Dealing with such
highs and lows requires strong degrees of resilience and
For this reason I am coming around once more to the view
that interim management is not such a bad model for those
who want to pursue more fragmented careers. While interim
managers must face some uncertainty between assignments,
they have some contractual protection on the job.
New research undertaken among the 29 agencies in the Interim
Management Association suggests that the nature of this
work is becoming focused mainly in project and change management.
The IMA’s latest market audit among its membership
comprised analysis of 1,613 completed assignments in 2007,
together worth £158m in turnover, about two-thirds
of which is in the private sector and a third in the public
sector. Banking and finance is the biggest private sector
The average length of assignment was 130 working days or
six months if we are looking at five-day weeks. Most assignments
are in the £500 to £700 daily rate range, followed
by a higher range of £700 to £1,000. A smaller
elite group can charge between £1,000 and £1,500.
Beyond this there is a super elite of perhaps two to three
cent of interims who can command higher rates.
One of the most encouraging findings from the research
is that women undertook more than a quarter of assignments
in 2007. Interim management, it appears, is coming of age
and finding a distinctive role in the market place. “It
seems to be used much less these days for stop gap assignments
and crisis management and far more for specific projects,”
says Nick Robeson, chairman of the IMA.
Like those forward players in rugby, the market place continues
to need a cadre of individuals who have the power to hold
an operation together. Most often they’re not engaged
to do the fancy stuff but they do bring some sought-after
experience in to the workplace. It’s tough work, not
for faint hearts and not for the majority. But it’s
See also: Profile
of an interim manager