Photo by Chapendra on Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

Photo by Chapendra on Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

A few weeks ago at a dinner I convened for my facilitators group we got talking – as we always do – about the various things that we each do for work.  Not surprisingly, many of us have several areas of expertise and it made for interesting introductions as each person tried to hone in on their niche(s). “Niche talk” seems to come up a lot in my conversations with other entrepreneurs these days, with many of us trying to figure out just what the heck having a niche really means. Does having a niche mean that you can’t do more than one thing? I don’t think so. In fact many of us thrive on having different types of work – often very related to each other – to keep our brains engaged and our clients coming.

My friend Denise Lloyd of Engaged HR was sitting at the table beside me that night and introduced to us the concept of “portfolio careers”. I hadn’t yet heard this phrase used before which describes people like us: people who do a few different things to make money for their work and, more importantly, to feed their passions.  I like this term better than “slash career” – a phrase I had already heard – which seems more harsh and even a bit haphazard.

After the dinner I thought about the concept of portfolio careers for several days and then emailed three people who were at the dinner to tell me more about their own personal experience with having a portfolio career. Here’s what they had to say:

Allison Benner, a Victoria writer, researcher and facilitator, responded with this:I find it challenging to say exactly what I do. To another person, it might seem like I’m all over the map, but what stands out to me is the connections between the things I do.” Allison right now (among several other things!) is co-authoring a book on community-university partnerships in post-secondary education in Sub-Saharan Africa, co-authoring a book about the larynx, teaching a course on the physiology of speech production and coordinating two conferences this fall on phonetics and environmental and indigenous humanities. Clearly a talented professional with multiple areas of interest, Allison says that she “enjoys the creative synergy that results from crossing disciplines, from alternating between the ‘big picture’ and the small details, and from working with diverse individuals and groups.”

Lise-Lotte Loomer said “I appreciate having a portfolio career because it means that I can explore, continue to learn, take my learning and apply it to new circumstances and continue to be challenged.” Lise-Lotte’s portfolio includes facilitation, program development and coordination, communications and group leadership. She facilitates training workshops for Early Childhood Educators, is the founder and owner of partygreen celebrations, has been a Girl Guide Leader for 13 (!) groups over 8 years, and more. Lise-Lotte is a professional who has incorporated both paid work and leadership volunteering in her career, and says that her “strong thread” has always been “facilitating, leadership, action, caring, love of learning, helping, listening, volunteering, project results completed with respect, knowledge and trust.” That sounds like a great portfolio to me.

And lastly, Robyn Unwin is a personal branding expert and speaking coach who teaches personal branding, speaking skills and video training to various clients. She says that personal branding and building a reputation or following around your talents or passions creates a strong foundation for a successful portfolio career. Robyn says:

 A portfolio career is a great way of negotiating the changing landscape of the workplace. The era of the linear career path and retiring with a gold watch is over, so we’re called to be more creative in charting our careers. If we can create our vocation around what we love to do and what we’re the best at, a portfolio career will ultimately be the most fulfilling way to contribute our talents to the workforce.

But are portfolio careers of any sort effective? Not necessarily. Robyn thinks the challenge in having a portfolio career is “making sure your portfolio of skills align and complement each other, so as not to dilute your brand.” Hmm…perhaps this is where “portfolio” can fall back into “slash” (my definition of it anyway!) – when you’re doing so many different and unrelated things that people don’t understand what you do or can’t describe your work to others. I remember my friend (coach and conflict mediator) Julia Menard told me once that she thought it was OK to do different things, but the concept of niche is to become known well for at least one of those things. It doesn’t stop you from doing the other work you’re interested in, but it allows people in the community to know and talk about you for your biggest thing. That makes sense to me, even though I’d like to stretch it to two biggest things. 🙂

As for me, my portfolio career currently includes instructional design, facilitation, course development, group convening and a little bit of writing and editing. Last December I did a lot of work around clarity for my business around all this and developed a mission statement which pulls it all together: “I design and facilitate learning, collaboration and connection experiences.” Mostly I tell people I’m an instructional designer and facilitator, which feels right (even if it does sometimes take a little explanation in some circles!)

Here’s to portfolio careers and their appeal, and for our community of people doing wonderful work while pursuing them.