It’s two months since my father passed away, and nearly a year to the day since he went into hospital for scheduled heart surgery. Sadly, although the operation itself appears to have been a success, the ordeal seemed to trigger a whole series of complications and underlying conditions: within 6 months he was admitted to a dementia ward, and by late last year, he was in a nursing home undergoing palliative care. Less than three months later, he passed away, the shadow of his former self.

I was able to spend several weeks back in the UK over Christmas and New Year, visiting him up to three times a day. Most of the time, he was living in his own little world, and I would simply sit with him and listen to some of his favourite music, mainly baroque and opera. But in his lucid moments there were flashbacks to the distant past, and some recollections of more recent memories. On one occasion, even though he had lost most of his capacity for speech, he did manage a sage piece of advice: “Don’t play with fire”.

More recently, I was in the UK again to scatter his ashes and help sort out his study and his workshop. Memories of impromptu DIY lessons came flooding back. There were also several quirks and surprises in his personal archive: photos of him at management conferences in the 1970s and 1980s, a scrapbook of his time in Germany in the late 1950s during National Service (including some chilling images of Belsen), and a spreadsheet showing his annual income and income tax right up to his retirement.

Although he was fortunate in being able to take early retirement in his late 50s, he spent the next 25 years volunteering, building a portfolio of interests and serving on multiple committees for the arts, small business, veteran affairs, U3A and other community projects. My mother likes to joke that he’d rather chair a committee than mow the lawn. He also continued to learn, and I found recent certificates of proficiency for speaking German, and for formatting Word documents (very handy for writing up agendas and minutes).

He was the product of a classic liberal education, not a polymath, but possessing a solid knowledge about lots of different things: the arts, politics, language and history as well as science and technology. All the things you need to solve The Times crossword.

There are probably three key things that my father taught me:

  • Think for yourself
  • Don’t follow the herd
  • And of course, being an engineer, don’t take something apart unless you know how to put it back together again.

The latter is particularly useful when working with clients on their business reviews!

Next week: Music Streaming Comes of Age

The Startup of You v2.0

Through my blogs on startups, meetups and portfolio careers, I was recently interviewed by Peter Judd from News Corp., who is trying to bring the discussion on entrepreneurship, startups and innovation to a wider audience, particularly people who may be looking at a career change. (We both agree that the National Innovation and Science Agenda is not cutting through to the general public.)  Apart from being an advocate for portfolio careers, I also pointed out that entrepreneurship or working with startups is not for everyone. Instead, it may be possible to change your current role to the one you want. Alternatively, taking a new look at your current circumstances can provide some fresh perspective on finding your dream career.

Francis Kenna: The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing (2016) [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Francis Kenna: The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing (2016) [Photo by Rory Manchee]

The impetus following the 2012 publication of “The Startup of You” has done much to fuel the current entrepreneurial phenomenon, combined with lean startup business models and agile product development processes. The drive for innovation in response to digital disruption and lowering technology costs also means that launching your own venture can be increasingly de-risked.

For example, I recently saw some data by Ian Gardner from Amazon Web Services, that showed the “cost of failure” has come down from $5m to $5k, in just 15 years. This is based on a comparison between what it typically cost to launch a new business at the height of the boom/bust in 2000, and what it costs today. With a mix of open source tools, cloud computing, APIs, SDKs and social media platforms, launching a new business has never been cheaper or easier.

Of course, there is a paradox here: if an increasing number of people, especially younger graduates and new entrants to the workforce, are more interested in doing their own thing and less interested in joining large or established organisations, it’s going to get harder for employers to attract and retain the best talent; on the other hand, without appropriate experience, on-the-job training and personal development, how do these aspiring entrepreneurs acquire the necessary business, technical and leadership skills to succeed in their own ventures?

For some people, it may be appropriate to take their entrepreneurial spirit of adventure into a “traditional” role to test some of their ideas, as well as build networks and get some practical experience. Equally, I can see a huge opportunity for companies to create the right opportunities to engage employees for flexible roles aligned with specific projects or objectives (rather than plugging them into org charts). Companies are also finding new ways of tapping into their existing workforce to identify hitherto hidden and unknown skills and knowledge. Many employers also recognise that leadership roles will increasingly be filled by people who are comfortable with rapid change, increasing complexity and heightened uncertainty, as well as having enhanced soft skills. (There’s even some current thinking that utilising “rebel talent” is a good thing.)

Whether you are starting out on your entrepreneurial journey, looking to reboot your career, or searching for meaningful work that aligns with your values and purpose, there are numerous opportunities (via meetups, hackathons, pitch nights and networking forums) to explore your options before you make a decision. And for companies looking to re-invigorate your workforce and unleash hidden talent, there are many ways to experiment through taking informed risks, by building in-house innovation hubs, running consultative and collaborative workshops, and inviting ideas and inspiration from your existing people, who are familiar with the challenges you face.

Next week: Banksy – an artist for our times?

My Extended Gap Year

I was recently interviewed for a story about the Future of Work. One of the questions asked how I had arrived at my current portfolio career. As I reflected on the past few years of my working life, I realised that my ongoing journey resembled something of an extended gap year, because of the wide range of interests I have been exploring and the variety of projects I have been working on.


Image sourced from Ivy League Admissions Club

During my “original” gap year between school and university, I was a postman, I volunteered at a community law centre, I worked in a bread factory, on a building site and at a law firm, and travelled abroad. My primary goals then were to get some “real” life and work experiences and think about what I might like to do as a career once I graduated. If nothing else, it showed me how to work with other people, develop some resilience and resourcefulness, and discover what I might be passionate about. And while my career went in quite a different direction to the one I had imagined, the gap year experience was an invaluable part of the learning process.

Since my last corporate gig, I have embarked on what feels to be a continuous personal development programme. Aside from undertaking some professional development, participating in hackathons, serving on advisory boards, guest blogging, co-presenting numerous radio shows, developing a prototype HR app, joining various Meetup Groups, and working with a number of startups and entrepreneurs, most recently I have been working in the digital asset space (Bitcoin, Blockchain etc.) and in innovation using design thinking and collaboration models.

As part of my extra-curricular activities, I have continued to explore various digital tools and platforms for composing, recording and distributing my music – I even wrote a piece for Melbourne’s Federation Bells which is on semi-regular rotation – and I have learned some practical skills in picture framing and constructing display boxes out of Perspex.

What this all adds up to is a continuous desire to keep learning, to keep exploring interesting stuff, maintaining a sense of curiosity and not standing still – stagnation is the death of creativity! And while I may not have imagined embarking on such a career path after working in senior corporate roles for many years, the current journey is varied, seldom boring, and frequently rewarding.

For anyone who may feel they are stuck in their current work, or cannot see where there career is going, I would encourage you to think about taking a “gap year” – to explore, experience and experiment with your career options, to challenge your current perceptions, to take yourself out of your comfort zone, and above all to embrace the potential for change. Even if this does not feel like re-inventing yourself, it should be an invigorating and rewarding experience – and I’m more than happy to share some of my own insights if you want to contact me via this blog.

Next week: Spaghetti in the Cloud


Portfolio, Portmanteau or Protean: what shape is your career?

In a previous article, I commented on the non-linear nature of career development in the Information Age, in response to changes brought about by new technology, market dynamics and demographic trends.

Following recent research and policy proposals on workforce flexibility and workplace productivity by the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency and the Australian Industry Group it is clear that more than ever, employees must take more responsibility for managing their own career, and be willing to embrace life-long learning and skills re-training to navigate non-traditional career paths.

Whether it is the need to address the current shortage of IT skills, or the need to prepare for the post-mining boom, employers will have to re-think traditional approaches to hiring, engaging and performance managing the workforce; and employees will be obliged to re-think the shape of a traditional career trajectory to take advantage of new opportunities, and to remain relevant in the modern workplace.

There are essentially three career models emerging: Portfolio, Portmanteau and Protean.

Portfolio Career: this model is probably quite familiar to more mature workers, who have embarked on a mix of different career activities, either as a planned transition to retirement or as a means to re-enter the workforce; or by default in response to external changes in employment circumstances.

In this scenario, someone might work part-time in a paid job or consulting role, volunteer part-time for a not-for-profit organisation and hold 1 or 2 non-executive board positions. In my own case, for example, I consult to a number of corporate clients on a regular basis, I am a member of an advisory board for a family owned business, I am working on start-up projects, and I have also been known to do some broadcasting on community radio. My significant other, meanwhile, balances a part-time job in accounting with her practice as an artist and art teacher.

This portfolio career model is no longer the exclusive domain of baby-boomers – witness a former and much younger colleague of mine who undertakes a series of HR contract roles, while helping to build a new IT business with her partner. The portfolio career typically appeals to people who enjoy a variety of different activities, have a broader mix of skills and experience, or who wish to create a personal work-life balance.

Portmanteau Career: this is a term I have coined myself, in an attempt to describe a career model that applies to either meaning of “portmanteau” – a) a travelling case, or b) a compound word.

In the former meaning, a portmanteau career is one where an employee’s skills are easily transferable to another role, a different organization, or even a new industry – the skills are literally portable, and can be carried from place to place. In my own case, I once transitioned from law publishing to financial information services, even though at the time I knew little about the latter – it was the core skills around content development, product management and commercial publishing models that were applicable and relevant.

In the latter meaning, a portmanteau career can be a product of new and emerging technologies or sectors. For example, digital media and social networks (in themselves, “portmanteau” industries) are attracting people with a mix of IT and marketing skills, a combination that would have been highly unlikely 10-15 years ago.

Protean Career: the protean career model is not a new concept but has been brought into the spotlight by the current economic environment, a supply/demand mismatch in skills, and the challenge of employees taking responsibility for their own careers. This challenge especially applies to employees coming into the workplace for the first time – even recent graduates who have gravitated towards a specific career path or vocation based on their choice of courses and qualifications  must be cognizant of the fact that they need to maintain and update their skills and knowledge once they enter the workforce.

In my own case, after graduating in law, and following a career as a paralegal, I decided I wanted to make a move into publishing. I retrained as an editor, and then looked for roles where I could combine my academic qualification with my personal interest – resulting in a successful career in law publishing.

I would summarise the protean career model as one where the individual defines, manages and determines his or her own destiny, rather than letting a career “happen” to them. It requires a pro-active approach to career management, combined with continuous skills improvement, supported by formal and informal learning, a willingness to embrace flexibility, an appetite for taking informed risks – and all underpinned by heightened self-awareness gained through experience and enhanced personal development.

The person who understands and pursues a protean career will likely be creating their own work, managing their own work preferences, and making easier and happier work choices.

In each of these career models, employers must also be willing to embrace flexibility, to adopt creative solutions for hiring and engaging their workforce, and to resist traditional “square pegs for square holes” resourcing models. As the productivity and flexibility debate continues to gain traction, the opportunity to re-think traditional approaches to career development and career management should not be lost in the noise.