How did I establish a portfolio career – and why?

How did I establish a portfolio career – and why? by Melanie Girdlestone, freelance trainer and translator

My choice to work for myself was essentially the result of a system of elimination! Even as a teenager, I knew that money, status symbols and a “positions of responsibility” in  a large company were not things I aspired to. Instead, I somehow envisaged spending my days spreading happiness in some way. The question was: how?

When I finally got serious about finding gainful employment after settling in Munich,  fate came to my rescue. I spotted a newspaper advert by Langenscheidt, the famous dictionary producer, and was lucky enough to be taken on as a member of the teaching team at their new language school. Over the years, further coincidences (including phone-calls out of the blue) allowed me to teach in major companies including a luxury carmaker, major telecommunications provider and a national airline.

My teaching activities ended in 2004, when I accompanied my husband to the UK on his 5-year expat contract. Having left all my clients in Munich, I started from scratch – once again with luck on my side. When a former student of mine contacted me about some translation work, history began to repeat itself, with word spreading and clients accumulating in my contact list again.

To attribute these developments to fate alone would oversimplify the matter. I believe a number of other factors were involved. Surviving on your own seems to me to be a question largely of self-knowledge, of knowing exactly what makes you – and consequently your clients – happy. I, for instance, prefer freedom over rules, so the more creative and open-minded my client, the more I feel my teaching and/or translations can contribute. In addition, creative thinking has enabled me to build up business by linking my personal interests to the opportunities I see in the world around me. For example, my fascination with the way we determine interpersonal relationships through language makes me relatively “creative” as a translator – ideal for tasks such as translating advertising straplines and song lyrics to be (hopefully) as engaging in English as they were in the German original. And then, of course, there’s the importance of an open mind. As well as allowing me to spot an opportunity, broadness of vision helps me tolerate and learn from virtually anything, including my clients’ “quirks”. On top of this, a degree of inquisitiveness helps me share their understanding and fascination for the cars, simulation technologies, wind turbines or cakes they write about – an enthusiasm I inject into my translations. But most of all, at the risk of sounding corny, I believe passion is essential. My love of language has allowed me to devote myself to my studies for two MA’s and consequently produce work that is hopefully of higher quality. It also allows me to evaluate and learn from the work of others.

We all know, however, that life has a marked tendency to throw occasional disasters at us. In this context, I believe it is important to feel able to handle things when they take a turn for the worse. If I do not get along with a client, I end the relationship as elegantly as possible, if only as a means of self-preservation. When confronted with a crisis (such as a key client who is restructuring the way translation or teaching activities are contracted out), I give myself time to deal with the inevitable sadness of losing my contract but soon set about identifying the opportunities the change represents – chiefly time to think, reassess, rebalance and re-orientate. If I feel underpaid or undervalued, I am not afraid to bid a client farewell in order to free up time for other, more lucrative or rewarding work. Conversely, the risk that the client might do the same to me is constantly at the back of my mind, inspiring me to think beyond my daily work so as to be prepared should the worst happen. Scary but exciting – because whenever a door slams shut another window of opportunity opens somewhere.

There are, of course, several aspects of independent work that are hugely inconvenient. Out with PAYE, in with self-assessment tax returns. And who to call when the computer goes strange? Tax returns are a drag, I will admit, but they are invariably completed in the company of my old record collection and a nice cold beer. IT problems tend to be resolved by somebody who knows somebody somewhere that can help. Because although your office network is rather limited when you operate as “sole trader”, you frequently meet like-minded folks who are only too pleased to help, especially if you can return the favour some day. I have often done free translations for people in the past and invariably found something the recipient of these services can do for me at a later stage.

And finally, of course, comes the question of success. At the age of 46, I am by no means rich, but I have never had to restrict my spending and always had plenty of cash available to fall back on in case of an emergency. I live very comfortably in a desirable part of town and focus my energy on the jobs I enjoy most. Meanwhile, my mind continues to churn out new ideas about things I might write, study, tell my clients about, or explore in years to come. I have no employees (which is probably wise considering I have no management skills), but I often share projects with people whose work I like. And with no prospects of promotion, I tend to promote myself; treating the mind by engaging in studies automatically helps promote your bank balance. Bring on more geeky books to make me that bit better at what I do than the others! When my clients come back for more, I know I’ve done the right thing!

You can find out more about Melanie’s work at:

Zumba classes alongside the day job

In this guest blog Yasmin shares how she has started to offer Zumba classes alongside her day job in Higher Education. She describes her motivation for offering the classes and how it helps to develop her skill as a facilitator of groups in a context which complements her work in careers. Over to Yasmin:

I was never one for much physical activity. I remember when I was 12 years old my PE teacher told my mum that I was accepted onto the Track & Field Team because he felt sorry for me, not because I was any good. So how did I manage to become a fitness instructor you may wonder?
I have always had a huge passion for moving to music and dance (again my mother can vouch for this based on  embarrassing videos of 5 year old me stomping along to 80s music in the living room, plus countless ‘shows’ and ‘performances’ I put on for my grandparents and classmates). However it did not occur to me at the time to take classes or translate this passion into something more.

Meanwhile I grew up, went to school, went to University and turned my attention to a career in the public sector. Having completed my Bsc in Public Policy, Government & Management at the University of Birmingham I started working for the Department for Work and Pensions. Following a brief but tumultuous 18 month contract I applied to the Careers and Employability Centre at the University of Birmingham, where I now work. I enjoy advising young people and supporting them with career choices both on an individual basis as well as in groups. In fact I particularly enjoy speaking to large groups and overseeing them engage in various activities to help them enhance their employability. I believe part of this enjoyment translated into my desire to instruct groups of people in a fitness setting.

I was introduced to Zumba in 2010. Previously I had never lasted more than a few months on a fitness program and was somewhat sceptical to start with. I began by exercising to Zumba DVDs and later on visited a class. I registered on the Zumba website to receive updates on training events happening in my area, with no real intent to attend any sessions. At the time it seemed more like an idea than reality. However one day I found out about an instructor training course happening in Birmingham and decided to register. After a short yet intensive training, I was ready to jump in and start teaching.

I contacted local Zumba instructors for practice opportunities and a few let me teach a track or two in their class. They seemed shocked that I jumped into teaching so quickly with little experience but I was determined! I continued to gain experience through covering existing classes with up to 40 attendees. The energy in the room would be so exhilarating I was buzzing for hours afterwards!

I set up my own class in city centre which after 4 weeks did not attract large numbers. I now teach every Friday evening and Saturday morning at Urban Fitness at Bournville College and love it!

I do not view Zumba instruction as a source of income or another job but rather a hobby that has translated into something I can share with other people and in a sense adds the missing puzzle piece to the career path I am already on!

To find out more about my Zumba fitness classes visit

How the soup we grow up in influences how we manage our work life

These are times of constant change in the workplace and job market. And in amongst it all, each and every one of us is developing our careers and our workplace environments. The internet and social media, for example, are changing the way we do business and communicate  – and transforming our working lives and indeed, ourselves as a result.

What specifically is the impact of this on how you manage your career? 

How are you noticing the shift of boundaries between work and life resulting from 24 hour connectivity?                                         

How is communication through the internet and social media impacting on how you do business?

As Generation Y, Millenials and now Generation C (the connected generation) enter the workplace we are seeing the impact of the mixing of generations. Each generation having grown up in a different “soup”. Added to this an increasing number of people I speak to are seeking meaning and purpose in their work, over and above more traditional career drivers such as security, status and a high salary.

All of this has an influence on how we manage our career, with a need as an individual to adapt and reflect on what works for us. With the choice to adopt new ways of working or to opt to stick with what we know and are familiar with.

Having a portfolio career mindset and building your flexibility and adaptability are ways to  build resilience to handle the shifting context and to respond to trends in the job market, such as short term contracts and the growth in a project approach to work.

The concept of a portfolio career is not new, in fact the idea of a “portfolio worker” was first advanced by the work of the author and philosopher Charles Handy in the 1980s. New career theories are also emerging from the US and in future blogs I’ll be sharing some the key themes which I have read about in this research.

We will also be sharing career stories to illustrate the experience of different generations who are embracing a portfolio approach to their work. More also about the characteristics and preferences of Generation Y, Millenials and Generation C in an article by Anita Pickerden coming up soon.

And finally, the idea of “the soup we grow up in” is adapted from the work of Aboodi Shabi, a leading coach.  A quote from Aboodi “People hold different views not because they are flawed or because they have different information than we do, but because they have a different life-training from ours.  Our world-views are shaped by the cultural soups in which we are immersed.”

The art of making connections

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the focus of my business going forward and my personal brand. To do this I’ve asked the questions “What are the key themes of my work?” and “Where does it add value?”. One of the key themes which emerges is “making connections” and here I’ll share four ways in which I consider making connections to be important:

  • Business Development – Connecting with clients to attract work and projects
  • Collaborative Projects – Connecting with collaborators to win business
  • Community – Connecting to build a network of like-minded “colleagues”
  • Creativity – Connecting themes of my work to create innovative and new ideas

Business Development

Key to a successful business and portfolio career is the ability to attract customers and contracts. If you attract work through word of mouth recommendation and by developing connections then you are in a strong position to grow your business or career. Today we have the benefit of platforms such as LinkedIn which more than ever enable us to build connections, make contacts and network. Blend an online presence with more conventional face-to-face networking and this can serve your business well. To make the most of your business development activity ensure that you are clear about your brand, the value of your service to customers and by building on successes. Ensure you have a clear message and a reason for clients to connect. If you grow your portfolio through recommendation and through making the most of connections then this is likely to be a cost-effective and time efficient route to building your business and portfolio.

Collaborative projects

I’ve recently sent out a couple of proposals in which I am collaborating with others. This has enabled me to to work with others who complement what I offer and to build on strengths. Finding people you can collaborate with requires you to make connections at a number of levels. Similar to business development you spend some time gaining clarity in the first place with regard to potential collaborations. Be clear about what you are looking for and why.  Then network and communicate with others to start the process of connecting and engaging with potential collaborators. Connections are likely to work where you share similar values and ways of working. In more conventional work environments we can’t always choose who we work with; when we work in a more fluid and portfolio way we do have the choice and scope to build effective connections which work for us. So use this to your advantage and the benefit of your business.


Portfolio Career Connections is in essence about connecting with others who are on a similar journey.  Working freelance or having your own business often means that you miss out on the sense of community which you gain from  going to a regular place of work. As more and more people work remotely and in virtual teams I think that it will be increasingly important to build communities based on shared interests. I co-lead a coaching group called “Coaching Connections Midlands” which does just this. Each month we meet to share learning and development and key to the success of the group is the sense of community it gives us. What connects us is an interest in coaching and personal development and it is great to see how the group attracts a variety of members coming together in a supportive environment. Communities succeed where there is a shared connection and sense of purpose.


I mentioned at the start of this blog post that I am currently reflecting on my personal brand and the focus of my business and work going forward. I think that the art of making connections to enable new and creative ways of working is at the heart of what I enjoy doing and a cornerstone of my work. Whether I am working on a large scale project to develop a service or enable change in an organisation or with an individual coaching client who wants to create a new direction for their career, there is a core element of enabling change and making the space for new connections and ways of doing things.

Writing this blog post has helped me to articulate one of the key themes of my work “making connections” and to do some thinking about the potential value to those I work with.

What connections have you made from reading this blog post?

What tips can you share to help us develop the art of making connections?

Artists are the original portfolio careerists!

We are delighted to welcome our first guest blog post written by Sue Goodwin, sharing with us an insight in to her own career journey and how she values the space to think, reflect and to be creative in her portfolio career. Over to Sue:

When I left school there were no jobs and like now a recession. I was relieved, I didn’t want a job, I wanted to go to Art College and that’s what I did. I’d had a part time job at a green grocers and that was enough for me, and the green grocer. When  he handed me my last wage, I thought there’s not going to be a next employer.

Leaving art-college in the early eighties, there were still no jobs, only Manpower job creation schemes. My choices at that time were train to be a teacher, set up my crafts business producing expensive craft work for recession hit UK or join a Manpower Services job creation scheme. Teaching or the Manpower Services job didn’t inspire me and making expensive craft-work didn’t sit comfortably with my politics. So what did I do? I set up a community arts charity providing educational arts projects for a growing market for artists to work in schools and with community groups. Although back then artists didn’t think of themselves as having a ‘career path’ the charity provided a structure for a variety of activities which could be called my ‘career’. These activities included working as an artist-in-residence in schools, hospitals, and prisons; lecturing at art colleges; providing training courses for teachers, health workers and countryside workers and working as an artist producing public art works.

After 17 years I needed to move on and for a few years I did a mixture of teaching and consultancy work. Apart from 10 years working in local government my career has been ‘a portfolio’ and continues to be so. The most valuable thing it gives me is the space to think, reflect and to be creative. Many of my contemporaries and artists I’ve worked with and mentored over the years have had ‘portfolio’ careers, some have planned them and others have just followed the next opportunity. Either way it has suited them and helped them to be resilient to the changes in society, changes to the economy and changes in how people see the role of the arts and the artist.

More about Sue will appear on the portfolio career stories page in the next few days, so do visit the blog again soon. Inspired to share your story? Get in touch with or comment on the blog.

How to be at your best by portfolio working

Do you have the opportunity to use your natural skills and talents in your work? What does being at your best mean to you? 

Reflecting on my own career journey and noticing key themes from the work I do as a career coach has helped me to build an evolving picture of what it takes for us to be at our best in our work. And as the world of work changes and shifts, the challenge is to find our way, to take control and to embrace opportunities such as using social media, working across cultures and to redefine how we manage our careers.

One of the key ingredients of career success as a portfolio worker is to find opportunities which enable you to work in an environment or on a project where the tasks, the people and the way of doing things provides the conditions for you to be at your best and realise your potential.   

I’ve worked in organisations of varying shapes and sizes, in the private and public sectors, as an employee and as a freelancer. Each organisation has its own distinctive culture, systems and way of working. In situations where there is a good match between my skills, my preferred way of working and the goals of the organisation I find it very easy to work at my full potential and there is a good energy. On other occasions where there is a misalignment the opposite is usually the outcome, with lower levels of motivation and constantly coming across blocks to doing a good job.

Each time you take on a new contract be flexible and invest time to understand what is important to the people you are working with. Adapt and flex your style to fit in with your employer or client’s way of doing things. Through reflecting on what does work for you and what doesn’t, you will be able to develop your career strategy by finding and attracting work in line with your strengths, skills and preferences. My work currently involves a combination of freelance and salaried work and this works well for me. It gives me the chance to enjoy being part of a team in a large organisation, alongside a chunk of time working more independently taking on freelance contracts. This is a win-win situation of benefit to both me and the clients and employers I work for.

So, how can you create the right conditions to be at your best and realise your potential?  This does not have to mean working freelance or setting up a business, it could also just mean that you find a job where the portfolio of tasks gives you the scope to realise your potential and enjoy your work.

Here are some tips and questions to consider:

– What is important to you? What do you want from your work life? Do you enjoy variety and change or routine and structure? Do you like working independently or part of a team? What is your attitude to risk and uncertainty? What is your financial situation?

– What does being at your best in your work look, sound and feel like? Is there a metaphor which can describe this for you? More about metaphor in future blog posts.

 – What are your skills, strengths and talents? Notice what you notice and identify key themes. Reflect and review by keeping a journal and speaking to others to find out what they think you are good at.

– Set yourself short and long term goals to build your portfolio in line with your preferred way of working. Remember it’s a journey and the key to success is to keep learning and building on successes. 

– If a step such as setting up your own business or working freelance is not for you at the moment, think creatively about how in your current job you can be at your best. How can this support a longer term career strategy?

– If you are looking for a new job, ask yourself “Will this job and the culture of the organisation enable me to be at my best?” The more time you can spend understanding what drives you the better prepared you will be for your job search and to perform well at interviews.

Future blog posts will develop the key themes in this blog and if you want to find out more about how a coaching conversation can help you to get on track contact for a chat. We don’t charge for an initial chat and there is no obligation. If you want to share your portfolio career story on this blog please contact

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The energy of a portfolio career

If you want to start working in a portfolio way or if you are in the midst of a portfolio career it’s useful to consider what type of work you enjoy doing and what gives you a good energy. To sustain a portfolio approach to working over time there needs to be a momentum and a purpose.

When all is flowing well you can create a great energy. For example I get energy from projects starting and coming to an end and from the variety of different strands of work and work environments. It does however require an investment in the first place to get the work and to then sustain over time.

There are other challenges with maintaining a healthy portfolio career. For example if a number of deadlines are coming to a head at the same time you need to manage the situation and adopt energy giving techniques.  Some tips:

  • Be well organised
  • Plan ahead
  • Don’t over commit
  • Get help and support from others
  • Build space in to your diary
  • Take time out during the day

Also notice what is working well and what is generating a good energy. Notice what is causing energy levels to drop. Make changes so you can build on the good stuff and whenever possible avoid taking on energy sapping projects.

Also be aware of overplaying your strengths. One of the health warnings of doing work that you enjoy is that if you don’t take time out, then it can be counter productive. So it’s all about balance and finding the right balance for you and your portfolio of work.

Just find the space to reflect on your energy levels and consider any changes you may want to make. In the next blog we’ll be looking at recent news coverage about part time working.

Space for parallel projects

One of the aspects I enjoy most about having a portfolio of work is the space for parallel projects which feed in to one another. Here I will share my experience of taking learning from my work in Higher Education to the business world and vice versa.  

Parallel projects

I’ve been lucky to have worked for two years on a student engagement project, which involves students in the design and delivery of their careers service. The work is totally aligned to my interest and work in employee engagement and the work I do to help individuals develop their career in line with their interests, motivations and personal goals.

During the university project we have seen the value of engaging students in ways which gets them interested in their career and which in turn motivates them to spread the word to fellow students. They let us (the careers centre) know what they want and how they want it delivered.

Approaching staff development in organisations in a similar way can also pay dividends, and engage employees in positive ways. With technology and more fluid work environments, there is great scope to engage employees in the design and delivery of their training and their development needs. Sharing ownership with staff at all levels and not just senior staff can generate motivation and a positive learning environment.

Transfer of learning

For me it is great to feed ideas from the work I am doing in education in to the work I am doing with business people and vice versa. This is one of the key benefits of developing a portfolio of work in different sectors and with diverse client groups.

For my clients and employers it is also win-win, they benefit from the creative ideas, new perspectives and ways of working, which working on parallel projects can bring. All of this starts with space to explore and start projects in new sectors, which is not so easy if you are fully engaged in a full-time project or job.

Are you working on parallel projects and would like to share your thoughts?

What are the challenges? How can you effectively manage parallel projects?

How can you look for creative ways to diversify in to new sectors?

And how can you create the right space conditions for taking on parallel projects?

More about this in future blog posts.

Why develop a portfolio career?

The term portfolio career is increasingly being used to describe a work-life in which you do two or more part-time jobs for different employers or to describe a career in which you don’t follow a single track or profession. In place of a linear career progression, a portfolio careerist gains experience and builds expertise, combining multiple professions, working for different employers and mixing employment with freelance contracts to make up their personal portfolio.

As we build our career stories on this site you will see that a portolio career is unique to the individual, and typically grows in line with their strengths, skills and interests. In future articles we will be considering how to build a successful portfolio career, but first of all let’s consider why do it. This will give you an insight in to the advantages and disadvantages.

If you enjoy change and variety; if you are self-motivated and organised; and if you have multiple interests, then the likelihood is that portfolio working will appeal to you. Here are examples of specific reasons to develop a portfolio career:

1. Are you at the start of your working life and want to try out a range of jobs before you focus on one specific profession or career route? This is potentially a great time to try out portfolio working.

2. Are you finding it difficult to find a full time job, and therefore need to take on available part time opportunities? Use your portfolio of work to describe this phase of your career in a positive way. You may even choose to stay with a portfolio way of working.

3. Are you mid-career and want to change direction or to enjoy a new way of working, in place of a full-time permanent job? Portfolio working can enable you to build your career in a new way and in future articles we will talk about how you can take responsibility for your own career develpment.

4. Do you want to start a business, but not give up a regular income stream in the early stages? Having a portfolio of income streams and space in the diary can help you to take a low risk route to business start-up.

5. Are you approaching retirement and want to build up a portfolio which gives you flexibility at this stage of your career?

Whatever the reason, be clear about your motivation and see it as a positive step in your career journey. Employers are increasingly wanting to recruit employees who demonstrate adaptability and flexibility. Also given the fluidity of the jobs market, having a portfolio of career experience and skills can put us in a strong position.

Before embarking on a portfolio career, speak to others who have been there and done it. Find out what they enjoy about it and the challenges. Here are a few insights based on my experience of developing a portfolio career in recent years:

I enjoy managing a portfolio of work and the variety of working on a number of projects, with some days in the office working for a regular employer and some days working for my freelance clients. I’ve just added writing to my portfolio, a surprise addition emerging from the space and time to do more creative work. Having time to do new things is great. With this however can come the demands of managing and juggling a portfolio, with often competing deadlines. The challenges also include managing a fluctuating income, coping with the lack of stability and building resilience to constant change. You definitely need to be good at networking, time management and be self-disciplined! 

Don’t just take my word for it, speak to others who have a portfolio of work and take a look at the growing amount of literature on the subject. More about this on Portfolio Career Connections soon.

Just Start

Do you want to start blogging, offer a new service or build a portfolio career for yourself? Whatever the context at some point you will need to move on from planning and preparing to JUST START. This post will consider the importance of making a start and taking action.

Yes, planning is important and there is certainly value in finding the space to research and formulate a plan before starting a new venture. You need to be clear about your proposition and where you add value. Why will clients want to buy from you? Why will readers follow your blog? You need to spend some time researching the needs of your target market or even before that deciding who your target audience is. In future articles I will write about JUST SPACE and the importance of finding space to research and make new things happen.

So back to making a start. At what point do you start? Just reading this blog could be a starting point for you to develop your career in a new way. What I encourage you to do is to notice what you notice and in particular notice the tipping point. At what point do you move from thinking, contemplating, planning and research to start? Or is planning and research already the start?

The work I do as a coach helps clients to move from thinking and contemplating to action. There is a phase of exploring the options and then a commitment to a way forward. There is often a tension between just starting and knowing that this is the best start you could be making.

This is where it can help to JUST START. Through the doing and experiencing a new way of working or a new way of publishing your writing, you have the firsthand research to inform your focus, your vision, your passion – whatever it will take to move forward with a compelling vision.  The closer you can align your work to a compelling vision, the more likely you are to sustain the change and continue what you have started.

Having a portfolio of work lends itself to allowing your business or ideas to grow organically. This is different to conventional business planning or having a rigid focus to the way you work. In future blog posts we will explore the challenges and benefits of organic and portfolio routes to grow your career, work or business. Key themes such as managing your time, combining multiple income streams and staying sane with a portfolio of work, will all feature in our blog posts. Do get involved – comment, offer to write a post or suggest a topic you’d like to read about.

Welcome to Portfolio Career Connections!