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Live well, work well: Creating a Portfolio Career

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

Finding a Non-Executive Director role:

First steps – what does career theory say?

Are you ready to take those first steps to get that Non-Executive Director role and create your portfolio career? In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at the theories behind making this kind of change – understanding these theories can help keep you on track as you create the portfolio career that suits you.

Let’s look at three career theories:

  • Boundaryless careers

  • Protean careers

  • Planned happenstance theory

Let’s explore each one in turn and then look more closely at what actions you need to take to advance your career ambitions.

Career Theories:

Boundaryless Careers:

Once upon a time, people expected to have a job for life. Many people are now seeking flexibility in their career choices and openly acknowledge that they are working to live and that they are not living to work. The concept of a boundaryless career is that people can be flexible and agile in how they work and when they work. They seek more control over their working life and if it doesn’t suit them, they change jobs or career pathways. So, people move into new and different career paths to suit the life they want to lead. This approach is characterised by high degrees of:

  1. Independence, autonomy and individual responsibility for one’s own career and actions

  2. Recognises the impact of life and life stages on work; life is not compartmentalised

  3. People tend to feel more successful

  4. Work feels more meaningful to people as they have actively chosen the role due to its fit with their individual needs and circumstances.

Protean Careers:

Building on the idea of boundaryless careers and a move away from structured, traditional career pathways, protean careers are driven by the individual and their personal values. The individual’s career is self-directed and the individual is fully self-reliant. The individual is monitoring the job market and spots trends, changes and therefore the opportunities that exist. The individual takes responsibility for their own training, development and learning to capitalize on the jobs market and ensures that they are well placed to take advantage of opportunities. Key skills & characteristics required by this approach include:

  • Entrepreneurial skills such as business, time and project management skills

  • Networking skills

  • Influencing skills

  • Having a high degree of self-awareness & self-confidence

  • Having strong social and cultural capital and knowing how to build these proactively to further your career.

The individual is very in control of their career. They are engaged in horizon scanning and understanding the trends and changes in the jobs market and ensuring that they are in a position to take advantage of those opportunities.

Planned Happenstance:

This is one of my favourite approaches to careers, and this approach encourages flexibility, openness and engaging in exploratory activities to discover unexpected career opportunities. The name ‘planned happenstance’ comes from the idea of chance. In researching people’s careers, the vast majority of people acknowledged that there was an element of chance in how their career developed. People used phrases such as, “I happened to be in the right place at the right time…” What planned happenstance proposes is that you engage in activities that help you to create those ‘chance’ opportunities and do things that increase your likelihood to be in the right place at the right time. There is a strong focus on individuals engaging in exploratory activities to discover unexpected career opportunities. Individuals need to take clear action to generate and find new opportunities. This approach also recognises that individuals should learn to tolerate a certain amount of ambiguity in order to be more exploratory in their approach. This may be uncomfortable for some, but it will lead to new and different opportunities. The key things to do from this approach are:

  • Be curious – explore new learning opportunities

  • Be persistent – keep exerting effort despite setbacks or time

  • Be flexible – recognize changing attitudes and circumstances and adapt

  • Be optimistic – view new opportunities as possible & attainable

  • Take risks – take action even if outcomes are uncertain

This was a very quick summary of these three theories, and it is by no way definitive, but how do these theories translate into the search for a NED role?

Implications of Career Theories for finding a NED role:

Set clear goals and objectives for your career

Be clear about what you what to achieve and why you want to achieve it. Capture this as a SMART goal and break it down into clear and SMART objectives. Use these objectives to plan and align your time.

Structured and planned approach

If you were changing jobs, you would allocate time to job searches and writing applications. This might seem obvious, but the same applies to securing NED roles. Decide how much time you can give this each week and ensure this is protected time in your calendar. Structure and plan your time to ensure that it aligned with your goals. Securing your first NED role will take time and effort.

What do you want to achieve?

Be clear about why you are doing this. Most people will say it is to achieve a better work-life balance. If this is the case, then ensure you understand the time commitments and that you manage your portfolio career in a way that ensures you maintain the ideal work-life balance for you. There is no point leaving a fulltime working career that did not give you the work-life balance you wanted only to replace it with a portfolio that has too many roles and where you continue to struggle with a work-life balance. Be clear about how many hours you wish to work each week and each month. Review the time commitments for each NED role and ensure you stick to your ideal balance.

Understand your marketplace

Many of us have careers in a specific industry, profession or sector. We understand our work, how the sector works and the job marketplace for that sector or profession. In moving into a portfolio career, it is important that you understand the NED marketplace. Key things to consider are:

  • Ensure you know the requirements of NED roles. Spend time reviewing job descriptions and person specifications for different roles. Understand the language and terminology that goes with these roles. You need to be familiar with this terminology, what it means and the different ways that aspects of the role are described. As you write cover letters and do interviews, you need to be fluent in NED speak! There are many publications on the role of NED – do your research and ensure that you understand the requirements of the role and how your experience, knowledge and skills allow you to fulfil those requirements. Ensure you can articulate this concisely. You can access a list of good articles and publications on the role of a NED here.

  • Become familiar with NED recruitment platforms – like all areas of work there are specialist recruiters and recruitment platforms for NED recruitment. Do your research and identify these platforms and recruiters. Be aware that some are membership platforms and charge fees to access the roles that they promote. These are specialist NED networks that provide access to job search facilities, networking events, training, NED resources and information. Review and evaluate these networks and platforms to assess their utility to you. They can be costly, so critically evaluate if they will provide a good return on your investment.

  • Research and speak to recruitment agencies & headhunters – in reviewing NED recruiters, ensure that you speak with them. If they understand your skills, experience, and value in the NED marketplace, they are going to ensure that you are notified of suitable opportunities. It increases the likelihood of finding suitable roles, rather than just relying on automatic electronic notifications.

  • When reviewing NED adverts and job roles lookout for common trends – are there specific skills sets or experience that they often require or ask for. In some instances, there will be set roles, such as finance or audit and you must have a financial qualification for these roles. However, there can be other areas of expertise that are required: change management; transformation programmes; digital and IT; or communications and engagement. Check what areas come up repeatedly across different roles and review your experience and match. This could help identify additional training or experience that you may need to develop.

Appraise your experience and skills

Ensure that you review your experience and skills against the requirements for NED roles and the wider NED marketplace. Be brutally honest about your experience and how that experience meets the requirements. Make note of strengths and the evidence to support those strengths. Be clear about gaps and weaknesses in your experience. Being aware of gaps and weaknesses means that you can develop strategies to address those gaps. Common strategies include:

  • Training and development activities There are many providers of training for NEDs. There are specific NED Certificate and Diploma courses, courses in corporate governance, and a wide range of workshops on the essentials of being a NED. Training and development activities can help to close the gap in your knowledge and skills and better position you in the NED marketplace. Do your research on any training or courses that you are interested in, and ensure that they address the gaps or weaknesses in your skill or experience that you have identified.

  • Pathway roles Build your boardroom experience by getting a Trustee or School Governor role. These are formal board roles and allow you to build your experience and skills in governance, strategy, leadership and finance in the boardroom. These roles carry much of the same core legal responsibilities as paid NED roles and they are recognised as valid boardroom experience. These roles can help to address gaps in your experience and build a pathway to paid NED roles.

Be flexible and proactive

Recognise that it may not be easy to get your first paid NED role. Be flexible in your approach and be open to voluntary roles in the charity and school governor sector. As outlined above, these can build your experience and also extend your networks, which can help in identifying paid roles. It is important to be proactive and to have clear actions in place to search for roles across all sectors and areas that are of interest to you.

Use your personal networks

Throughout your career, you will have built your personal network and connections and you will have captured these through LinkedIn, social media platforms, address books and email contacts. You will have a broad network of work colleagues, university alumni, friends, and acquaintances. Review your networks and connections and identify who might be useful either because of their own work or because of their connections and networks. Many people in our networks will be aware of organisations that are looking for NEDs, trustees and school governors. Ensure that they know that you are now looking for NED opportunities.

Build and extend your networks

After reviewing their connections and networks, clients often think they need to extend their networks and be more targeted in doing this. Many clients feel at loss as to how to do this. Here are some ways that clients have found useful to extend their networks and identify NED opportunities:

  • Research and identify local business networks near you. There will be several business networks local to you. Research these groups, their membership and assess if they may have businesses or individuals in their membership that it would be useful for you to engage with in your search for a NED role. Attend free events to gauge if the membership is the right one for you. Make a judgement about which one you will join and attend on a regular basis.

  • Structured business and enterprise groups locally/regionally. There are regional networks and business enterprise groups across the UK. They often have a wide range of events and activities to support businesses. Review these events and their target audience and assess if they could provide good networking opportunities and attend relevant events.

  • Local business networks often find it hard to get guest speakers. Make use of your expert knowledge. Could you do a talk, workshop or seminar for the local business networks? You have had a successful career and built your expertise in a number of areas; can you use this now to position yourself as a speaker or expert? By putting yourself in front of a room of businesses as a guest speaker allows you to position yourself as a leader and extend your network even further by showcasing your expert knowledge.

This proactive approach to networking builds on the idea of planned happenstance; you are engaging in planned activities to extend your network by being a guest speaker, which places you in situations with other business leaders and therefore increases the likelihood that you will hear about possible NED opportunities, or simply be in the right place at the right time. Increasing targeted chance interactions works!

The yellowchair helps clients secure their first NED role through structure career transformation coaching. Our aim is to help you to live well and work well. If you would like to find out more about this please get in touch – even if it’s just to extend your network!


Boundaryless Careers

Arthur, M. & Rousseau, D. The boundaryless career. New York: Oxford University Press,1996.

Protean Career

Hall, D. T. (1996). Protean careers of the 21st century. The Academy of Management Executive, 10 (4), 8–16. Retrieved from

Planned Happenstance

Mitchell, K. E., Levin, A. S., & Krumboltz, J. D. (1999). Planned happenstance: Constructing unexpected career opportunities. Journal of Counseling & Development, 77 (2), 115–124. Retrieved from

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