The first challenge for a Portfolio Executive is to work out what the ‘Director of’ or ‘Head of’ function you are going to adopt.
The second challenge is to work out what is the right size of business for you. Like Goldilocks you don’t want something that is too hot or too cold, you want something that is in the middle.
In this particular case it is not ‘too hot or too cold’, it’s a combination of ‘too big and too small’ vs ‘too fast growing and too slow growing’.
So, let us take each of those in turn.
If the company you want to work with is too big then the problem that you will face is that they are large enough to require a full-time ‘Head of’ or ‘Director of’. So, you won’t be able to sustain a part-time role and they won’t be in the market for a part-time role. What ‘too big’ means will vary enormously from role to role and also from the nature of the industry or sector that you are engaging with. So, for example, a CIO probably won’t be a full-time role until a business is turning over something more like £20-£30 million, if that particular business is only using IT for running a network, Microsoft Office and a basic accounting system.
On the other hand, if you are looking to be an HR Director then a knowledge intensive organisation with high calibre professionals in a very demanding, talent hungry market, could end up quite quickly being a full-time HR Director when a company has got a headcount as little as 100. This particularly applies if they are a highly skilled and complex organisation spread across several different geographies.
On the ‘too small’ end, what I often find with Portfolio Executives when they start out is that they are happier to cater for smaller organisations early in the development of their portfolio. There are more of them about and they are easier to win. The challenge, with an organisation which is too small, is that they are not going to properly value your expertise, so they won’t pay you the rates that you deserve. The amount of work you can do with them can also be constrained because they do not want to hire a manager level person to support what you are doing as ‘Head of’ a function.
So think about an FD role working for an organisation with a turnover of less than a £1 million. They will will have a bookkeeper but beyond the basic capture of transactions, you are likely to have to do a lot of work associated with the general management of accounts. You can end up being dragged into far more detail than you want to or should do. For example, you could end up having to take responsibility for that VAT is correctly submitted, rather than just being sure that the right person is submitting it. The risk is that you will be unable to charge the premium rate you’d like to charge as you are acting much more as a Finance Manager. As a small business they won’t want to engage a bookkeeper who has the requisite skills to step up to the next level.
Growth: too fast vs too slow
The second dilemma is whether an organisation is growing too fast or too slow. Too slow could include going backwards, negative growth.
Imagine that you are a part-time CTO looking to support a very rapidly growing scale-up software as a service business. If the rate of change is too quick, then you won’t be able to maintain that supervisory CTO function as there will be too many different projects going on. Alongside the core software product there may be three or four others product developments going on. To cover this they will need someone who is able to be a full-time CTO. Somebody part-time will be overwhelmed. There are too many decisions, too many issues around scaling the development team, too many challenges about entering new markets, too many things about transitioning platforms or architectures in a very rapidly developing organisation.
A similar size organisation that is growing less quickly, will allow a part-time CTO to deal with one of challenge at a time. So, you will be able to deal with the challenge of upgrading to a new user interface architecture; or you’ll be able to deal with the challenge of moving from Android to iPhone; or with the challenge of moving to a new database technology; or moving to a different kind of integration platform. You won’t face the challenge of doing that whilst you do three or four other things.
The difficulty with an organisation that is growing too slowly is less about what’s actually happening when you first engage with them and more around their ambition. If you are engaging with a mature organisation which believes that everything that they are doing at the moment is ‘OK’, they will only consider incremental change of the smallest kind. Primarily they want you to be managing the status quo. The risk as a Portfolio Executive is there will not be enough interesting things to do and most of the things that you are doing could be done by an experienced manager.
So, let’s imagine that you are positioning yourself as a Portfolio Executive marketing director. You are going into a business which is very comfortable with all of their marketing being through a brochure, website and turning up at conferences and events three times a year. They have a regular calendar of events with conferences and events, they have a website and they have printed material and that is working for them fine. They don’t see anything needs changing. You come in as the marketing director with all of these bright ideas, but find you are going to be bashing your head against a brick wall. When you say to them there is a problem with their social media presence, or with their lack of video use, or that they’re not running email campaigns then you will be very frustrated by their lack of willingness to invest and they will be frustrated by the fact that you, in their thinking, are distracting them from the everyday task of just running business as usual.
This can be exciting and rewarding. You can create huge value. The function you take responsibilty for must be survival critical (typically business development, finance, sales, operations, less typically IT, HR, marketing). There are two significant risks for the portfolio executive. It will feel much more like an interim firefighting role. You will really struggle to limit your input to four to six days a month which probably should be your cap. You could end up being there two or three days a week and maybe some weeks you will work five days.
The second risk is that, because you are valued for your contribution during turnaround, the client may not recognise you as the right person for continuing involvement in the business. Now perceived as a ‘fixer’ they may discard you as an unnecessary cost as the better times emerge. I, myself, have been directly impacted by this – having turnaround a business as CEO, the shareholders then decided I was an unnecessary overhead and reverted to a partnership style governance and I was out.
Although you will create a lot of value and you may get very well paid and the client may well love you, if you work too many days for one client over an extended time then you are undermining your portfolio executive workstyle. You are acting as a part-time interim, and the risk is also that when the crisis is over, you’ll be seen as unnecessary to the forward development of the business.
Find the best porridge for you!
So, Goldilocks has a lot to teach us as a portfolio executive. You need to avoid the hot porridge and the cold porridge. Choose the right porridge: businesses that are not too big and not too small; businesses that are not growing too quickly or too static and certainly avoid businesses that can only respond to intense input from you to bring turnaround.