This column today is something of a performance review of me. I want to share with you some of my experiences of moving to a portfolio career and what I’ve learned from it so far.
It’s been almost a year since I made a big career/life shift. I gave up editing You magazine, a full-time job I’d done for four years. Most of you have already heard why. I wanted to branch out and see what other work and creative adventures I could have while there was still time. I figured that as I was now in my 50s, the longer I left it to leave the safety net of a well-paid, full-time job and start something new, the harder it would be. So I bit the bullet. I took the plunge. I resigned from You magazine with no real plan to speak of.
In my limbo period, I was approached by the charity, Children With Cancer UK. They wanted to talk to me about possibly becoming their CEO. Not an obvious move for me, by any stretch. But, the chair of the charity, David Gibbs, is a damn persuasive and charismatic character, and I soon saw why he wanted me to join. What he saw in me was someone who could help raise the profile of the charity - and I’m still amazed to think that, the organisation is 35 years old, has raised £300million in that time in the quest for a world where every child survives cancer, and yet so very few people have heard of it. I became energised by the idea of using my skill set for something so important. David was also very receptive to my desire to keep my hand in media, and so we agreed upon me taking the position as a three-day a week role.
Some eyebrows did raise, I am very aware. I had a Twitter troll come at me for days saying I couldn’t possibly be dedicated to a charity in a three-day role. That if I was taking on other projects - like TV presenting and writing - that I couldn’t possibly be giving enough time and dedication to the main job.
I’m going to be bluntly immodest about this: That view is a gross underestimation of what I’m capable of achieving during a working day. I always find that the busier I am, the less time gets wasted.
Take today: I had a deadline to write some fashion copy for the Mail. On my way to and from work the last few days, I’ve spent ten minutes here, 15 minutes there, researching the topic and giving myself the time to digest the info, prior to knowing that this morning I would sit at my laptop from 7.30am and get that shit done. Which it was, by 9am. Then I walked the dog, showered, and looked through the notes I’d been writing in the office for a speech I needed to give to a corporate donor for the charity. With two hours to go before that meeting, I made some phonecalls, sent some emails and wrote some questions for a podcast I’m recording later this afternoon. There’s a meeting I need to do at 4pm which will last about 45 minutes. I’m also writing this, which I’ll probably blitz then come back to to finish on Sunday. I’ve set myself the goal of having everything that needs to be done today, done by 5.30. I want to do a Peloton glass, and then sod it, it’s Friday I’m having a glass of something crisp with a Thai takeaway. I will enjoy chatting in my various whatsapp groups while I eat.
There’s no denying that I’ve had a lot to learn in my charity job. I’ve spent many hours bending the ears of my very seasoned team, soaking up all the info I can. And if I’m honest, I’m proud that I’ve had the courage to embrace something new. Those inspirational quotes on Instagram about ‘getting out of your comfort zone’ are all very nice, but the living through that can be daunting at times, to say the least.
But what been surprising too, is how much of my media career experience has been genuinely useful - and needed - in the new job. Building relationships, having creative ideas, telling stories, communicating those stories, and constantly begging all my contacts for favours. I’m still learning, but I think I’ve hit the ground running in many ways too.
What’s important to remember - and I sometimes need to remind myself of this in wobbly moments of self-doubt - is that I wasn’t hired to be the same as every other CEO they’ve had. I’m there precisely because they want to try something different.
They don’t want me to sit at my desk five days a week poring over spreadsheets. They want me outward facing, building relationships, telling the charity’s story, forging contacts that will bring us a bigger profile and hopefully generate whole new and creative ways of fundraising. I’ve been working behind the scenes on building a lot of those foundations since I joined last April. It’s been slow, and often hard and a bit isolating. But the day is coming when a lot of the stuff we’ve been working on behind the scenes will start to be visible and rewarding. It’s frankly rather outdated thinking to assume if I’m not at my desk in an office, I’m not doing the work.
On the days I’m not working at the charity, I’m usually completing writing assignments, or presenting on Lorraine Kelly, or hosting the royal chat show I do for the Mail, Palace Confidential. And what I’m finding is that keeping up with my media work often opens up opportunities for the charity.
I was blown away by the amount of people who, after listening to my episode of Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail podcast, got in touch to offer donations and volunteer their time to Children With Cancer UK.
Just yesterday I interviewed a celebrity for my podcast, Fame, and it was while we were talking it occurred to me she would be an incredible ambassador for the charity. The unique position I’ve found myself in is what makes those conversations possible.
Another thing I’ve found in my new life is that the weeks are now full of surprises, and I’m able to leap at opportunities which wouldn’t have been allowed when I was a full time employee. It was a couple of Sundays ago when I was having a moment of thinking, ‘Can I really be bothered to put my week of outfits on Instagram again this week? Does anyone really care?’ But I did it, because key to good content is consistency and all that. The very next day the Telegraph commissioned a feature about it from me to run in the fashion section of the paper. This led to other people contacting me with further commissions off the back of seeing me in that paper.
So while sometimes my year of going full throttle with jobs, content and as much as possible saying yes to every opportunity that comes my way has been, frankly, a bit knackering at times, it’s opened up a lot of opportunities and new relationships that matter to me a great deal.
Here’s some things I’ve learned about myself in the adjustment to hybrid working.
I was an idiot to think I could multi-task. I can definitely switch between tasks in one day - I can record a podcast, then turn my hand to my substack or a newspaper piece and then take a charity meeting, sure. But I’ve had to train myself to focus on one thing at a time, and when I’m doing that one particular thing, every other thing needs to fuck off. I absolutely hate the feeling of trying to do one thing while a million other things taunt and bitch at me from the to-do list in my head. On my days at the charity, the day is totally focused on that. Any non-charity emails and phone calls have to wait til the end of the day to be returned.
If I could afford it, I would probably hire a PA to help with the absolute hellscape that is now my administrative affairs. With different income streams comes a whole new set of complications: remembering to invoice, having to chase payment of those invoices. I’ve been a full-time, PAYE employee all my life. These days, it’s harder for me to get my head around my finances and I’m already feeling sick wondering how I’ll figure out next January’s tax return. I have a whole year to do that, which I will no doubt procrastinate through until about the 28th January.
You don’t necessarily work harder but you do need to be terrifyingly organised. Time is precious and finite. I only have three days to get a to-do list moving so the days are rammed with back to back meetings and long to-do lists. Truthfully yes, this usually bleeds a bit into my non-charity days. But for my own sanity and goals of a work-life balance, as I get more used to the rhythm of that job I’m learning to be stricter about that. The consequence is I’m motivated to make my charity days packed and focused. It’s intense but I always feel like I’ve got a lot done.
As much as it’s important to be dedicated to a job, you need to have the confidence to set boundaries with your own time too. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve started being bold enough to ‘train’ those around me to respect my working schedule. I have done quite a few months of ‘just ten minutes here’, ‘just half an hour there’ of extra meetings and phone calls during a working week. But as I’ve grown into the charity role and grown in confidence, I have a better sense now of what is and isn’t urgent. Just because someone else would prefer to get something done on a Friday afternoon doesn’t mean you have to. I’ve started to push back on non-urgencies a lot more and ask people find the time with me when I’m in the office. When I think about it, as a boss I have, for years, been warned to respect the boundaries of part time workers, those on maternity leave etc. I’ve decided I’ve earned the right for some of that too. Obviously I’m not going to switch my phone off and flick the v’s at a genuine emergency. But thankfully those are very rare.
Equally it’s important that I respect everyone’s working needs from me, and to that end I do my utmost to always let people know where I am and what I’m doing. When you’re juggling a lot, you have to be honest with others about that so you can manage expectations and not feel like you’re constantly letting people down.
I know that for many of you who read my posts, you’ve been living this multi-hyphenate life for a very long time. And it seems that the need to be able to pivot, to have a few side hustles going, to be creative about where you find your income potential, is only going to increase in the next few years. None of us can assume anymore that the job we’re in now will even exist in 20 or even 10 years. On the whole, I love the variety and the flexibility, and often think I should have done it sooner.
So I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of the above. And I’d definitely love you to share your own wisdoms and learnings on how to navigate this way of working. I am very much still the student in all of this.
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I love this Jo. I’m 45 and been working full time in ‘normal’ job for the last 20yrs. Now that my kids are almost grown up (and my mortgage is almost paid off) I’m starting to think about the next phase of my career and what I would actually like to do. This article is really inspiring. Xx
Yes Jo ! Having read articles for years telling me your 50’s are amazing, I’m there and they are. All the skills you’ve acquired over the years, work & non work fuse together and produce a super powered woman. You go girl 👏🏻