When the going gets tough, the tough go portfolio.
Charles Handy, Harvard Business School Press, 2001-2002
When at midlife Charles Handy voluntarily left the comfort and security of a successful corporate career to become a freelance writer and consultant, he was not aware that he was a good 20 years ahead of his time in the modern workspace. All he knew then was that he wanted to exchange a work life that had become stifling for one that promised to be more independent and free, if financially risky.
As it turned out the decision was a good one for him. He found a place for himself as a business consultant much in demand and as a writer of books popular for their wisdom and sage advice. Now with The Elephant and the Flea he has written an insightful analysis of his experiences as a self-employed independent, a status that downsizing and outsourcing is forcing upon a growing multitude of workers today. Handy writes with his usual charm and grace, but produces a sharply penetrating account of what happened to him as a "flea", his metaphor for the independent worker, once he left the world of the large corporation, the "elephant" in the book's title. Making the book largely autobiographical allowed Handy the opportunity to discuss how the diverse factors of education, marriage, religion, social status and so forth bear on the changing nature of employment.
Many of today's newly created "fleas" will find themselves familiar with what Handy wrote when he left the shelter of the big organizations that had been the pillars of the employee society in the 20th century: "I had no savings to speak of, a mortgage, a wife, two teenage children and had not been long enough attached to any of my organizations to collect anything resembling a proper pension. Life was going to be a trifle uncertain, I could see, since all I could do was write and talk. Maybe I had been unduly rash ... to resign so impulsively..." In quitting his job as a British oil executive, Handy came up with the apt expression "to go portfolio" for describing his newly adopted self-employed status as an independent with a portfolio of skills ready to be contracted out to clients on a job-to-job basis. Elephant-sized organizations were welcome as clients but with no consideration being given to long-term or permanent affiliation.
When Handy "went portfolio" in 1981 it was not yet clear that the 21st century would be issued in with a work force characterized by the presence of so many self-employed, part-time or contract workers. If published back then, his book might have been considered an interesting personnel odyssey, but of no particular relevance to the workforce at large. Today, however, his book can be read as much more than a memoir describing an extraordinary man's joys and unavoidable anxieties in living the independent life. Instead, it might need to be read as a tale of inspiration and hope to many now facing a similar struggle to find meaning and fulfillment in working as "fleas" themselves. Handy has not written a gloom-and-doom prophecy of the future workspace. He really wants people to be more realistic about their work expectations. He predicts there will be more "flea" work, but that can easily translate to more and better opportunities for rewarding work. For the less venturesome, the "elephants" will still be there.
In fact, Handy actually uses his life as a mechanism for exploring the relative advantages and disadvantages of working in either the large corporate world or as an independent. His life has been spent in both work worlds in roughly equal segments of time, and in both divisions he has enjoyed enviable success. As might be expected, he finds problems and opportunities in both worlds, and he has advice for both. Because Handy has led an unusually interesting life, it comes as a bonus that he has chosen to interlace the story of his life with his analysis of the emerging movement from employment in giant bureaucratic organizations to small independent flea-like operations, with the concomitant shift from lifetime job security to a job market of cycloramic change.
With charm and wit he leads through his life from a childhood in an Irish vicarage, to Oxford University, to his first job as an oil executive with Royal Dutch/Shell in the Far East, to a professorship at the London Business School, to chairmanship of the Royal Society of Arts, and finally to his current status as one of Britain's preeminent business gurus. At each stage he comments knowingly on the economy and the state of capitalism around the world. He reveals a love-hate relationship with big business and government, criticizing capitalistic wealth disparities, yet at the same time reflecting on desirable future possibilities. He is cautiously optimistic that the coming portfolio life, lonely as it may seem now, may bring personal freedom and self-fulfillment.
The Elephant and the Flea is Charles Handy's 13th book and deserves the same welcome reception as his previous books on organizations and the future, which have now sold over one million copies worldwide. Particularly worth reading among his earlier books are The Age of Unreason and The Age of Paradox, both from Harvard Business School Press.
James F. Doyle is a member of the Clark Atlanta University faculty.