A full-time portfolio life


John Clay landed in Kuala Lumpur in July 2017, on an overnight stop from Sydney back to his UK home. Apart from visiting family and friends, he was due to lead a global forum in central London for 50 of Arup’s senior marketing leaders from around the globe.

When he checked the messages on his mobile, one from his younger sister immediately stood out. His older sister had just had a serious stroke and been taken to hospital. In John’s words:

“I got on the plane the next day, not knowing whether my sister would be alive or not when I got off the plane.”

When he arrived in the UK he rushed to the hospital to see his sister, only to find her in a coma. As there wasn’t any way he could help, he decided to go ahead with the conference.

After a hectic, but successful conference, John spent some time with his mum, while continuing to visit his sister in hospital. By this time the doctors and specialist medical staff had decided that there was no prospect of recovery and recommended turning off the life support. In complete emotional turmoil, John and his family accepted the advice of the specialists and, after saying their goodbyes, flicked off the switch. 

John headed back to Sydney and to his surprise and delight his sister started to recover. She opened her eyes and, gradually, started to regain her speech and movement and has made substantial improvement, resulting in a good quality of life.

In 2017 John’s professional career was going very well. He was the global marketing practice leader for Arup, a member of its Australasian Executive Team, and had just run a very successful global conference. Later that year things got even better when Arup’s clients awarded it the Best Professional Services Firm in Australasia and John was personally awarded Certified Marketer of the Year award (2017) by the Australian Marketing Institute.

 Yet, despite these professional accolades he was starting to wonder whether this was the right time to commence the next stage of his career. He thought of the unforeseen and irrevocable change to his sister’s life. He also thought about his Dad, who retired at 60 and then lived on for another 20 years, with most of those in great mental and physical health. As so many of us do, John was starting to wonder - what’s next? What do I want from the next chapter of my life?

 Picking the right time

“There is always a natural time when you start to think about what’s next in your career. I had thought for some time, that in my mid-50s, I would look at a portfolio career, so that was definitely in the back of my mind...then, in 2017, I had these two very positive things happen, and this one very big negative thing happen, which really brought my life into perspective.”

John decided that now was the time. The personal and professional awards had boosted his profile and he thought they would be a great platform to launch a consulting business, something he had done for a few years earlier in his career. He left Arup at the end of 2017, planning to have a bit of a holiday and start fresh in the new year. While he had made the decision to leave full-time work quite quickly, he felt optimistic heading into 2018:

 “I had been through two role redundancies earlier in my career...and so was familiar with the...uncertainty that goes with this and that there is this a level of discomfort that you go through. But, I think, if you are confident in your own abilities and have a positive outlook it’s likely that your plans will come to fruition.”

Starting his portfolio career

He started putting together a game plan for his portfolio career and pegged it on three things:

  1. To secure some marketing advisory work

  2. To get more director roles at companies

  3. To increase his number of hours lecturing

While John’s final decision to leave work was quick, he had been sowing the seeds for some time which put him in a good position. He had already started to diversify his work with some occasional lecturing at the University of Technology in Sydney (UTS) and passed his Australian Institute of Company Directors’ exams .

But despite being very well prepared and feeling like was mentally ready for the change, it still wasn’t easy. It took him at least 6 months to feel comfortable that he had made the right decision. He initially found it hard to avoid being sucked back into the full-time corporate life when interesting roles come up. He says he reminds himself that he made a conscious decision to leave a full time corporate role and doesn’t want that life anymore. Juggling the multiple roles (and multiple email inboxes) is also a challenge and he has to continually try to work out which is the greatest priority.

Finding the right balance

After some challenges in transition, John does feel like he has about the right mix for now. He has secured a role on the Board of the Australian Marketing Institute and also is part of its finance committee. He has also used his experience and network to secure some advisory work. Lastly, he was asked to increase his lecturing hours at UTS.

On average he used to work 45-50 hours at Arup, and now while his time fluctuates from week to week, he works less. He spends around 10-15 hours a week at UTS during term time and roughly another day a week on advisory work and board work. This leaves him 1-1.5 days a week to pursue the things he enjoys. He is overseeing some house renovations as well as playing golf twice a week and taking longer trips overseas. The golf gives him exercise as well as a strong community and network for socialising and to chat through personal things with.

John Clay playing golf

 John appreciates the importance of purpose and meaning in life. He knows his portfolio of work gives him a sense of fulfilment, but he also enjoys having more time to help his wife, Cathy, with her not-for-profit, Pets4life. It’s a community service dedicated to improving dog and cat well-being and reducing pet surrender rates. Cathy has built the organisation up from nothing to a position now where it has thousands of followers on social media, gets regular media coverage and runs a very successful awards program. At a recent awards evening John said to Cathy:

“The only thing I want you to be worried about this evening is your ability to deliver the event. It’s your evening, you’re the MC, you’re presenting, it’s your show. Don’t you worry about anything else.”

So John supported the event set up, ran errands and performed the bump in and bump out for the media event (something he hadn’t had to do for many years).

While he feels he has the balance right for now, John knows that he’s likely to need to change things as his live evolves. He would like to gradually reduce the hours he spends on work but also have the flexibility to take extended breaks for travel, for spending more time with his family, and other opportunities which come up.

Jake Waddell