Looking back at my first few years after I quit my job to go solo, I liken my approach to that of a hungry diner at an all-you-can-eat buffet. I took on just about every project that landed on my plate. Often it was a case of the weirder the better, and the things I got involved in were diverse: working with some old friends managing a band, delivering marketing campaigns for a global fashion brand, co-devising a book for kids, advising a creative agency. I thrived on this variety and took pride in how I’d carved out a work life that reflected my multi-dimensional interests and talents. I was glad that I was more than a job title, that I couldn’t be defined by just one label. And I just loved the freedom to work on whatever I fancied.
It was an approach that certainly made for an interesting work life, and I wrote a couple of books about this very subject, ‘Juggle!’ and ‘Mash-up!’. But after a while I realised something: I wasn’t building a strong enough profile for one thing. My reputation for plurality was causing some difficulties. Although the multidimensional mindset made me interesting, and led to some great projects, new contacts would sometimes scratch their head about my potential involvement. I could almost see the cogs in their brains turning as they asked themselves: “How could we use Ian on a project?” It just wasn’t clear enough.
What I’d been doing for all those years was building lots of small Lego towers. But the problem was, by having lots of small towers, and not one tall one, I wasn’t getting noticed. I wasn’t standing out. And with so many small Lego towers, how were my clients, my audience, to understand which was relevant to them?
For example, five years ago one of those multiple towers was writing about business life for The Financial Times. It was just a side-gig, one of around five things I was working on at the time and I was probably only filing two articles a month. But out of all the towers I had built, people only noticed the “writing” tower because I had a valuable piece of real estate - the inside back page of a global newspaper. Great, but not great. On many occasions people thought that I was a freelance journalist. I’m not a journalist, I happened to enjoy telling stories about people and businesses I was interested in. And yet, that monicker of journalist stuck for a while. It was frustrating, being known for the wrong thing.
And that’s when I realised I had to start building a single tower of Lego, and one that would reflect the real me. The one that would get me noticed for the right reasons.
I had to take those bricks, and that experience, and repurpose them into one big tower. The small towers got broken up and the bricks went into building the foundations of the big, single-focused, tall one.
The good news is I didn’t need to ditch all the multi-dimensional stuff. Because much of that makes me who I am - part of my offering is being across multiple disciplines, industries and being agile. But it’s making sure everything is aligned and that I’m headed in the right direction. That’s the difference when you’re building just one tower.
So a few years ago, I made that change. Now I’m building a body of work and a reputation in the one area I want to be known for.
And I still thrive on the diversity of it all: running awaydays and workshops, delivering presentations, storytelling projects, coaching and advising. But there’s a single essential thread that runs through everything, which is (and worth lighting up in neon): “firing-up organisations, teams & individuals to do their best work”. That’s my tower. That’s what I’m building. If I get offered a project that doesn’t add another brick into that tower, it’s not in.
- Delivering a presentation to get execs thinking differently about work? Yes, that fits in the tower.
- Helping a business leader navigate the waters of change? Yes.
- Designing a workshop to help team members capture the secret sauce behind their company culture? Yep.
It’s about wrapping up all I do, and have done, into one, single minded proposition. Now there is clarity that others can understand. I can be known for something - instead of confusing people with many hats.
So as you go through your career, whether you work for yourself or for an organisation, you’ll sometimes find yourself at a crossroads, wondering what path to take, what role to seek, what new string to add to your bow, what project to work on next?
And when you’re making that decision, think about the Lego. Make sure you build your one, strong, noticeable tower.