With 53% of US employees saying they are actively looking for new opportunities or at risk of leaving their current employer, and similar trends playing out around the world, the Great Resignation continues unabated. So too does the dramatic growth in the number of workers choosing to go independent—up 34% in 2021—and contributing their skills and expertise to companies on a project-by-project basis.
The growth is especially pronounced at the upper end, where the number of independent workers who reported annual earnings of $100,000 or more soared nearly 30% to 3.8 million. That’s the most high-earning independents recorded since researchers began studying them, and nearly twice the number found a decade ago.
But the independent route isn’t a one-way street. The growth in demand for independent talent and their rising earning potential is enabling a new, more fluid type of career path—where individuals move from traditional permanent roles to project-based work to startups to entrepreneurship and back again. Mixing and matching role types throughout to build a career that allows them to flexibly adapt their employment situation in line with changing priorities and life circumstances.
The sentiments underlying this trend match findings from an annual survey of high-end independent talent from Business Talent Group (BTG), where we found that the primary motivations for talent who chose to go independent included not only flexibility, but also control over their professional destinies:
- 70% of respondents said they went independent because they wanted to pick their own projects
- 57% wanted to select their own clients
- 63% were seeking the freedom to work from anywhere
- 57% chose independence to work when they wanted to
FLUIDITY IS A WIN-WIN FOR TALENT AND COMPANIES ALIKE
One leader who’s given this a lot of consideration is Marcus Sawyerr of EQ Community, an invite-only, social business members community focused on empowering capable and diverse talent, providing them access to professional opportunities, and accelerating diversity, equity, and inclusion across the workplace.
After 16 years in HR tech and recruiting—climbing from the front line to executive and CEO inside a Fortune 500 company focused on online recruitment and digital transformation—Marcus says he witnessed only a surface-level evolution of access to meaningful and life-changing jobs, especially for people of color. He founded EQ to enable connections between individuals who care about helping each other progress and provide access to exciting opportunities, particularly board and senior-level roles, that often go under the radar for POC.
Marcus argues that the new fluidity of work is advantageous for both professionals and the companies who hire them. For professionals, a more fluid career path offers deeper learning opportunities and a wider range of experience beyond those they could acquire through traditional employment with a single organization for a majority of their working life. Fluidity between permanent roles, project-based work, and entrepreneurial endeavors creates a virtuous cycle—wherein the experience gained through one type of work enhances the professional’s capabilities for the next opportunity.
“The nature of projects encourages collaboration and develops experiences on the job, and ‘side hustles’ fuel your creativity. Demonstrating expertise and creativity are cornerstones for employers hiring in top positions irrespective of the mode of employment,” Marcus said.
“Over six years, I worked with someone who was a V.P. of Marketing at a Fortune 500 company, switched to consulting, then ran her own business, and again into full-time work while living in the US, UK, and Switzerland. Working in full-time employment for a company became rewarding as she refined the process to leverage her superpowers with her gained exposure.”
For organizations, candidates with a wider range of experience in both roles and employment types offer fresh perspectives, enhanced and up-to-date skill sets, and all the insights and best practices they have picked up along the way. At the same time, professionals who are empowered to make the leap into independent work increase the pool of skilled talent available to assist business leaders with project-based work—where a full-time traditional role may not be necessary to achieve the organization’s objectives.
“Being a ‘Fluid Friendly’ organization gives companies agility to drive rapid innovation and encourages diverse and capable talent to join your mission,” Marcus said. “Investing in conducive environments for builders to thrive gives you options, and becoming empathetic to circumstances and professional goals gives you a competitive edge to ultimately attract the right talent for the best outcome.”
We sat down with four members of the EQ Community to find out what a fluid career path looks like in action, as well as their advice for other professionals who are seeking fluidity in their own careers.
FLUIDITY IN ACTION
Malcolm Tyson, PhD
Business transformation strategist and innovation consultant to leaders at small and mid-size knowledge-intensive service firms
For Malcolm Tyson, a fluid career path delivers greater control over his professional destiny.
“I’m in control of how much money I make and all that sort of stuff. And that’s really what is driving me. I’m not ashamed of it… I’m a control freak. I like to control everything… As you get older, you are even more self aware and you want to align with things that help you be your best self and be authentic. You don’t want to be, well, having this tug-of-war with any situation that you’re having.”
That desire for control surfaced early in Malcolm’s career. Upon graduating from college as an accounting major, he says that he had big dreams of changing the world. At first, he thought a role at one of the Big Four accounting practices would put him on that path, but reality quickly sunk in.
“I wasn’t going to be a partner, and I didn’t want to be a partner. I just didn’t want that life,” Malcolm said. “So I pat myself on the back now because I had a certain level of self-awareness at that point.”
After being introduced to government contracting through a colleague, Malcolm worked in financial planning and analysis for NASA and other government organizations for the next 18 years. Over time, his contracts began to incorporate more strategic thinking, rather than just advising on the numbers. He found the work exciting, but the sink or swim nature of government contracting eventually caught up with him when the agency that employed him lost the contract he was working on—and Malcolm was told he’d have to train the person coming in to replace him.
“That helped me think about exit strategy. And I was like, ‘Okay, I can do this.’ Decided to go back to school, get my PhD. All during this time, I had been thinking about getting out. Government contracting was burning me out. I’ve always had sort of an entrepreneurial spirit. I had my CPA license, so I was doing taxes on the side… I had been doing that for years, but I’m like, ‘You know what? This is it. This is the sign that says get out, right?’…It’s perfect. I can ride off into the sunset. I can actually change the world now.”
Malcolm had been researching the possibility of purchasing a business coaching franchise, and although his wife was wary of the costs involved, Malcolm decided to move forward. He says it was one of the hardest things he’s ever done because although he had the energy and passion, the franchise provided little support. Malcolm struggled to make the franchise work on his own, but eventually it became too hard on his family, so he returned to a traditional full-time role in order to generate income. He still had the dream of helping small business owners in some way, but found that he would rather be the one proposing solutions, rather than simply coaching clients to find answers to their problems themselves.
Malcolm decided to rebrand his firm as an innovation consultancy practice to help small- and medium-sized business executives become better leaders, build innovative cultures, and create innovative companies. At that point, he began to juggle a full-time gig with project work, which he’s still doing today with great success. Malcolm said that the fluidity he’s engaged in throughout his career has made him more effective in each type of role he takes on.
“If you see the same instance multiple ways, it allows you to provide different perspectives… You’re able to see it from so many different angles. You are then able to speak authoritatively about it,” Malcolm said. “You become expert level, as opposed to just having a surface-level understanding.”
Digital transformation leader and advisor to large enterprises, startups, and private equity firms
Pablo Naicker says that for him, fluidity means freedom.
“I’m working almost full time now at a particular client, but I’ve retained my independence. I have the freedom to conduct other business as I wish. No one has the right to question or challenge my independence provided there’s no conflict of interest. As long as I get the job done, I’m okay.”
That’s a marked change from the traditional, permanent roles he held previously. Pablo began his career as a consultant at a traditional firm, before moving into a CIO role in the maritime industry and then project managing an SAP implementation for a very large family-owned retail business. After a mid-career break to complete his MBA and fill gaps in his skill set around corporate finance, marketing, and economics, he found that the consulting roles he was looking to get back into were limited following the dot-com crash of the early 2000s.
Instead, Pablo found his next job in the pharmaceutical industry, where he worked his way from project manager to program director to the Global Head of Enterprise Architecture. In 2010, he joined another pharma company as its CIO and ultimately gained exposure to large-scale M&A transactions when the company was sold. He continued building upon his M&A knowledge upon returning to his previous employer as the head of its CIO Office and Governance.
In 2016, he pivoted again and became the head of digital for one of the world’s largest human resources providers and staffing firms. In that role, he began working closely with startups and new technology—experience which would serve him well when he made the leap to full-time independence in 2019 and began serving a portfolio of companies and private equity firms as a consultant and technology advisor. The independent arc of Pablo’s career has accelerated rapidly and kept him on the cutting edge.
“For me when I looked back there [over the past few years, I thought], oh wow. Okay. I didn’t realize that there were so many different clients, so many different industries and it’s helped me stay fresh and stay relevant,” Pablo said. “I’ll be honest. It was not my choice. I didn’t expect it, but I think probably after the first six months, I realized this was the right thing to happen to me. It forced me out of a certain comfort zone that I’d gotten used to in my career. And then it’s allowed me to be much more adaptive now.”
Technical strategist, program manager, and founder of Black Beard Brigade Grooming Co.
Karl Jackson views fluidity as a means to advance his career, investment objectives, and entrepreneurial endeavors all at once.
“For me, it is being able to see where the ceiling is in a company and not always making a horizontal move… I’ve been doing this and I have these diverse skill sets. This company has this job description here that seems to speak more to what I’ve picked up in the last few years…so now let me use that to make a more vertical move to a higher position there,” Karl said. “So for me, it’s just being able to just build on the skills that I’ve had to also use that as a stepladder, move into another position or progress as I see fit.”
Karl discovered his passion for technology and computers not in the classroom, but through a friend who introduced him to hacking while in high school. Despite originally being more interested in hardware, Karl began taking programming classes in college because that route would carry him further in his career without the continual recertification required of hardware engineers. He also minored in business management, and that combination of business and technical education set him on the path for the next step in his career.
Post-college, Karl began contracting on projects such as upgrading voting machines and installing new computer systems for a hospital network. He then returned to a traditional full-time role as a system analyst helping companies configure files for data file conversions. He moved up quickly, and soon was tasked with translating requirements from the company’s business partners and sales team to its website developers and project management team. He also went back to school to acquire a master’s degree in intelligence studies, focusing on cybersecurity among other disciplines.
Karl says he really started to find his niche in his next role as a software release manager, where he developed go-to-market strategies for new software releases and updates, coordinating everything from release notes for end users to training programs for customer service and sales teams. He continued building those skills within a similar role in another company, where he also had a conversation that completely changed his perspective on what a fluid career path could really mean for him.
“One of the VPs, he was like, ‘What’s your endgame?’ And I didn’t know what he was talking about. I’m like, ‘Endgame? I don’t know,’ and it made me think,” Karl said. “He was like, ‘Yeah, your salary is probably more than mine, but I’ve got equity in this company…and when it gets bought out, I get paid millions.’… I was like, ‘Yo, that’s something new. I didn’t think about that.’ So my whole question there was, ‘How can I get equity in the company?’”
Inspired, Karl began reading and watching everything he could find on the subject of equity investing, venture capital, and the virtues of being a producer, rather than simply a consumer. His knowledge-seeking eventually led to conversations with a friend who was on a similar entrepreneurial and investment journey. Together they formed a business built around their mutual struggle with finding beard grooming products formulated for black men, which they named Black Beard Brigade. The process of bringing their new brand to market tied together all of the threads Karl has been developing in both contract and permanent roles throughout his fluid career path.
“Having a background in tech, if I want to build out a shop on Shopify…I’m forward thinking, right? There’s integrations that they have there. If I want different apps to kind of work together, now I have to think in the space of, ‘All right, if I put this app on here to do X, if I eventually want to do some other stuff, what other apps actually can integrate with the platform that I’m working on, and what makes that easier?’” Karl said. “Doing the launch piece, now you’re thinking about, ‘All right, how do I market this? What types of things have I seen people do in the past at companies I was in…to market things?’… So things like that have helped me in having that knowledge of putting this together.”
Senior project manager, certified SCRUM Master, and writer/producer of black female-led dramas and comedies for TV and film
For Dani Craig, fluidity allows her to focus on her own needs and pursue the right opportunities for each stage of her life.
“I have a breadth of knowledge and experience so I could really do a lot of things right now,” Dani said. “Project management, I have a SCRUM Master certificate…and then I have a sales background. I could plug myself into a recruiting role. I could plug myself into sales development, customer success manager. I have a lot of different avenues I could pursue.”
Dani began her career working in advertising sales for radio and television, and later translated those skills into consultative sales roles in commercial banking where she worked to develop relationships with clients and propose solutions to meet their needs. Before long, she decided to make a career switch and went back to school to attain a master’s degree in entertainment industry management.
The second year of the program took her to Los Angeles, where she got a job as a project manager for a well-known cable network upon graduating. In that role, she worked to shepherd shows from pre-production to post-production—liaising between network executives, internal teams, and production companies to coordinate project deliverables, manage budgets, and efficiently deliver creative assets to the network’s various platforms.
After several years, Dani left the network and began working independently both as a project management consultant within the corporate world and as a writer and producer for reality TV. The freedom of independent work allowed her the flexibility she needed to take care of her health and pursue her own creative endeavors.
“It was really the best decision I could have made because now I feel rejuvenated… The thing that I know about working [to help] someone else build their dream is that when you’re done, usually at the end of the day, you don’t have any mental capacity to do much of anything else. You’re just home and you’re just like a vegetable. You’re just like, ‘Oh, I need to make dinner and then go to sleep and then start it all over again.’ I know when I was independent, I had a lot of time to be more creative,” Dani said.
Today, Dani has expanded her writing and production into scripted film and TV and is currently developing an Afrofuturist sci-fi program that she’s excited to pitch to networks and streaming platforms. As for whether she’ll ever return to a traditional, permanent role, Dani says there’s no question—so long as it’s on her terms.
“I will definitely go back to work for a company if the price is right and the role is right. I’m open to that. I am also, in the meantime, learning about cybersecurity because project management is sometimes you have a role, you actually have things to do, but sometimes you’re on the outside managing other people’s workflows and processes and their job. And it’s not as fun,” Dani said. “I’m doing those classes on the side and exploring some other options, but more importantly, I’m willing to work for someone. It just has to be the right thing.”
Tips from those who’ve been there
Each of the talent we interviewed shared a few words of advice for others seeking to seize the advantages of fluidity to advance their own career and personal objectives.
Malcolm Tyson emphasized the importance of enjoying the journey wherever it may take you:
“Understand that it’s not going to be linear. You may have to take a couple steps backward in order to go forward… I was just having this conversation with somebody else, it’s all on the perspective. If you see those two steps backward as a failure, then it’s going to be a failure. But if those two steps backwards are an opportunity for you to learn and accelerate your growth—hey, that’s the way I want to look at it.”
Pablo Naicker highlighted the need to be your own biggest advocate, while building connections with others who can help you along the way:
“You’ve got to be fairly self aware and self-confident—you’ve got to back yourself. You need to know what you’re good at that you can package as a product and sell… Before you go from whatever you are in to, let’s say, a portfolio career, understand your network, understand how that can be tapped, understand who is willing to help you. And reach out, get guidance— because the network for me has been really, really valuable for all of that.”
Karl Jackson focused on really listening to the needs of others and making yourself a resource for those who can help you get where you want to go:
“It’s being able to understand where the gaps are and provide solutions, right? So if you’re always able to say, ‘Hey, here’s the problem, but I have this solution,’ you can start that conversation. And then people will come to you and say, ‘Well, they helped me sell X, or they brought this up. Maybe they have a solution for this.’ Now they see you as more of a thought leader or somebody in that space that can help with whatever problem that they’re having, whether that’s within a company or outside of it.”
Dani Craig stressed how important it is to remain open to possibilities and seize opportunities to better yourself.
“Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to take chances… Sometimes you really have to dig deep inside yourself to make something happen. And really, I think the more that I see the world today, there are literally no limits to what you can do… You literally could change your life and it just takes a little bit of hard work.”
How to Pick Your Path
As a professional with skills that are in demand for both traditional roles and independent projects, how do you decide which arrangement is better for you at any given moment?
Traditional employment may be the right fit if:
- You are seeking a steady income and/or employer-provided benefits
- You are looking to develop close professional relationships or receive mentorship and training opportunities
- You want to work consistent, set hours year-round
- You would rather leave tax withholding and management to the company
- Your dream job or an exciting opportunity within your chosen field is available
On the other hand, you might consider independent, project-based work when:
- You want to control your own professional destiny, choose who you work for, and pick your own projects
- Your life circumstances either require more flexibility in when and where you work or, conversely, they afford you to option to seek that flexibility
- You want to work for a variety of organizations on a range of interesting challenges
- You care more about pursuing exciting opportunities than receiving a consistent income
- You are seeking potentially greater compensation without regard for employer-provided benefits
Whichever route is right for you, EQ Community and BTG are here to help.
COLLABORATING TO ACCELERATE DIVERSITY & INCLUSION
EQ Community and Business Talent Group are excited to announce a new collaboration to offer exciting project opportunities to EQ Community members and more diverse independent talent slates to leading companies. Together, EQ Community and Business Talent Group will champion a diverse and inclusive workforce resulting in greater innovation, creativity, profitability, competitive advantage, and career path fluidity.
Visit EQ Community for exciting opportunities from EQ Community and Business Talent Group.