In theory... Go plural

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak.

Someone once said that you couldn't be in two places at the same time. Those who 'go plural' might disagree. This is the term employed by senior executives in the public, private and voluntary sectors who hold down multiple board-level positions.

It is thought to have been coined by Sir Allan Leighton, variously chairman of Royal Mail, Bhs and Race for Opportunity, a non-executive director of BSkyB and deputy chairman of Selfridges. It can also be interchanged with the other term beloved of multi-tasking bosses, known as having a 'portfolio career'.

The theory goes that you build up for yourself an interesting array of different job roles and are able to bring a broader range of experience to the boardroom table than more focused executives. Sceptics, however, say that it's just an excuse to get paid ludicrous amounts of money for showing your face at a company for a slap-up boardroom meal once a month, while spending the rest of your time jetting off around the world on holiday. And it's funny how the same names crop up at similar organisations, even in the voluntary sector, leading you to wonder how much value these 'pluralites' can add. Is it just a matter of them repeating the same advice ad infinitum?

Charles Handy, the much-respected management guru, wrote about 'portfolio careers' in his 1989 classic The Age of Unreason, concluding that "sooner or later, we shall all be portfolio people". It's an attractive lifestyle, for sure, popping in and out of flash boardrooms, dispensing a few words of wisdom, then enjoying lunch on the company. But it does beg the question: how valuable can these people actually be? What does it matter if they are an expert in making the postal system run like a dream (or a nightmare, as the case may be), when you're trying to persuade people to part with their cash for a rescued animal centre? And how can you truly understand a charity if your only knowledge of it comes from reading the annual report and a quick boardroom chat? But you have to admit, it's nice work if you can get it.

- Emma De Vita is a senior section editor on Management Today.

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