Countless business books preach the virtues of staying focused. But as 2020 taught us, being too rigidly focused doesn’t work in every setting. The thriving entrepreneurs are now embracing what Connie Steel, author of the new book Building the Business of You, calls “Fluidity.” Instead of boxing themselves, they embrace the idea of playing multiple roles at once.
I recently spoke to Steele, co-founder of consulting firm Flywheel Associates, about what this trend, which is explored in depth in her book, means for individual entrepreneurs. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Elaine Pofeldt: What drew your attention to the trend towards fluidity? And how did the pandemic play a role?
Connie Steele: What alarmed me was specifically the way millennials steer their careers. The way they approached work was much more diverse than in previous generations. Instead of an isolated approach, they switched to one that was more about being fluid, collaborative, multimodal, and multidimensional.
Technology has a huge impact on the way everyone thinks, perceives and acts. When I looked at the roles many of us had during the pandemic, the need for a “context shift” between all of them was a big shift between what it was before and how it is now. Everything has grown together now. It has grown together so that work and life are now one and the same. The personal and professional are also mixed up. So are the digital and physical.
Generational differences bring more fluidity. You have Gen Zers approaching their life in a way that is, of course, much more fluid. There is a growing trend of saying, “I don’t want to be cooped up. I just want to be myself.” How they define who they are and what they apply to the workplace.
It’s not just Gen Zers. If you look at the job titles of millennials on LinkedIn, it says, “I’m a marketer, designer, musician, entrepreneur, activist. You have recognized that they cannot be obtained individually. Because they left school during a recession, not everything they did worked out. When you find yourself in a recession, you need to do something different. You have to find new ways to make money. They did sideline jobs because they had to. They are always parallel. They want to test and learn. They don’t know what to like. Technology made it so easy for them to take samples. You’ve also seen people do something they don’t like and sacrifice their passion for money – and they don’t want that.
Elaine Pofeldt: As you discuss in this book, more organizations have moved from isolated, cubic organizations to matrix teams that work together remotely. How can the self-employed make optimal use of this trend in their business?
Connie Steele: Uncertainty is the new certainty today. If you don’t know what’s going to happen, personally or professionally, you need to go with the flow – learn how to quickly diagnose a problem, raise a flag, and deal with it. When you use this skill, you can get the most out of your environment. If you rely on having incredible predictability every day, you won’t be able to survive.
We can learn a lot from Millennials about navigating this environment. You’re used to having options. They don’t feel like they have to fit into the shape like previous generations did. They know how to do what they want and also how to get their own risk under control, perhaps through a sideline.
Elaine Pofeldt: Could you talk about the trend towards individual autonomy? Is everyone with a job essentially a business of one? And what about the self-employed who already have autonomy? Will there be systems to make this easier?
Connie Steele: I think there will be a bigger trend towards platforms that help solo preneurs who want to take control of their destiny. I think this is going to be the norm. If you don’t think like the CEO of “you” going forward, you won’t be able to manage the risk involved.
There is no certainty about a job at all. Knowing that everyone is prone to losing an opportunity, whatever it is, you must be solely responsible for the course of your course. Today they are a standard product or service on the Internet. All go to Google by default. Everyone can find anything they want from you. They will formulate an opinion of you, whether you like it or not. It is better for you to determine what that opinion will be than for someone to determine what it is.
Elaine Pofeldt: How can people find out where they best fit into this new world of work?
Connie Steele: It is important to plan what you want to do as an individual. For example, if you are an entrepreneur, would you like to sell a product or service? Just like a business, you are at high risk when you come from a single source on something. Many of the companies that have been successful over time have spun. You have taken over several business areas. At first, Amazon only sold books. Then it switched to e-commerce and web hosting. You are now this massive conglomerate. They kept changing. If you think about it as an individual, it’s the same. You have to do this in order to protect yourself against risks in the long term. It creates a very differentiated positioning for itself.
It starts with the words, “I’ll see what happens and have this attitude towards growth.” Be okay if you don’t know everything. It’s about trying something to get the knowledge that will make you better. If you have consistently recurring income, ask, “Where do I want to make strategic bets in the future? Now you have multiple streams. As you’ve learned from everyone, it makes your knowledge much more extensive and makes you much more valuable in the workplace.