Countless business books preach the virtues of staying focused. But as 2020 taught us, being too rigidly focused doesn’t work in every environment. The entrepreneurs who are thriving now embrace a concept that Connie Steel, author of the new book Building the Business of You, calls “Fluidity.” Rather than boxing themselves in, they embrace the idea of playing multiple roles at the same time.
Recently, I spoke with Steele, co-founder of the consultancy Flywheel Associates, about what this trend—explored in depth in her book—means for one-person business owners. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Elaine Pofeldt: What alerted you to the trend toward fluidity? And how has the pandemic played a role?
Connie Steele: What alerted me was specifically the way millennials were looking at how to navigate their careers. The way they were approaching work was much more multi-faceted than in earlier generations. Instead of a siloed approach, they moved to one that was more about being fluid, collaborative, multi-modal and multi-dimensional.
Technology has had a big impact on the way that everyone is thinking, doing perceiving and behaving. As I was looking at the roles many of us were filling during the pandemic, the need to “context switch” between all of them was a big shift between what it was like before and what it is like now. Everything has now converged. It’s converged in such a way that work and life are now one and the same. The personal and professional are also blended. So are the digital and physical.
Generational differences are bringing more fluidity. You’ve got Gen Zers who approach their life in a way that is naturally much more fluid. There’s a growing trend toward saying, “I don’t want to be boxed in. I just want to be me.” How they define who they are and what they believe are carrying over into the workplace.
It’s not only Gen Zers. If you look at the job titles of Millennials on LinkedIn, it’s “I am a marketer, designer, musician, entrepreneur, activist. They have recognized they can’t be singly sourced. Because they came out of school during a recession, not everything they did worked. If you are in a recession, you have to operate differently. You’ve got to find new ways of making money. They did side hustles because they had to. They are always parallel pathing. They want to test and learn. They don’t know what they will like. Technology has made it so easy for them to sample. They’ve also seen people doing something they don’t like and sacrificing their passion for money—and don’t want to do that.
Elaine Pofeldt: As you discuss in the book, more organizations have gone from siloed, cubicled organizations to matrixed teams who collaborate remotely. How can the self-employed make the most of this trend in their businesses?
Connie Steele: Uncertainty is the new certainty today. When you don’t know what’s going to happen personally or professionally, you have to go with the flow—learn how to quickly diagnose a problem, plant a flag and go with it. When you go with that skill, you’ll be able to make the most of the environment. If you’re depending on having incredible predictability every day, you will not be able to survive.
We can learn a lot about navigating this environment from Millennials. They are used to having options. They don’t feel like they need to fit the mold in the same way earlier generations did. They know how to go after what they want and manage their own risk, too, maybe through a side hustle.
Elaine Pofeldt: Could you talk about the trend toward individual autonomy? Is everyone who has a job essentially a business of one? And what about self-employed people who already have autonomy? Will there be systems in place that make this easier?
Connie Steele: I do believe there is going to be a greater trend toward platforms that will help solopreneurs who want to take control of their destiny. I think that’s going to become the norm. If you’re not thinking like the CEO of “you” going into the future, you’re not going to be able to manage the risk that comes along with it.
There’s no certainty with any job at all. Knowing that anyone is prone to losing an opportunity, whatever it may be, means you need to be solely responsible for what your course is going to be. You are a product or service on the web by default today. Everyone’s default is to go to Google. Anyone can find anything they want about you. They will formulate an opinion of you whether you like it or not. It’s better that you shape what that opinion is going to be rather than someone determining what it is.
Elaine Pofeldt: How can people figure out where they fit best into this new world of work?
Connie Steele: It’s important to plan for what you want to do as an individual. For instance, if you’re an entrepreneur, do you want to sell a product or service? Just like a business, if you’re singularly- sourced in one thing, there is a lot of risk. A lot of the businesses that over time have been successful have pivoted. They’ve taken on multiple lines of business. At first, Amazon only sold books. Then it shifted to e-commerce and web hosting. They are now this massive conglomerate. They were constantly shifting. If you think about it, as an individual, it’s the same thing. It’s what you have to do to hedge against risk in the long term. It creates a very differentiated positioning for yourself.
It starts with saying, “I’m going to see what happens and have that growth mindset.” Be okay with not knowing everything. It’s all about trying something to get the knowledge to make you better. Once you have consistent recurring revenue, then ask “Where do I want to make strategic bets in the future? Now you have multiple streams. How you have learned from each makes you much more expansive in your knowledge and makes you a lot more valuable in the workplace.