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A career portfolio rather than a career path

This article from April Rinne published in HBR sheds light to a conversation we are holding more and more with our clients: How to design a career that combines meaning, autonomy and agency, and good returns?




Up until this point, we have lacked the language necessary to design our careers in ways that veer from the traditional script. But now there is hope. A new vocabulary is emerging. At the heart of it is a shift from pursuing a “career path” to creating your “career portfolio.”

  • Whereas a career path tends to be a singular pursuit (climb the ladder in one direction and focus on what is straight ahead), a career portfolio is a never-ending source of discovery and fulfillment.

  • It represents your vast and diverse professional journey, including the various twists and turns, whether made by choice or by circumstance.

  • While your portfolio can include traditional paid jobs, don’t limit it to that. Think bigger. Your portfolio is created by you, rather than determined for you by someone else (like a bunch of hiring managers).

  • It reflects your professional identity and potential. It includes your unique combination of skills, experiences, and talents that can be mixed, matched, and blended in different ways.

  • In a world of uncertainty, talent that can expand their thinking beyond boxes, silos, or sectors will be in demand.

  • Those who make an effort to build a career portfolio now will be more prepared to pitch themselves for (and even create) new opportunities, as they will be well-practiced at making creative connections between their various skills and the skills required of the jobs they most wish to pursue

Today, the world has changed in some amazing and profound ways. Broadening your career focus and professional identity is no longer seen as abnormal. It’s celebrated. The macro forces driving the future of work demand independent and adaptable thinkers. When we add in the potential for automation to transform jobs en masse, the Great Resignation, and the growing number of hybrid offices around the world, it’s clear that the time is ripe to rethink what a successful career path looks like.


Up until this point, we have lacked the language necessary to design our careers in ways that veer from the traditional script. But now there is hope. A new vocabulary is emerging. At the heart of it is a shift from pursuing a “career path” to creating your “career portfolio.” This term was originally coined by philosopher and organizational behavior expert Charles Handy in the 1990s, and is poised to finally enter its prime today.


What is a career portfolio?

A career portfolio is a new way to think about, talk about, and — most importantly – craft your professional future in order to navigate our ever-changing world of work with purpose, clarity, and flexibility.

Whereas a career path tends to be a singular pursuit (climb the ladder in one direction and focus on what is straight ahead), a career portfolio is a never-ending source of discovery and fulfillment. It represents your vast and diverse professional journey, including the various twists and turns, whether made by choice or by circumstance.

Someone's portfolio, as an example, may include author, speaker, futurist, advisor, lawyer, hiking guide, global development executive, investor, and yoga practitioner. Each of these identities took time to develop. Some of them included traditional jobs, while others meant self-employment, pro bono work, and sweat equity investments. Many are roles I’ve been in simultaneously and longer than my usual four-year stint, though my periodic urge to add another to the list continues unabated.

Especially for those just starting their careers, it’s important to know that you’re not going to have everything “figured out.” You shouldn’t have to and it’s probably better if you don’t. That’s the beauty of a portfolio. Because it’s not focused on a singular end, it gives you more space — and frankly, more wisdom — to test out different things and find your way.

The ability to navigate ambiguity and “not knowing” are in fact among the most valuable skills. Curating your career portfolio is more than professional development: It’s how you design your life.


How do I build a career portfolio?

The first thing to remember is: You already have one — even if you don’t realize it, even if you’ve never had a paid job. The place to start is to identify what’s in it.

While your portfolio can include traditional paid jobs, don’t limit it to that. Think bigger. Your portfolio is created by you, rather than determined for you by someone else (like a bunch of hiring managers). It reflects your professional identity and potential. It includes your unique combination of skills, experiences, and talents that can be mixed, matched, and blended in different ways.


If you’ve helped care for your siblings, or led a team of online gamers, or done community outreach — include these in your portfolio. In fact, include any role or activity in which you’ve created value and served others: freelance roles, volunteering, community service, side hustles, passion projects, hobbies, exchanges, parenting, supporting your family and friends, and so on.

Your portfolio should also include experiences and capabilities that are customarily left off your resume, yet fundamentally make you, you.


How you keep track of your portfolio is a matter of personal preference, still you’ll want to make connections between the things that are in it.


What are the benefits of a career portfolio?

Practically speaking, a career portfolio typically leads to greater ownership of your career, because unlike a job that someone else gives you (and determines the scope of, and whether you will advance), a portfolio can’t simply be taken away. It is yours forever.

Similarly, a career portfolio gives you a unique professional identity that evolves alongside you (and isn’t roiled to the core if you lose a job, shift gears, or even “start over” from time to time).


It’s naturally aligned with lifelong learning and meant to help you expand your professional community and access to leadership opportunities. Consider your portfolio part of your strategy to be “un-automatable,” too.


Over time, the value of your portfolio will increase by your ability to cross-pollinate: To combine and weave together skills from your different experiences in order to gain new insights, tackle new problems, diversify income sources, and serve in new ways.

In a world of uncertainty, talent that can expand their thinking beyond boxes, silos, or sectors will be in demand.


Those who make an effort to build a career portfolio now will be more prepared to pitch themselves for (and even create) new opportunities, as they will be well-practiced at making creative connections between their various skills and the skills required of the jobs they most wish to pursue.


It’s key to be clear about how your portfolio enables you to be proactive, to learn, and to contribute in ways that a traditional career path would not. I call this your portfolio narrative.

Employers are hungry to hire talent with non-traditional backgrounds, but they often need help. Your portfolio narrative is the link — it is the story you tell to make connections between the skills people are hiring for and the skills you have developed through the breadth of your experience.


Telling a good portfolio narrative requires understanding how the different things in your portfolio enhance one another. How does your combination of skills give you an edge? I like to think of this as “1+1=11”: Your combination of skills is far more valuable than any of them on their own. When answering interview questions, for instance, share a story about how you applied skills you learned in two very different settings to solve one, specific problem.

The future of work is full of uncertainty. It is hard to know what to do or to trust that things will work out. For all the things that you can’t control in today’s world, taking ownership of your portfolio is one that you can. You can start today. Your future will thank you.


Adapted from article by April Rinne published in HBR.


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