Career portfolios: A new approach to career progression

Career portfolios A new approach to career progression
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April Rinne used to worry about falling behind her peers.

Moving from field to field, pursuing whatever interested her at the time, she heard from others that her career path made no sense and that her professional future would suffer for it.

But April’s wide-ranging work experience taught her something invaluable: how to transfer skills and experiences between several different fields.

She learned how to build a career portfolio instead of a career path.[1]

April taught herself to navigate a hyper-fluctuating professional landscape and channel her passions into work.

Now she’s well-placed to succeed – and employers stand to reap benefits from testimonials and professional development like hers.

In this guide to the career portfolio approach, we explain why you should hire employees with the motivation and flexibility to move around within your company.

What is a career portfolio?

A career portfolio is an employment history that includes a broad range of professional identities and examples of your work instead of a linear progression up a career ladder.

It’s like an artist’s work samples, which show their progression through forms, styles, and themes to achieve their best work.

It isn’t a straightforward search for a new job but a reflection of many different approaches.

Unlike a traditional career path, a career portfolio approach is a way to reflect an employee’s wide-ranging experience, skills, and learning. As well as full-time jobs, it could include:

  • Freelance roles

  • Certifications

  • Mentoring

  • Volunteering

  • Hobbies

  • Parenting and caregiving

  • Project management

  • Passion projects and side hustles

How is a career portfolio different from a career path?

Whereas a career path is strictly linear, a career portfolio encompasses a broader range of skills and samples of your work. Here are some of the ways these approaches diverge:

Career path

Career portfolio

Specializes in one area

Spans a broad selection of specializations and niches

A linear progression from junior to senior roles in the same field

Allows less scope for promotion within one field

Limited scope to move away from the path

Ability to switch careers and develop new skills

Focuses on career development in a particular skill set

Requires a wide range of different skills

In a post-pandemic world, the distinction between the two approaches is becoming more relevant to the future of work.

The Great Resignation, which saw roughly 50.5 million people quit their jobs in 2022 alone, means that workers expect more career flexibility than ever.

But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing for potential employers. Thanks to the pandemic, companies everywhere face unprecedented skill gaps. 

By hiring employees who are prepared to build career portfolios within your organization, you can address those skill shortages without scrambling to hire externally.

The benefits of career portfolios for employers

Though the career portfolio approach is still new, it provides plenty of benefits for employers

Here are some of the most relevant advantages of this model.

Reduced employee turnover

A Pew Research Center survey cites the top reasons why workers leave jobs:[2]

  1. Low pay (63%)

  2. Limited scope for advancement (63%)

  3. Feeling disrespected at work (57%)

If employees feel trapped in a job that doesn’t offer them the opportunities, benefits, and satisfaction they want, they’re likely to go on a job search. And turnover is expensive, costing up to twice the employee’s annual salary.

By encouraging your staff to seek a broad range of experiences within your organization, you show them that you respect them as people with goals.

Respect encourages workers to stay with your firm – even if they move to different teams or divisions.

Stronger relationships

The ability to forge stronger long-term relationships with your workers is another benefit.

By getting to know them and understanding their goals, you make sure to work well with them to the benefit of both parties.

Everyone benefits when employees feel strongly connected to their managers and colleagues.

Strong workplace relationships have a positive impact on productivity, information flow, and innovation.

So, it’s worth your time to encourage your employees to build a professional portfolio instead of following a fixed career path that can take them away from your company. 

More flexible, agile workers

A portfolio career yields workers who are used to adapting to circumstances. Because they move between careers, they know how to take an agile approach to anything life throws at them.

Flexibility is an invaluable skill for any business. Hiring candidates with portfolio careers enables you to reap the benefits of their adaptability.

You also benefit from their range of transferable skills acquired in several different settings.

Use skills evaluations when hiring to spot the candidates who excel in these areas.

Better succession planning

Succession planning is a crucial way to ensure continuity when key team members move on. A good succession plan ensures:

  • Stability for your workers

  • Continuity for your clients

  • Consistency for your company’s brand identity

A good succession plan must identify employees who have all the skills and experience to step into a senior role when needed. Employees with career portfolios have incredible scope to develop that experience.

Encouraging employees to move around within your organization enables them to develop a far-reaching understanding of how the business works, standing them in good stead for moving into senior roles.

Fewer silos in the company

The silo mentality undermines your company’s efficiency and adaptability.

When different areas of a business are reluctant to communicate with each other, it can damage trust in your company, harming your workplace culture.

Portfolio workers can move between different areas of your business, building a full understanding of the way it all works.

When sharing their experience and skills with colleagues, they foster better communication between departments – and with it, a healthier work culture.

Managers who want to lead

Career portfolio examples involve more than just management roles. Many employees know they don’t have the skills necessary for management and are happy to be individual contributors instead.

But most career paths put workers on a management trajectory. Those who don’t want to progress into management are left to stagnate.

Employees view access to career opportunities as a major source of satisfaction, influencing their willingness to stay with an organization.

These elements can be included in a career portfolio

A career portfolio approach removes employee pressure, giving them access to opportunities beyond the traditional management track.

It lets you focus on hiring managers who want to lead and keep your existing workers satisfied at the same time.

The benefits of career portfolios for employees

It isn’t just managers who stand to gain from the career portfolio model.

Here’s what this innovative approach can do for employees.

An active role in shaping their careers

This approach doesn’t rely on a preordained path. It encourages workers to take an active part in developing their careers.

They need to make smart, considered choices about moving from role to role and acquiring skills and experience along the way.

The career portfolio also requires workers to make active, thoughtful connections between the different aspects of their work history. It’s an exercise in learning how to pitch yourself.

It involves understanding what you want, knowing what you have, and deciding how to use the latter to achieve the former.

It puts the worker in the driver’s seat of their career, with all the freedom that entails.

Room to explore a variety of interests

Many employees, especially recent graduates, aren’t sure what they want to do for the rest of their life.

A 2022 survey by Colorado State University Global and OnePoll revealed that 17% of college students didn’t have a plan for after their senior year.

A portfolio career is a way to explore a broad range of interests.

It enables workers to try different roles and specialisms before they settle on the one that suits them best.

It also gives employees scope to develop their transferable skills in many fields. They can then apply them creatively as they develop their careers, giving them an advantage over other candidates.

Higher engagement and satisfaction

If you’re on a traditional career path, most experts agree that you should aim to stay in a job for at least two years.

But even two years can feel like a slog if you’re disengaged and unhappy at work.

These factors are the most important predictors of employee satisfaction

A career portfolio removes the need to stay in a job that isn’t working.

It enables workers to move freely between roles, on the understanding that the length of their stay is less important than the lessons they learn.

Working in jobs that excite and compel leads to higher workplace satisfaction and engagement.

Less need to move from company to company

It isn’t always possible to advance on the career ladder within the same firm.

Internal progression can be tricky, meaning workers working in a linear career often need to move between companies to advance.

Losing workers isn’t good for anyone: Organizations lose out on talent, and employees in search of a promotion walk away from companies that otherwise treat them well.

With a portfolio career, employees can move between teams and divisions within a single company.

They enjoy the benefits of long-term tenure at the same organization, broaden their horizons, and pursue their professional interests.

Lifelong learning

The world has never been more volatile. Between the pandemic, the uncertain global economy, and the rapid development of technology, we face a hyper-fluctuating job market.

When you build a career portfolio, you commit to lifelong learning and development.

This approach enables workers to build a breadth of skills and experience, meaning they have a better chance of staying relevant as circumstances change.

With 93% of prospective employers saying that soft skills – like willingness to learn – are a crucial factor in hiring, it’s more important than ever for workers to show that they’re ready to keep up with a changing world.

7 best practices for succeeding with a career portfolio approach

To make a career portfolio approach work for your company, approach it intentionally and strategically.

Aim to walk the line between encouraging your workers to pursue their interests and keeping their skills and experience within your business.

These best practices help you make the most of career portfolios, so you and your employees can all benefit.

Making career portfolios work at a glance

What to do

Why it works

Build a broader understanding of your employees

Builds stronger, more lasting relationships with your employees

Give employees co-responsibility for their own growth

Fosters employee satisfaction by giving workers a sense of ownership over their careers

Commit to a coaching and development culture

Gives workers scope to learn, develop, and thrive within your company

Look internally when hiring

Promotes internal mobility and encourages employees to think broadly about their careers

Stop talent hoarding

Allows every area of your organization to benefit from the great talent you hire

Talk openly with employees about their careers

Encourages smart succession planning and talent sharing

Hire employees who add to your culture

Ensures that your employees make your workplace culture better in the long term

7 best practices for succeeding with a career portfolio approach

1. Build a broader understanding of your employees

Workers deliver their best results when they feel understood and appreciated at work.

Part of that process is treating each of them as a person, not as a job application and number.

Fostering a culture that puts people first gives you the tools to understand who your workers are – and what they want.

All of these techniques can help you to get to know your employees better:

  • Holding regular 1:1 meetings 

  • Fostering a culture of checking in and communicating openly

  • Carrying out hiring-stage personality tests like the Motivation test

If you understand your employees, their personality types, and their goals, you’ll be able to help them build a career that suits them. 

2. Give employees co-responsibility for their own growth

For employees, one of the advantages of a career portfolio approach is having ownership over their career trajectory. It’s freeing and exciting to feel like they’re in the driver’s seat.

As a manager, you want to encourage your most talented people to stay within your company.

The best way to do that is to give them a degree of responsibility for their growth and development within the organization.

Trust your workers to know where they want to take their careers and provide them with the tools they need to achieve those goals.

Giving them the resources to participate in training courses and coaching opportunities is a great way to help them build their careers.

3. Commit to a coaching and development culture

Another advantage of career portfolios for employees is the scope to acquire a broad range of skills.

To take advantage of it, it’s important to encourage it intentionally throughout your organization.

Build personal development and lifelong learning into your company’s culture.

Coaching and development give employees the opportunities they’re looking for within your firm and show them that you value the same things they hold dear.

It stands to reason that you should offer training for workers who want to move into management. But remember, some employees with career portfolios do not want to become managers.

Consider offering those people the training they need to become recognized subject matter experts within your company.

This approach codifies the value of their expertise and encourages them to pursue their specialisms wherever they could lead.

4. Look internally when hiring

Employers wonder whether it’s better to hire internally or externally. When taking a career portfolio approach, hiring internally is the better choice.

When you hire from within your company, you promote internal mobility and encourage employee retention.

Given the risk that workers with career portfolios could be tempted by opportunities elsewhere, that’s a real advantage.

You can make the internal recruitment process more efficient by conducting regular talent reviews.

The talent review process gives you an overarching picture of the skills, experience, and goals of your employees, so you can find people to fill critical roles as they emerge.

For extra efficiency, consider keeping track of your staff’s skills and objectives in a central talent database to notify employees who you believe could be a good fit.

5. Stop talent hoarding

Talent hoarding hinders internal mobility and causes employee burnout.

When employees feel like their managers clip their wings, their job satisfaction decreases, and they’re more likely to leave your organization altogether.

You can prevent this by sharing top talent across your business. 

If workers know that they have the scope to move between teams internally, they feel liberated to pursue their career goals and still lend their talents to your company and its mission.

Here are some of the benefits of talent sharing:

  • It reduces the number of silos within your company

  • It encourages a sense of shared mission across different teams

  • It enables employees to learn more about different parts of the organization

  • It ensures that positions are allocated based on skills and merit

6. Talk openly with employees about their careers

However great their job could be, most workers eventually move on. Don’t expect your workers to stay in the same position forever.

If you’re prepared to communicate with them, an employee giving notice – whether to take a job elsewhere in the firm or to move on entirely – won’t blindside you. 

Even better: You can communicate proactively with your employees about their long-term plans so that they feel supported and you have the information necessary to put your plan in place.

Here’s how to stay engaged with the career goals of your workers, right from the beginning of the hiring stage:

  1. Ask about candidates’ long-term goals during interviews

  2. Discuss long-term plans with employees during annual performance reviews

  3. Engage employees in your team’s succession planning

  4. Direct employees to internal job opportunities as they arise

All these steps encourage workers to build a career portfolio within your organization rather than taking their skills and talent elsewhere.

7. Hire employees who add to your culture

When working with a career portfolio approach, the goal is to hire employees who will remain with your company (in whatever capacity) for the long haul. That means it’s crucial to avoid mishires.

In particular, you must pay attention to what candidates have to offer your company culture.

Here are the steps you need to take to ensure that you and your new hire are on the same page when it comes to culture:

  1. Be clear about your culture in job descriptions and other hiring materials

  2. Use our Culture Add test to identify candidates who can add to your culture

  3. Build your job interview process around these crucial culture add questions

Hiring for culture add enables you to find people who live your company’s values every day and avoid implicit bias in your hiring process. 

When you’re planning for the long term, it’s essential.

Make the most of the career portfolio with pre-employment testing

There’s nothing wrong with the templates of a traditional career path.

However, employees who commit to building a career portfolio are more flexible, more widely skilled, and better equipped to take on the challenges of the future.

By committing to the best practices outlined in this guide, you can build a business that encourages workers to make bold, exciting moves. 

Your employees, when given the freedom to build career portfolios across different areas of your organization, reward you with loyalty, productivity, and a strong reputation for nurturing and developing talent.

Read more about how to prepare your company for a sudden change in our guide to agility in leadership.

And improve your hiring process with our Enneagram test, which helps you get to know candidates before you decide who to bring onto your team.

Sources

  1. Rinne, April. (October 13, 2021). “Why You Should Build a ‘Career Portfolio’ (Not a ‘Career Path’)”. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved April 13, 2023.https://hbr.org/2021/10/why-you-should-build-a-career-portfolio-not-a-career-path 

  2. Parker, Kim; Menasce Horowitz, Juliana. (March 9, 2022). “Majority of workers who quit a job in 2021 cite low pay, no opportunities for advancement, feeling disrespected”. Pew Research Center. Retrieved April 13, 2023. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/03/09/majority-of-workers-who-quit-a-job-in-2021-cite-low-pay-no-opportunities-for-advancement-feeling-disrespected/

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