Rethinking Career Planning: Building a Portfolio Over a Pathway.

Jan 11
I was reflecting on a recent discussion with a HR leader in a global technology company (I’ll call her Nancy!). We were exploring how the world of work has changed dramatically over the last few years and how the perception of a ‘good career’ has likewise undergone seismic shifts. 

The question she asked was “why had I invested so much time in gaining the diversity of qualifications I had”. Accounting, economics, law and technology... there just didn’t seem to be much logic to it ... or was there??

This pointed question gave me cause to reflect on my own career and how my 20-year-old-self could never have even thought I would have the depth and breadth of experiences I have had. Couple that with a career spanning government, Higher Education, and industry (including as an entrepreneur founding a couple of tech businesses), one simple phrase sums it up… “Don’t turn down an opportunity”! By their very nature, opportunities can’t be foreseen or planned but tend to present themselves in unexpected ways, and at unexpected times.
When one thinks of the notion of a ‘career journey’, it could be expected that the idea of following a set of train tracks – on a single pathway that just takes you further up the line the longer you travel come to mind.

As would be expected a traditional career path generally followed a journey within a single, or narrowly defined, industry sector (the train tracks!). However, just as a greater focus emerged around ‘lifelong learning’ and supporting ‘career pathways’, the more I believe that is now a now (largely) a redundant notion!

In the evolving world of work, the days of linear, single-track career trajectories are clearly becoming a relic of the past. Instead, we have well and truly entered the era of the ‘career portfolio’—a collection of diverse skills, experiences, and expertise.

For professionals, understanding that not having a defined career plan is, in fact, OK and no matter what your school career advisor might have told you – don’t stress about it.Rather, be open to new opportunities and experiences where you can build on a foundational level of knowledge and experience that helps you on a journey that is more likely to build a richness of experiences through the lens of a career. 

At the same time, as a professional, you also need to actively pursue continual and lifelong learning to gain the new knowledge skills in areas of what I would term ‘competency adjacency’ - transferrable skills that are both general and technical in nature that help you switch tracks as opportunity presents itself!     

So, let's dive into the nuances of building a career portfolio and why it's a boon for both employees and employers.

The Career Portfolio Concept

As we can now see, career development has often been viewed through the lens of a 'pathway.' One would choose a field, acquire skills specific to that domain, and progress linearly, with each step building upon the last. But as the job market and industries evolve, professionals are realising the value of a multifaceted approach.

A career portfolio, unlike a pathway, isn't linear. Think of it like an investment portfolio. Instead of putting all resources into one stock, a savvy investor diversifies across sectors and risk profiles. Similarly, a career portfolio entails diversifying experiences and skills to be more resilient and adaptable in the ever-changing job market.
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Empowering Career Switchers

For those contemplating a career switch, the portfolio approach is liberating. Rather than feeling pigeonholed by their past roles or qualifications, individuals can pivot by leveraging their transferable skills. For example, a project manager in the tech industry who wishes to transition into event planning might highlight skills like stakeholder communication and time management. These are valuable in both domains.

By focusing on professional and transferrable skills, building a career portfolio over time becomes more effective and less daunting. Each role, even if seemingly unrelated, contributes to this portfolio, making subsequent transitions smoother.

This is your chance to get your reader excited about the guide and appreciate the real value behind reading the post in its entirety. 

Benefits to Employers

On the surface, hiring career switchers might seem risky. They may not have the 'traditional' background one might expect for a role. But herein lies the strength of the portfolio approach.

Diversity of Thought: Employees with varied backgrounds bring a diversity of thought, often leading to innovative solutions. For instance, someone who's worked in both the arts and sciences might approach problems with a unique blend of creativity and analytical rigor.

Adaptability: Those who've successfully navigated different industries or roles tend to be adaptable. They've learned how to learn, which can be invaluable in today's rapidly changing work environments.

Richer Team Dynamics: A team composed of members with diverse experiences can approach challenges holistically. The interplay of different skills can lead to more comprehensive problem-solving.
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So, how then can employers tap into the strengths of the career portfolio approach?

Recruitment: When reviewing CVs, look beyond linear experience. Instead, identify transferable skills and how they might add value (assuming, that is, you know what skills you are looking for). In interviews, prompt candidates to discuss how their diverse experiences equip them for the role, including their failures and the ‘lesson learned’.

Professional Development: Encourage employees to diversify their skill set. This could be through cross-training, attending workshops outside their primary domain, or even intra-company role switches. While professional themselves, are increasingly recognising they can’t wait for their employer to invest in their skills development and are doing so themselves, the less the employer supports ongoing professional development, the more likely they will be looking to switch trains! 

Retention: Recognise and value the varied experiences employees bring. Foster an environment where they can leverage their diverse skills, making them feel valued and less likely to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Mentoring and Networking: Encourage seasoned employees with diverse backgrounds to mentor newer entrants. Their journey can provide invaluable insights and help newcomers navigate their career portfolios effectively.
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So, now back to my reflection on the question Nancy asked me.. 'why would I bother to invest the time and money in the diversity of qualifications I had'?? 

Quite simply, it was purely one of ‘opportunistic necessity’. As I would take on a new role in a new industry context, I would, by necessity, be looking at new qualification to fill in those skills gaps. A good example was in my enrolling in a doctorate. I was consulting at the time and was missing out on engagements attracting bigger paydays. The client was over the moon with the quality of my product, but when they told me these jobs only go to those with a Ph.D., the answer was pretty clear – ‘right, I’ll go get a doctorate’ (after all, how hard could it be??!!).  

This was also at a time when tertiary qualifications were the gold standard and there wasn’t much on offer in the way of short, sharp and skills-focused short courses. Now the gloss is off the tertiary qualification, employers increasingly value skills over qualifications and the sheer abundance of quality skills-based training makes life that much easier.    

So, the shift from a 'career pathway' to a 'career portfolio' is not just a paradigm shift but a reflection of the dynamic world we all live in. By embracing th approach, we can better support career switchers and leverage the immense potential that a diverse skillset brings to the table.

For employers, this approach can be the key to building a resilient, adaptable, and innovative workforce. And for professionals, it promises a journey of continuous growth, learning, and exploration. It's time we redefined success not by the linearity of our professional journey, but by the richness of experiences and skills we accumulate along the way