Navigating the shift to a ‘portfolio career’

How we should think about our professional identities — when they’re designed to change

There was a lot of talk about “Portfolio Careers” in 2018. And I expect there to be even more next year.

  1. The term itself is getting traction. See, as examples, a ton of stuff from the Harvard Business Review & the Portfolio Careers Podcast”.
  2. The most admired people in our culture are prioritizing authenticity & breadth in their professional narratives. Early pioneers (like Oprah Winfrey), the millenial 🐐 (Donald Glover), and entrepreneurial athletes (like Lebron & Serena) all fit this bill.
  3. Continuing booms in side projects, retail pop-ups and MooCs/bootcamps point to more mainstream adoption. For what it’s worth, so do I. I’ve bet my career on taking a portfolio approach and (as explained below) am now betting my company, Mural, on helping others do the same.

Despite this increasing prominence, the “portfolio career” is still a poorly understood & under-explored concept. It lacks a clear definition (means different things to different people) and a unifying currency/identity (way to signal value, expertise) as well. Professional athletes have stats (batting averages, player efficiency ratings, etc.); yesterday’s knowledge workers had job titles (e.g. C-suite, VP, Director); but today’s portfolio career has no such signal or heuristic. Setting aside the graphic arts, many portfolio workers don’t even maintain work portfolios — let alone up-to-date ones!

This is a problem I’ve experienced frequently in my own career, and now more fully appreciate thanks to our diverse userbase at Mural. My key takeaway thus far: Dynamic workers (i.e. portfolio careers) require a new kind of dynamic identity — one that enables them to pick and choose which skills, which work and which narratives to feature to which audiences and when. In a world where we each wear an increasing number of hats (i.e. functions, roles) in an increasing number of contexts (industries, companies, side projects), it’s more important than ever to always highlight the right versions of ourselves to the right people.

Starting with this post, I’m excited to begin positioning Mural as the perfect solution to do just that in the coming year.

What is a portfolio career?

Before going any further into the intricacies of portfolio careers and how Mural solves for them, it’s probably helpful to define the term. For me, it refers to a career that emphasizes passion, curiosity, and self-actualization at the expense of security & (in many cases) probability-adjusted earnings.

In other words, it means to view your career as a collection of projects, adventures, and discoveries — instead of a replicable trajectory with a clear goal/end-game in mind.

To demonstrate with examples, you’re building a ‘portfolio career’ if:

  • You wear multiple hats (e.g. someone like me — part product manager, part growth marketer who does some investing, advising, and teaching as well)
  • You wear one hat, but in multiple contexts (e.g. you’re full-time at a big company, but consult/advise on side)
  • You are Jekyll and Hyde — in a good way! (e.g. you’re a copywriter by day, and animal rights activist by night)
  • You are building a literal portfolio (e.g. you’re a full-time freelancer, creative writer/journalist, or VC)

What’s different about portfolio careers?

Dynamic workers (i.e. portfolio careers) require a new kind of dynamic identity — one that enables them to pick and choose which skills, which work and which narratives to feature to which audiences and when.

As mentioned earlier, it remains difficult for someone building a portfolio career (who’s not a celebrity) to quickly/efficiently communicate what they do and signal that they’re a high-performer. This is because:

  • Their portfolio often stretches across several companies/projects at a time → so a singular “[Job Title] at [XYZ company]” doesn’t suffice. On the flip side, were they to list out everything in their portfolio, they’d run the risk of losing attention (or worse, credibility).
  • Their expertise often blends several functional areas → so their mission statements don’t fit a simple “I’m a [function] expert that works with [XYZ] type of companies” rubric. At the very least, they’re likely to have several such mission statements.
  • They may bend entrepreneurially → and early-stage ideas/projects/companies usually don’t offer brand credibility (yet).
  • They take pride in their actual work, not just narratives around it → and existing solutions don’t make it easy to curate what work you share with whom and with what context.

Given these realities, a key thesis behind Mural is that professional identity (particularly for knowledge workers) should and will be far more dynamic & evidence-based in the future than it is now.

To blow this out a bit:

  1. Knowledge workers are incredibly & increasingly prolific. We’re dabbling across a growing number of industries, companies & side projects — and creating tons of work assets (docs, decks, and podcasts to name a few) in the process.
  2. This, in turn, places a premium on fit. Winning your first freelance client, nailing your next career move, giving a killer talk at a conference — so much of it comes down to choosing the right work, right skills and right story to feature to the right audience at the right time.
  3. Yet, most knowledge worker professional identities are static (e.g. resumes, Linkedin profiles, personal websites)& do not accommodate this kind of flexibility. They assume a pre-portfolio approach to careers — where knowledge workers did less things, for longer periods of time, with greater industry focus and with far less transparency.
  4. As a result, we see a greenfield opportunity to re-invent professional identity as something that is a) dynamic (changes based on context, h/t Erik Torenberg ) b) evidence-based (features actual work, not just narrative, h/t Brian Balfour) and c) always up to date.

Our first big step to seizing this opportunity

After laying the foundation of Mural earlier this year — by making it easy for knowledge workers to aggregate their best work from across the cloud using just URLs— our recent release of “Custom Collections” is the first big step in seizing this opportunity.

This new feature set helps increasingly dynamic & versatile professionals do one very specific thing: always share the exact right work and story (read: version of themselves) with the right people. As explained above, this is something that’s both of ultimate importance for ‘portfolio careerists’ and unserved by existing solutions.

In particular, Mural now offers:

1) Curation — or the ability to precisely choose which pieces of work to feature in “Collections” customized for specific audiences or contexts (e.g. “My Product Management Experience” vs. “My Growth/Marketing Work”)

2) Privacy — so you can keep sensitive information / pieces of work (e.g. a product spec, sample cohort analysis, ghostwritten literature) completely private unless shared with specific individuals

3) Customization — enabling you to adapt the story/narrative you use to introduce each Collection of work (e.g. with a context-specific bio or mission statement).

It’s still very early days for our tiny team, but we’re excited about the direction this release points us in, and confident in its ability to deliver on the needs of dynamic workers.

Speaking more personally, there is arguably no cohort of people I identify with more innately than folks building portfolio careers. So, even if you don’t end up trying out Mural, I’m eager to hear any & all feedback. A great portfolio career isn’t built in isolation— and neither will the future of its professional identity :)

Want to submit your story to Product Management Insider? Click here for details.