Don’t Worry. Your Job Skills Matter Less in a Non-Linear, “Portfolio” Career


Skills are all the rage in recruiting and hiring. If you don’t list the “right” skills on your resume, you won’t get through the dreaded AI Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) that will screen you out before a human sees your resume. As an experienced, mid-career professional, however, you actually have a secret weapon to use in the recruiting and hiring wars: a portfolio career.

A portfolio career transcends the string of skills you’ve learned how to perform. Thinking of and representing your career as a portfolio is a much more intentional way of pitching your value. It highlights the synergies and strategic perspective that you’ve gained from different roles and positions. Each element of your portfolio is a strength. Taken all together, these portfolio elements paint a strong, unique, and persuasive picture of what you can accomplish moving forward in your career.

The Value Of Portfolio Careers

It’s More Than Simply Skills

A portfolio career, also known as a non-linear career, is an ideal way to capture all of the various, and seemingly random or contradictory jobs you’ve had over the course of your career, and weave together a coherent narrative that explains how each seemingly disparate experience contributes to the whole. Your portfolio allows you to see your business from multiple perspectives, and allows you to be more strategic than if you had simply followed a single path.

By framing your career as a portfolio career, you can demonstrate greater flexibility, creativity, and insight over how your business works. Instead of succumbing to the idea that you have been a “job-hopper,” and somehow unable to find a direction, the portfolio career concept frees you to think of yourself as a career explorer whose interests and experiences have yielded a unique set of strengths and abilities. Your portfolio background gives you greater resourcefulness, resilience, and adaptability to successfully handle changing conditions. Your familiarity with various aspects of your business allows you to tap into knowledge, expertise, and best practices that might not be accessible to those who lack your “explorer’s” background.

Skills Are For Kids

Don’t get me wrong: skills are important, especially when starting a career from scratch. Your skills are what allow you to prove your worth. You can demonstrate that you have the ability to learn and then to execute based on that learning.

However, as you progress, the significance of skills shifts from being the main criterion of your value to a more contextual one, in which strategy, experience, and critical thinking (the portfolio you have uniquely acquired) have equal or more weight.

Staying current and learning new skills are important, but understanding how to combine various skills and experiences is ultimately more crucial to your long-term success. When seeking new opportunities, look for positions where you can compete on more than simply your skill sets. Look for intersectionality: the ways in which your unique portfolio can address more complex problems and fulfill larger missions.

Your portfolio career is a represention of the unique value proposition you offer. As you evolve your career into this next phase, spend the extra time contemplating the specific takeaways and applications that your portfolio enables you to leverage. This is how you will be more likely to stand out from other candidates.

Portfolio Careers and the Hidden Job Market

Portfolio careers are distinguished by one key differentiator: context!

Most hiring is performed with a fairly linear mindset. Recruiters and hiring managers play a game of checking the boxes next to the bullet points of their job descriptions. This is fine for entry-level, Manager, and some Director-level jobs.

But hiring gets more complicated when it comes to filling more senior-level positions where a greater range of skills and experiences come into play. This is where context lives. You are probably well aware that the answer to many if not most sensitive management-related questions at this level is: “It depends.”

The understanding that there is no single correct answer for a given dilemma, and that there may be multiple viable pathways to solve a problem make it much more difficult to hire a mid-senior leader based on skills and experience alone.

This is why 80% of key management hires take place within the “hidden job market” – driven entirely by personal connections and referrals. In the hidden job market, your portfolio is red meat: it is the badge that signifies your ability to understand how a given problem or situation is unique, and that it requires the ability to draw appropriate resources, talent, or procedure in a proper, often-nuanced way to achieve success.

Am I Skills-Based or Portfolio-Based?

This portfolio career idea may be new to you and you might be wondering whether with everything you’ve done, you qualify as a portfolio-based leader.

Here’s a comparison chart of eight key differences between skill-based qualities and characteristics versus portfolio-based ones.

What you do:The focus is on the task and mechanics and adhering to form/formatWhat you deliver:The focus is on the end product/result Open to different success formulas
Short TermResponsibility only applies to completing task/(s) based on individual skillLong TermResponsibility applies beyond a single skill to larger projects and longer time frame
SpecialistSkilled or trained in a specific area Little to no responsibility/awareness in a larger contextGeneralistBroader awareness of the interconnectedness between tasks/skills More responsibility for larger sets of work
Fixed MindsetFocused on staying within boundariesRepeating success based on prior workGrowth MindsetSeeking new approaches to respond to changing conditions, opportunities, and career development
Low Loyalty, High MobilityCan perform in multiple settingsUnconcerned about surrounding context No ties to company/positionMore likely to leaveHigh Loyalty, Greater LongevityMore invested in work product because touches many areas/peopleGreater ownershipMore likely to stay
Low EngagementNot connected to the overall mission. Repetitive work can lead to boredom/disaffectionHigh EngagementVariety and change create challenge, interest, problem-solving & connection to their work and team
Limited Career Growth OpportunitiesCareer roles are dependent on the need for skill Limited perception of potentialGreater Career Growth OpportunitiesVariety of roles/responsibilities draws greater attention to potential & filling new positions
High Burnout RiskLimited skill focus leads to isolation, boredom, and potentially feeling trappedStressfulHigh Fulfilment PotentialA variety of interconnected tasks leads to a sense of accomplishment and growth

How to Promote Your Portfolio Career

If you do indeed resonate with most or all of the portfolio career qualities in the above grid, your next question may be: “Now what?”

Here are a few best practices you can work with to better share your portfolio career advantage with current and prospective colleagues.

Connect the Dots

Create a career narrative that pulls your various work experiences together. Your LinkedIn “About” section is the ideal place to set this in motion. Begin by sharing how and why you started your career in the first place. Identify the key turning points that led you to where you are today. Explain how each disparate element in your career experience contributed at least one important ability, perspective, or insight that continues to inform your unique outlook and the value that you deliver through your work.

Because the LinkedIn “About” section is relatively short for a “mission statement,” (2600 characters), it forces you to encapsulate the high points of your career narrative. Include all the top experiences and lessons, and end by sharing the context: the overall top takeaway or takeaways.

  • What do you now know to be your mission? Your superpower?
  • What have all of your experiences boiled down to? State what you are now both able to do, and what you are motivated and driven to do with your portfolio career?

Potential employers or clients will see your unique combination of strengths through the challenges you overcame and the way you used your portfolio to overcome them.

Document Your Personal Case Studies

Prepare for new opportunities by doing your own deeper dive into your background, and the successes, failures, and ultimately the lessons that got you to where you are today.

Use your journal as a place to reflect and capture the details of the key moments in your career when you experienced an epiphany, overcame a significant challenge, picked yourself up after a setback or a significant loss, or learned an unexpected lesson.

It is important to become intimately familiar with these episodes because they are the building blocks of your portfolio career. You’ll want to share these stories in job interviews and in other professional gatherings. You’re at the point in your career where you’re able to leverage your wisdom, and this is the perfect way to deepen in your awareness of who you are and how you can serve and support others through your portfolio experiences.

You may only have one or two significant stories to tell. But sharing them helps build the kind of close business relationships that build respect and trust – two qualities that are essential for you to advance to the next level in your career.

Portfolios Careers Are the Future

The industrial-era approach to knowledge work and management is over. Automation and AI will continue to threaten single-dimension skills and associated jobs. Those who advance and succeed will do so because they work to apply their diverse experience across new approaches and discover new problems to solve by asking new questions.

It may happen at some point, but for now, AI is not intrinisically curious. Only humans are.

As you look for new opportunities to grow and succeed, engage with colleagues and companies that are curious and aware of these challenges. Our ability to use and develop our growth mindset has never been more important.

Follow companies and connect with leaders who understand the evolution from skills-based career roles to portfolio-based ones. They are more likely to create and offer positions that align with your value and your career goals.

While you may have previously felt that your diverse and seemingly divergent background was a handicap that you were embarrassed to explain, I hope you’re now seeing that it is a powerful strength, and something to be proud of.

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


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