Expanding the Definition and Use of Career Portfolios

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by Martin Kimeldorf and Barbara Hagy

A career portfolio represents an attempt to communicate ideas using words AND pictures, as well as the entire array of multi-media possibilities (sound, animation, net surfing, etc). This broadband definition of a portfolio means it can take the form of a visual proposal, a brochure, or a scrapbook-like traditional portfolio displayed either in print or in digital format (e.g.; PowerPoint, PDF files, multimedia documents).

Unfortunately, too many people have created samples of “portfolios” which fall far short of it’s dynamic possibilities. For instance, many people have simply assumed that adding links to a resume turns the text document into a portfolio. Therefore, it is important to note what does not constitute a career portfolio. A career portfolio is not a resume or text-bound document with links to yet more text or sites.

Rather, the career portfolio document or presentation conveys it’s high-impact message with a blend of white space, words, and graphic elements. In this brave new communication world, the effective communicator will attend to the formatting and design as well as the content and words of the document. In the end, the career portfolio must include samples of one’s work. And if the individual is changing careers, then it is appropriate to include examples of work one is capable of performing, which means the samples can come from hobbies, volunteer jobs, or other learning experiences.

Career Portfolios Have Other Uses Beyond Job-Hunting

With all of these possibilities and options, it is clear that the career portfolio can be used for more than job interviewing. Likewise, the career portfolio obviously is no longer limited to paper since it can be projected on-screen or distributed via the Internet. Today, the person who takes charge of his or her career is limited only by imagination. While the career portfolio can be shown during a job interview, perhaps its most creative aspects take shape when it is used creatively to promote a new idea or work assignment, as a tool for employee evaluation, or as part of the process of succession and retirement planning.

Thinking about a career portfolio in this expanded manner suggests that the portfolio may at times become a hybrid document. As it takes on larger roles, it no longer contains only work samples. For instance, when used to accompany a proposal for a new job or venture, it might also contain an analysis of customer needs, lists of current problems, and examples of comparative services. When used to augment succession planning, the retiree’s portfolio may be more focused on the future rather than the past. Likewise, the portfolio might also contain suggestions for improving the job for the retiree’s replacement. At this point the portfolio speaks to one’s legacy and promise. In this light, the portfolio can begin to take on the look and feel of a business plan, a project proposal, scrapbook, or brochure.

Consider an example where a person has an idea for the kind of work he wants to do, but lacks a job offer. In this instance, he might use the portfolio to market a proposal to his present employer or a brand new business. Suppose a sales representative notes the increasing amount of returns after Christmas because customers too often receive duplicate products or incorrect versions. This salesman also wants to expand his reach online. He comes up with a proposal for an online gift registry that insures that people buy a product the recipient truly needs. The portfolio could contain a mini proposal and samples of work that illustrate how the online gift registry could be created. Naturally, examples of the salesman’s ability to initiate and create this service would need to be included in this hybrid business plan/career portfolio.

In the final analysis, expanding the definition or role of a career portfolio means enlarging our own sense of what we do at work. As a result, supervisors must be willing to embrace a new approach for assisting employees in evaluating their skills and planning for advancement. Innovative enterprises will use the career portfolio to re-structure the staff’s relationships on the job, and hopefully in the process, everyone will find their work more meaningful and their efforts more effective.

Portfolios Breathe New Life into the Employee Evaluation Process

Too often the employee evaluation resembles more of a dreaded chore rather than a career development or organizational growth opportunity. Supervisors rely on checklists or canned protocols. Employees often feel undervalued or like victims rather than as partners. In contrast, when an employee meets with his or her supervisor at the beginning of the year to discuss shared goals, they can fashion a shared vision for the work to be done. An evaluator can discuss the organization’s goals for the year, and then translate them into terms that relate to the employee’s job description. The question becomes, “What are some ways you can help us reach these goals, and how might that be demonstrated?” And the answer is a blueprint for the employee’s portfolio.

In this scenario, the employee takes responsibility for documenting his or her contribution. However, the portfolio should not be limited only to the discussion since one’s contributions to any organization often follow a spontaneous unfolding of events where new needs arise. Likewise, as employees develop new ways of improving services or products, they should catalogue them for the review time. To keep it flexible, the employer and employee could meet briefly on a regular basis to review, update, and change goals. These goals would then become the backbone to the employee evaluation rubric that would be used for judging the portfolio.

Along the way, an organization would come to understand more about what its employees really do on the job. This new knowledge could then be used to improve job descriptions. For example, at Tulsa Tech, several custodians put samples in their portfolio showing duties that went far beyond indoor maintenance. One individual had become the organization’s public address system expert. Whenever speakers came, he organized all the supporting sound and lighting systems for the presentation. Another person tended to spend most of his time in a shipping and receiving function. Yet, both people worked under the title of “custodian.”

To retain these skilled people, the organization will next have to honor their contribution by changing their job titles and job descriptions. This will prove especially important should either employee leave due to retirement or promotion and need to be replaced. Giving an employee the opportunity to inject his career portfolio into the evaluation process acknowledges real contributions and keeps the organization healthy.

Using a portfolio to foster a shared evaluation process helps the organization communicate the goal of continuous improvement in products, services, and staff. The career portfolio becomes a living history of the employee’s accomplishments and a record of demonstrated competencies. All of this documentation can become an individual’s passport for sustaining or advancing their career within the organization. The supervisor’s role expands as he or she evaluates the “raw” material in the portfolio during the performance evaluation process. Thus, the supervisor helps the employee discover what s/he can do to contribute to success, identify their skill-deficiencies, and then create a step-by-step action plan for closing the gaps.

The Future is Now

A columnist at the Seattle Times once wryly observed, “The future is never what it is supposed to be.” He was reminiscing about the Jetsons and the hype surrounding high technology. The urge to dream about robots doing housework and commuting by aircraft devices is tantalizing, but the reality of taking out the garbage remains both a concrete and symbolic reality.

At the same time, recent digital trends suggest that the portfolio is here to stay and probably will come to play a much larger role in our career development practices. For example, think back to the Internet before the emergence of the Web. In the 80s and early 90s the Internet was mostly email and ftp sites. People navigated with complex Unix codes, and the “virtual community” was quite small. Once the visual elements of point-and-click buttons and pictures, animation and sound arrived, the Internet became a wild and wooly frontier. It seemed that one mouse-click was worth a 1,000 Unix commands.

By the same token, resumes and cover letters are the communication tools of the last century. Today, we can send our words, our picture, and even our voice across the wire. Rather than just use words to describe our work, we can now add scanned images from the work site. Instead of asking the employer to believe the lines of our resumes and checklists in evaluations, we can show actual work samples. In other words, one portfolio artifact is possibly worth a thousand words found in a job application-resume-letter-evaluation form.

Portfolios are a visual medium, the vehicle of NOW. Portfolios are not just a fad. And if you let your imagination go, you can use the portfolio to conjure up the same magic Lynn used in her job interview. To paraphrase Joyce Lain Kennedy, the guru of technology-based job search, one can use a portfolio to give a “show stopper” performance and in the process start down a new path of opportunity.

The authors which to acknowledge the invaluable editorial input and support from both Wendy Enelow, President of Career Masters Institute and Stephen Cheney-Rice Acting Director, Career Services Center, Claremont McKenna College

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

Portfolio Power Martin Kimeldorf is a teacher and author and presenter on various topics ranging from career portfolios to leisure wellness, bicycling, intergenerational programming, and journaling. He can be reached at [email protected].

Barbara Hagy, Internship Coordinator at Tulsa Technology Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma works with students, teachers, and business representatives to put students into worksite learning experiences. Her interest in career development for staff as well as for students provided the opportunity to lead the Portfolio Project Team. She can be reached at [email protected].

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