When starting out in your portfolio career, it’s tempting to take every opportunity that comes your way, just to ensure a steady income stream.
But is that really the best use of your time and efforts? Chances are, if you take on every project that comes your way, you’ll inevitably end up taking on projects that don’t make the most of your skills and interests. Given that your most recent projects are what is most likely to lead to your next opportunity, it’s important to ensure you keep focused on work that makes the most of your key competencies.
By defining your core competencies and actively going after projects and roles that make the most of them, you will:
- develop expertise in the areas that matter the most to your customers.
- have a path for developing your skills in support of reaching your business goals
Identifying your core competencies
What are core competencies?
Let’s start by defining what a core competency is in a business setting. A core competency is a specific factor that is central to the way a company and its employees work. It must fulfill three key criteria:
- It is difficult for competitors to imitate.
- It can be applied widely across many products and markets.
- It contributes to the end consumer’s experienced benefits.
Taking this into a real-life example, if you are a social media consultant, your core competencies might look like the above illustration. You’ll note that these competencies fall into three buckets: functional (which includes unique technical expertise), personal (the areas in which you excel), and leadership (how your competencies interact with managing others.)
Defining YOUR core competencies
Now, thinking of the work that you are most energized by doing, and want to have as the base of your portfolio career, map out your key competencies, starting with the functional. What are all of the technical skills and knowledge areas you have and excel at using in your work?
Next, think about your personal competencies. Here’s a list of common competencies from Victoria University to get you started:
- Personal management
- Managing information
- Research and analysis
- Project and task management
- Commitment to quality
- Professional behaviour
- Social responsibility
- Continuous learning
For another take on thinking through your core competencies, see this illustration from Psi University.
Finally, think through your leadership competencies, i.e. the skills you use to keep your business running smoothly. A SHRM leadership research paper defined those attributes as follows:
- Managing change
- Solving problems and making decisions
- Managing politics and influencing others
- Taking risks and innovating
- setting vision and strategy
- managing the work
- enhancing business skills and knowledge
- understanding and navigating the organization
At the end of this exercise, you’ll want to end up with a list of 9-12 core competencies maximum, spread through the three categories. It’s tempting to have a longer list, including every functional area you are acquainted with, but remember this is about defining and assessing your core competencies only. And, since the next step is assessing them all, you’ll want to keep the list focused.
5 steps for assessing your core competencies
Let’s walk through an evaluation process for each of the core competencies you defined above.
Step 1: When and how have you demonstrated this competency?
Think both about everyday examples of your putting this competency into action, and larger examples of projects that played to this competency. List 3-4 examples.
Step 2: Rank yourself on a scale of 1-5 in your mastery of this competency.
A score of 1 is poor, 3 is developing, and 5 is expert. Be honest in your self-evaluation. Just because you’ve identified a core competency as being necessary for success in your endeavors doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily already as proficient in it as you could be with a little practice or some coaching.
Step 3: How did you choose your competency rank?
What were the factors that led you to give yourself the score you chose? How would you define and demonstrate expert-level mastery of the competency?
Step 4: What are the gaps you’ve identified in your mastery of the competency?
Reflecting upon how you would define expert mastery of this competency, what are some of your gaps or challenges in maximizing this competency? What personal traits or behaviors may be standing in the way of mastering this competency?
Step 5: What can you do to address the competency gaps?
Think of this as your professional development plan for improving upon your mastery of this competency. Specific tasks in this step can include volunteer opportunities that would allow you to grow and flex in this area, continuing education, reading blogs and books on the topic, and reminders of everyday ways to incorporate this competency into your personal and leadership activities.
Now that you’ve identified and assessed your core competencies, you can start putting them to action in the way you develop your personal brand and in how you market your business. It may be a little daunting to go through this exercise across all of your competencies, or you may find that you get stuck on one or two, and need assistance in thinking through ways to develop a specific competency. If so, this may be an opportunity to look into finding a career coach either on an ongoing or a project basis to help you through it.