Curating your work: the importance of creating a professional portfolio

For most people, the word “curate” conjures up images of a meticulously planned museum exhibit. Over the past decade, however, the word has come to be used in a variety of settings – fashion, vacation destinations, news, photos, and even food. Unfortunately, the one thing people have largely forgotten to curate is their professional work output.

Over time, most professionals amass an incredible body of work. You’re probably no exception. Indeed, from time to time, you may even hit it out of the park and create a something that exudes NEAR criteria. Yet, how often do you stop and capture those works within a catalog intended to build your personal brand? How often do you organize your best work output for the purpose of reminding yourself and others of the valuable contributions you’ve made throughout your career? If you’re like most professionals, the answer to those questions is, “not often enough.”

It’s time to create a dedicated place to store the work that highlights your achievements. In other words, it is time to curate your career.


With those warnings out of the way, let’s take a look at how you can curate your professional portfolio.

Curate your work undertaken for your current employer

Even if you can’t take it with you when you leave, you should always keep a curated portfolio of work performed for your current employer. Current work portfolios are helpful for a number of reasons.

First, they allow you to track your own progress and value to the organization. Not every piece you create will warrant inclusion in your portfolio. However, your own judgment as to what is (and is not) good enough to be set aside for showcasing will tell you a lot about your professional development, strengths, and your passion for your current position.

For example, if you find that you deem very little of your output as worthy of being curated, you may want to step back and critically assess why you’re not creating work you’re proud of. I doubt you lack the skills to do the job. However, you may find that you are simply unhappy with this employer and lack the motivation to create quality output. In either case, you’ve learned something about the next steps you need to take for your career.

The second reason to curate your work with your current employer is that it will help your employer gauge your value to the company. Do you have an annual review coming up? How great would it be to show up to that meeting with a curated sample of your best works? Are you angling for a raise? A curated portfolio may be just what your employer needs to grant you a bump in pay. Even in situations where your employer is coming down hard on you, your portfolio may prove that the harsh criticism is unwarranted.

Curate your work for past employers or clients

In the digital age, when most of us leave a job, we often end up with a plethora of work we created during our tenure. You likely have work data stored in the cloud, in old emails to your personal address, or in the memory of your mobile device. The only question is, can you use to it curate your professional milestones?

As noted in the call-out above, there could be intellectual property concerns with respect to sharing that work with someone else. So, tread very lightly here. In fact, if you don’t have a copy of your NDA with a previous employer, you should presume you cannot share that work with anyone. Does that render this work product useless for your portfolio? Absolutely not.

For one thing, you may be able to sanitize the work so it is not identifiable as having been created for someone else. More on that below. More tangibly, however, you can organize, study, and store that work for your own personal use. Even if you can’t share them, having past projects on hand to refresh your memory prior to an interview you will better prepare you to speak to your experience. Additionally, you may someday use that work as a template for a similar project that crops up.

As far as storing this sort of work within your collection, to remind you of any limitations on sharing ensure that you place it in a folder that is appropriately named. Whether you label the folder “PRIVATE,” “DO NOT SHARE,” or “WARNING,” is immaterial. Just be careful to set it aside from other projects you can share freely.

What goes in your professional portfolio?

What you place in your portfolio is entirely up to you. It should, however, be work that: (a) you can attribute solely to yourself; and (b) highlights your unique skills. Do not include group projects that you worked on (unless you can isolate and share only your portion of the project). Also, try not to include final products that others in your organization heavily edited or changed.

The examples of things that might go into your portfolio are as vast as the number of industries that exist. Nonetheless, some specific examples include:

  • A marketing plan you developed
  • A brief you wrote
  • A statistical analysis you created
  • An app you came up with
  • A logo you designed

Obviously, lines of work (such as graphic design) expect a professional portfolio. In others (accounting, for example), you may give prospective employers a pleasant surprise that you have put together representative samples of your work. In either scenario, your portfolio should highlight how you think, your attention to detail, your particular style, your problem-solving abilities, and your innate creativity.

Sanitize your professional portfolio as necessary

If you’re fortunate, you may find yourself in the situation where you have work product you’re particularly proud of and your employer has agreed that you can take it with you. Even in these circumstances, you should take great care to sanitize the piece before you share it. Routine things you can do to in this regard are:

  • Change all names in the project (both individual and company names) to fictitious names
  • If you’re working with a document, make sure you remove all metadata and only share copies of the work in .pdf format – as opposed to sharing a Word document or some other editable format
  • Redact any information that is private or proprietary if you are sharing a piece that cannot be edited
  • Restrict access to the document solely to intended recipients

Thinking forward

If you are committed to curating your career path, inevitably you will find yourself in future interviews and will receive multiple job offers.  This is a good time to consider claiming your entrepreneurial spirit and creative pride by discussing any restrictions on the works you will create in your new position.

Specifically, ask if you’ll be required to sign an NDA or other intellectual property agreement.  In a related vein, ask if you can negotiate any carve-outs that will allow you to maintain your portfolio. If you do this, be clear that your purpose is not to compete with the employer or to profit from works created for it, but simply to maintain the ongoing curation of your professional career.

This may not work with larger companies that have rigid policies in place. With smaller organizations, however, you may find some flexibility. Be wary of companies that give you a hard “no,” or that ask for assignment agreements for all the works you create. Be especially cautious if you are asked to create works unrelated to the firm’s core business.

Curating your career is a surefire way to foster professional growth.  It places you on a trajectory that matches your goals. Take caution not to infringe on anyone else’s rights and remain cognizant of how you can protect your own rights going forward. Follow these tips and you’ll find yourself on the path to success.

Jon DeMersseman,  AccompliTrack Founder and CEO,  with Jennifer Anderson