Resolved for 2015: Invest in Your Portable Capabilities

By Nathan Bennett

How quickly things can change.  What was for years dubbed a “war for talent” fought between employers has now become a “war for jobs” fought by employees.  As the recession has eased, as company prospects have improved, and as job growth has steadied, a pent up pool of employees anxious to change jobs is beginning to appear. These job hoppers join a still sizable number of unemployed or underemployed: the competition for opportunities is fierce.  How does someone today best prepare for this sort of challenge?  My work with job seekers suggests that now more than ever it is critical for people to invest in their portable capabilities.  Doing so represents a great way to invest in your own career during 2015.

During the course of a career people make investments of time and money in education and training; they devote effort to learning about their job, their employer, and their industry.   Employers are investors, too – employer resources are allocated to train employees about jobs, to provide supervision, as well as to develop, mentor, reward and motivate.  As investors both parties are looking for a solid return.  The difference in the situations each investor faces is the employer can’t earn a return without the employee on the payroll whereas the employee can potentially earn a return on investment wherever they are employed.  The best way for an employee to maximize the potential return – particularly in a down economic cycle – is to make investment towards the development of skills that will be valued by a wide range of employers – portable capabilities.


What Exactly are Portable Capabilities?

Portable capabilities are those that can seamlessly be applied position to position, company to company, and industry to industry.  Portable capabilities are also things the employee can justifiably “take out the door” as they leave a company.  So for example customer lists and trade secrets are not what we consider portable.  Finally, our emphasis is on portable capabilities that individuals can develop through study and practice.

Portable capabilities fall in to several categories.  The scope of their applicability varies and so, too, does their value.  Deep product knowledge is a portable capability but perhaps only to the boundaries of the product’s customer base.  Industry knowledge is similarly portable but perhaps only to the boundaries of the industry. In each case, there is some reason to invest in these capabilities but the opportunities to leverage them for a return is somewhat limited.  By comparison, capabilities like interpersonal communication skills, decision making ability, resilience in the face of adversity, teamwork and leadership are nearly without boundary in terms of their portability.  As a result the potential return each provides may be great.  Finally each capability is something individuals can develop through study and practice.

In addition to capabilities like those noted above there exists the potential for a tremendous return from investment in personal presentation and reputation.  The ability to rapidly assess and adapt interpersonal behaviors in an appropriate manner – what Daniel Goleman calls emotional intelligence – is perhaps the most portable capability.   For example, behaving with integrity, empathy, and humility creates a reputation with boundaryless appeal.

Why are Portable Capabilities so Important Now?

There is never a bad time to invest in portable capabilities.  Obviously what they provide the investor is flexibility to pursue alternatives and flexibility is always an advantage.  However, the current market environment necessitates a higher level of personal adaptability.   For example, many people recently laid off from the financial services sector will never work in that sector again.  Investments they and their employers made in understanding the financial instruments sold as well as understanding the industry more broadly will likely not be easily portable to their next position.  Those among this group who have invested only in product-specific or industry-specific capabilities will really have to reinvent themselves to create appeal to their next employer.

How are Portable Capabilities Developed?

My work with executives suggests individuals begin developing portable capabilities – usually unknowingly – very early in life.  For example, executives who grew up in military families, or families where a parent’s job required frequent moves, often display a tremendous ability to read situations and to quickly fit in.  This capability no doubt is enhanced by the frequent practice they had moving community to community, school to school.  Other executives we work with have attributed this sort of situational adaptability to the fact that they were one of many children.  They attribute their resilience to the experience of managing in that context.  These life experiences are the cards these executives were dealt – so while they help us understand where the development of portable capabilities begins it doesn’t help someone know where to invest today.  Here are some recommendations for how to invest in order to build your portable capabilities now:

  • Open yourself to change.  The point of your investment in portable capabilities is to effect personal change.  Dedication to a personal commitment is required to pull this off.  The steps you take to develop capabilities may not always be linear- you may need to move down to prepare yourself to move up the organizational chart.  It requires some personal resilience to see the longer term payoff for a short term “loss”.
  • Take a good look in the mirror – and get others to help.  The best place to begin is with a complete and honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses.  This could involve a formal 360 degree assessment; it could be something done less formally.  The critical point is to develop an understanding of both the portable capabilities you should work to leverage and the weaknesses you can attempt to mitigate.
  • Own the Process.  As the investor you need to be proactive in managing the process.  Waiting for the company to provide developmental opportunities is much too passive a strategy.  Today’s economic situation makes it dangerous.  You must seek out experiences – inside the company or in the community – that will provide practice in developing your portable capabilities.

In the end, the current war for jobs should make it clear that this is a critical time for employees to invest in themselves – after all, where else in today’s market can you expect to earn a better return?


Nathan Bennett, PhD

Nathan Bennett, PhD

Nathan Bennett is associate dean for faculty and research at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business.

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