Given that most development occurs through experience (McCall, Lombardo, & Morrison, 1988), stretch assignments can provide a great vehicle for driving employee learning and/or leadership development. Stretch assignments are essentially short-term projects or assignments that provide unique and challenging experiences for the purpose of developing employee/leader skills and abilities. Although the use of on-the-job development is clearly on the rise, it is often applied without consideration of the necessary planning and support mechanisms.
The first thing to keep in mind if you’re thinking about leveraging stretch assignments for developmental purposes is the common-sense notion that different stretch assignments develop different abilities (e.g., public speaking skills cannot be developed through writing policy statements or crunching numbers). Because of this, it is important to first identify the specific skill(s) to be developed. Once you have a list of skills, the next step is to identify the available assignments that provide relevant exposure. This article will help you with this first critical stage of using stretch assignments – that is, thinking about competencies and identifying assignments. Below is a list of stretch assignments that have been shown to develop competence in the following three areas: strategic skills, interpersonal skills, or personal effectiveness.
If you would like to share this list, check out our reference guide which contains the same information in a PDF format.
These assignments will help develop competencies related to expanding one’s awareness of organizational functions and strategy (e.g., coping with ambiguous situations, gaining a strategic perspective, influencing others, working with customers, problem solving)
Spend 3 days with clients and report back (presentation or written report)
Conduct a customer-needs analysis
Write a policy statement
Interview external stakeholders about their opinions of the organization
Analyze and compare a competitor’s product or service
Put together a presentation for a senior employee (i.e., supervisor or manager)
Evaluate a training program
Join a cross-functional team
Join work on a project that has been unsuccessful
Put together a task-force to solve a tough problem
Monitor a new product or service through its entire life cycle
These will help develop competencies that increase one’s effectiveness to work with and manage other employees or teams (e.g., communication, listening, managing conflict, managing relationships, teamwork, negotiation, trust, approachability, delegation, leadership)
- Lead a team meeting
- Become a mentor to a new employee
- Train a new employee in a particular skill
- Represent team concerns to supervisor
- Join a team that’s dealing with conflict
- Negotiate a new customer contract
- Take responsibility in resolving a team conflict
- Troubleshoot a performance issue
- Become a campus recruiter
- Interview customers and report back
- Work with a peer on a developmental opportunity
- Delegate 2 tasks to a peer and ask him/her to delegate 2 to you
These are oriented around competencies most closely related to your performance and personal development (e.g., organizing, planning, intellectual acumen, creativity, composure, time management, work/life balance, decision quality, customer service)
- Help launch a new product or service
- Re-launch a product or service that previously failed
- Learn a new tool, process, or approach and give a presentation on it
- Work with someone from another department on a tough issue
- Handle a difficult negotiation with an internal or external client
- Take on a project that others have failed in
- Write a press release
- Teach a seminar on an unfamiliar topic
- Create a customer satisfaction survey
- Take on a task that you do not like to do
- Take on an employee’s tasks who is on vacation
- Conduct interviews with employees on their work/life balance experience & present findings
Note: This list is informed by research presented in Lombardo & Eichinger’s (1989) book entitled “Eighty-eight assignments for development in place,” and Yost & Plunkett’s (2009) book entitled “Real time leadership development.” I highly recommend both books as resources for any organization that currently applies stretch assignments or plans to in the future.
Going forward, keep in mind that this is only a single piece in effective use of stretch assignments for developmental purposes. There are a number of mechanisms that are critical for actually translating experience into learning and development. Employees who will be given stretch assignments need the active support ant participation of their supervisor before, during, and after:
- Before – to meet with the employee and discuss what skills to develop, then chose a stretch assignment and identify learning goals
- During – to give immediate feedback, support and encouragement, and provide access to resources (e.g., time to participate in assignments, introductions to other people who can provide guidance)
- After – to reflect and debrief on what was learned during the assignment and how that can be applied to their current job or future development
By Kayla Turo
Research from Catalyst suggests that on-the-job experiences account for 70 percent of the most valuable career development tools for employees, compared to networking and mentoring (20 percent) and formal programs (10 percent. These on-the-job experiences include stretch assignments, or challenging projects in which an employee must develop new skills and improve their capabilities in order to be successful. Stretch assignments not only prepare employees for future managerial roles, they highlight high potentials and put them on the map for leadership consideration. According to the Catalyst report “Good Intentions, Imperfect Execution?”, of the high potentials they questioned, 62 percent claimed that obtaining stretch assignments was most favoring to their careers above any other factor.
However, the most interesting finding of the report is that men were more likely to land high-profile assignments than women, were staffed with three times as many employees as women, on projects with budgets twice the size of women’s project budgets.
Sponsorship is a key factor in securing stretch assignments
Lack of sponsorship is a crucial factor that could be preventing women from attaining high-profile assignments, and ultimately advancing to executive board positions, which stems from a societal fear of rumor and scandal. According to Sylvia Ann Hewett in an article published on the HBR Blog Network, “Women suffer a disproportionate amount of damage in the fallout from illicit relationships between a male boss and a female subordinate.” The fear of even be suspected of an improper relationship prevents 64 percent of executive men and 50 percent of junior females from seeking out private encounters, let alone a sponsorship relationship.
Unwillingness to ask for help could also be a culprit here. “Women fear rejection more than men in this area. They often feel it’s ‘pushy’ to ask [for help] as though they are saying I can’t do it myself,” said Judith Glaser, CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and Chairman of The Creating WE Institute. Understanding that gaining sponsorship attributes to 70 percent of your overall career advancement (by opening up opportunities for on-the-job experiences) may help alleviate some uneasiness of coming off vulnerable or incompetent. “Climbing alone is not an option anymore,” reminded Glaser.
Choosing the Right Sponsor to Elevate Your Potential
When seeking out a sponsor, research is important. Identify leaders with credibility and influence, and don’t shy away from male sponsors. Present yourself as a talented, capable employee, and look for a sponsor who values the contributions you have made in your career thus far.
The best sponsor is a member of leadership who not only provides you with valuable information to increase your skills, but works as an advocate for your advancement in meetings and other situations where you are not present. According to the HBR Blog Network article “The Real Benefit of Finding a Sponsor,” a sponsor should do two or more of the following:
- Heighten your knowledge and skill level
- Foster connections (both inside and outside of the company)
- Boost your visibility
- Advocate on your behalf at meetings
- Direct you to opportunities (such as stretch assignments)
“Sponsors bring a telescopic view into what’s going on in the organization and they can spot places where you should get involved,” said Glaser. The perspective, support, and leeway that a sponsor provides is crucial to opening doors in the face of competition. Catalyst found that 44 percent of high potentials described the relationships they developed with important staff members as the number one reason for their success, and quite possibly their courage. According to the report, 43 percent of men and 36 percent of women will even ask for a stretch assignment without a sponsor, compared to 56 percent of men and 44 percent of women with sponsors.
Things to consider before asking for a stretch assignment
The key to truly benefiting from a stretch role is to make sure it is the right assignment for your career aspirations. Establish your goals with your sponsor so they can help you identify the right path to get you there. A good sponsor will be able to help you pinpoint and land an assignment with the same risk, visibility, and need as the high profile assignments men are more likely to win.
Is there need?
Before requesting an assignment, take a good long look at your company and find where its needs are. “Identify issues in the company needing special attention or extra effort. Spot a place where you see you can step up,” suggested Glaser. “Have a conversation with your boss and let them know you want to get involved in working on a challenging assignment,” she added. Don’t be afraid to pursue an assignment in a department that is not your home department. In fact, “stretching” yourself to work on assignments across departments is a great way to prove to management how serious you are about the company, how much you are capable of, and how useful you can be. “Show that you are open and want to help the company grow, or you want to put extra time into an important project where talent has not yet been assigned,” said Glaser
Does it have enough risk?
According to areport article on HBR Blog Network, “Positioning Yourself for a Stretch Assignment,” the best assignments have a 50 percent to 70 percent chance of success. You should be prepared to work very hard while on this assignment. The real value of a stretch role comes from being forced to pick up new skills quickly and demonstrate your abilities in order to succeed.
Does it have enough visibility?
Besides developing your skills and capabilities, stretch assignments are meant to put you on the spotlight in the eyes of leadership. Make sure that the project you are pursuing will get you noticed by the right people, otherwise it might not have as much of a positive impact on your career advancement as you initially hoped.
You may be able to start with a small or short-term stretch assignment without approval at first. Not only would this give you a better idea of whether you have what it takes to pursue a more challenging assignment, it will begin to spark interest from potential sponsors, if you don’t already have one. After all, a sponsor will only advocate for you if they can identify you as a high potential. Taking on smaller projects demonstrates initiative, passion, and a simultaneous attention to detail and the broader scope of your company’s long-term goals as well as your own.
“Push yourself to think ahead about what you want to accomplish and what you aspire toward,” said Glaser. “This primes your brain to stretch.”