Stretch Assignments for High Potential Employees

May 21, 2012

As a leader, you’re accustomed to stretching and stretch assignments, since leaders handle a wide array of responsibilities and have to respond to unexpected challenges. You may not, however, stretch your team members the way you yourself were tested on your rise to your current leadership position.

Think of the last time you really grew fast. Chances are, you faced a significant challenge. You may have used parts of yourself that you didn’t even know existed, and you probably surprised yourself by how well you performed and persevered. Now, you’ll feel more comfortable if you face the same challenge again. You’ll also feel more comfortable facing new and different challenges, simply because you have more confidence and skills to draw from. Why not make this an exercise for your team?

What Makes a Developmental Experience Challenging?

Characteristics of developmental challenge Description Example
Unfamiliar responsibilities Handle novel responsibilities
  • Major change in one’s role/position
Creating change Create and facilitate change in the way business is conducted or in an employee’s behavior, or fix a preexisting problem
  • Manage a new product launch or acquisition
  • Manage subordinate performance problems
  • Deal with inherited morale problems in a group
High level of responsibility Lead initiatives that are highly important to the organization and entail multiple functions, groups, or products/services
  • Secure financing for a key acquisition
  • Negotiate with a large customer
  • Assume responsibility for a nationwide initiative
Working across boundaries Influence/manage people or processes for which one has no direct authority
  • Convince upper management to support a proposal
  • Manage key interactions with an important labor union
Managing diversity Lead people from different cultures, gender, or racial or ethic backgrounds
  • Lead a team dispersed across several continents
  • Lead a team with extensive gender and racial diversity

Note: The table is drawn from DeRue & Wellman, 2009

There are lots of ways to challenge yourself and your team members, and everyone likes a good challenge (for the most part), so why aren’t stretch assignments used more often?

In general, leaders and their organizations prefer knowns and constants to unknowns and unpredictability. When someone performs well at their job, leaders try to keep that person in that capacity. This may serve the organization and leader, but it doesn’t always serve the employee. I’ve known many executives who had to leave the organization in order to find a new and more challenging assignments.

Leaders may feel like they can’t afford to provide stretch assignments to high-performing employees, but they can’t afford to lose these valuable employees either. Sometimes you have to fix something that isn’t broken. When Steve Jobs saw an opportunity to innovate or a new market, he went after it, even if it meant cannibalizing one of his own successful products. He said he’d rather make his own products obsolete than have the competition do it to him.

Stretch yourself with your willingness to provide stretch assignments for your team members–no matter how good they are at their current work.

What makes for a successful stretch assignment?

In his work on “flow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about the need to match the right amount of challenge with the appropriate amount of skill. Too much challenge and you become frustrated, too little challenge and you get bored. Here are four steps to designing successful stretch assignments:

1)  Identify a developmental experience that will challenge your team member in a new way.

2) Make sure the challenge and the employee’s skill levels align, so that there’s good flow.

3) Provide a rich context for the employee to grow.

4) Make sure that goals are clear and understood by both parties.

What would it take for you to lower the barriers to giving stretch assignments? What is a stretch assignment you can give to yourself?

This post was informed by the following whitepaper: Making the Most of Stretch Assignments

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