Unleash Potential with a Stretch Assignment Program

February 12, 2019

Unleash Potential with a Stretch Assignment Program

Stretch assignments are popular right now among employers. These temporary “try outs” allow companies to solve real business issues while field-testing employees’ skills and abilities. These opportunities can also make a substantive impact for individual employees. One study of executives showed that 71 percent of senior leaders identified stretch assignments as the biggest career enabler in unleashing their potential, ahead of any other career factor. 

As popular as stretch assignments are, it’s not entirely clear why some employees decide to accept a stretch assignment—and others step aside. 

What can smart talent leaders do to make the most of these stretch opportunities? Becoming more purposeful about offering stretch roles and assignments is one way to harness employees’ full talents. We recommend the following 5 strategies to continue to up-level your stretch offerings: 

  1. Enable a growth mindset. Stretch opportunities’ value often comes not from hard outcomes but from giving someone the chance to learn. It’s in an organization’s best interest to cultivate a culture that allows for learning and growth. That can be difficult because failure is often part of learning. Organizations that lack a growth mindset tend to believe employees either do or don’t have a specific skill. They value the work of a select few “stars,” and as a result, other employees are generally less committed and worry more about failing. By contrast, at growth mindset organizations employees are more committed because they are more likely to believe their organizations support risk taking, innovation, and creativity. At growth mindset organizations, mistakes are more likely to be viewed as learning opportunities.
  2. Start a system to flag stretch assignments. If an organization doesn’t have a plan for offering stretches or overseeing the results, they can be seen as political, biased, or promoting favoritism. To counter those perceptions, organizations must take a more systematic approach to stretches. Create a program to flag the chief people officer at key intervals, every 12 months for example, to indicate whether an employee can be offered a stretch assignment. Creating such a process could stop stretches from going only to individuals who are good self-promoters and give a boost to individuals who tend to “round down” their assessment of their own readiness for a stretch. Both of those actions could result in more high-potential but under-represented employees, getting opportunities that put them in front of leadership.
  3. Bank and post opportunities and offers. Stretch opportunities can be perceived as closely held and guarded, particularly when they are truly plum assignments. To make stretches transparent and searchable so more individuals have the chance to benefit from them, encourage managers to post open roles and stretch assignments on the company’s intranet, communication channel, or another enterprise-wide forum. Include a description, qualifications, and clear expectations for the assignment or role.
  4. Standardize opportunities. In many organizations, stretch assignments aren’t standardized, which may make it harder to assess one’s readiness. Making stretch opportunities more uniform and setting up individuals who pursue them to succeed requires creating guidelines or protocols. Before a stretch opportunity starts, for example, designate times that an employee will check in with a stretch mentor, such as when they are 10 percent, 25 percent, or 50 percent into an assignment. Hold a final checkpoint or debrief once an assignment is finished to assess how the employee performed, what they learned, and to determine how skills gleaned from the work could be transferred to the person’s regular job.
  5. Reward stretches. Because men are more likely than women to consider pay when considering a stretch opportunity, managers should define compensation transparently for all employees. This approach guards against “job creep” being dressed up as a stretch assignment, where the incumbent simply does more work. Leaders can take the commitment to stretch opportunities a step further by publicly rewarding individuals who accept a stretch. At Cisco, for example, employees who demonstrate a willingness and ability to stretch are eligible for the company’s Expand Your Boundaries award.

Employees, especially millennials, increasingly want to “job-craft” and shape their own roles. And why shouldn’t they? If the workplace is being disrupted by sweeping, large-scale trends, employees should be given the opportunity to continually redefine and hone their skills. One way employers can be responsive is through stretch assignments that provide intrapreneurial short-term “gig economy” type work.  

For employees of all stripes, offering this internal gig economy—or stretch marketplace—delivers big.

The Authors: 

Selena Rezvani is a VP of Consulting and Research at Be Leaderly and author of Pushback: How Smart Women Ask—and Stand Up—for What They Want.