Unleashing Potential: How 3 Leaders Drive Career Growth With Stretch Assignments

Small steps into unfamiliar realms can accumulate to substantial career advancement. Leaders shared why stretch projects are a consequential part of that process.

Written by Lucas Dean
Published on Aug. 14, 2023
Unleashing Potential: How 3 Leaders Drive Career Growth With Stretch Assignments
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While the phrase “the magic happens outside of your comfort zone” has been so oft-repeated it verges on cliche, it still remains true. 

In one’s personal and professional life, the comfort zone can be a healthy, reliable place. But a refusal to step out of it can hinder growth. By balancing comfort and consistency with new challenges and responsibilities, people can realize they’re capable of more than they expected — and become more willing to embrace the unknown. 

And the good news is the leap into uncharted territory doesn’t need to be a headfirst dive. 

Conversely, research on strategy formation in entrepreneurial settings conducted by Timothy Ott and Kathleen Eisenhardt showed that the most successful breakthroughs were the result of small steps, not massive strides. 

For leaders, providing team members with growth opportunities and sustained support is essential in seeing them realize their potential. By providing stretch assignments, employees can learn from failures and successes alike, and be exposed to the exciting possibilities that lie outside of their comfort zone. 

According to a Egon Zehnder’s survey of 823 international executives, 71 percent cited stretch assignments as pivotal in unlocking their potential in their careers. 

The results may speak for themselves, but a leader’s approach to supporting team members in this process is just as important as the employee’s willingness to execute it. 

At Amount, Evive and CSC Corptax, leaders are using stretch assignments to drive professional growth — and guiding and encouraging employees as they take on new challenges. 

 

Amy Lewensky
Head of Talent Development and Total Rewards • Amount

Amount provides financial institutions with a point-of-sale financing suite and digital omnichannel retail banking experiences. 

 

Share an example of when you extended a stretch assignment to a direct report. What was the assignment, and how did you know the individual was ready to take it on?

An easy place to extend stretch assignments is in a project that is important to the organization and needs an additional resource. For example, one of my team members was contributing to our compensation planning process by providing raw data. As part of a stretch assignment, she was tasked with creating a new workbook that included data analysis, accruals and modeling various situations for our HR business partners to reference. This helped the HRBPs when coaching leaders on compensation decisions and conversations. I knew she was ready for this assignment because she had advanced Excel skills that weren’t being leveraged, she was eager to learn more in the compensation space and is someone who feels motivated and rewarded when helping the team.

 

How do you ensure that team members are not overburdened by stretch assignments and are supported throughout its completion? 

First, team members should be involved in designing the assignment. That way, they consider their strengths, growth areas, work responsibilities and anything else going on in their lives to create a plan and timeline that feels energizing to execute against. From the manager’s side, support via regular check-ins is key — not just about progress and being available for questions, but also dedicating the time for team members to reflect and share what they are learning. Communicating to team members that mistakes are expected and choosing a part of the assignment to do together is also super helpful!

 

Support via regular check-ins is key — not just about progress and being available for questions, but also dedicating the time for team members to reflect and share what they are learning.”

 

How can managers make sure that they take a thoughtful approach to stretch assignments so that they lead to growth — and not stress — for their assignees?

By nature, stretch assignments challenge employees by placing them in uncomfortable or new situations to learn and grow. So a little stress is to be expected and good! 

A thoughtful approach includes ensuring it is a well-suited development activity for that individual — typically high performers who show potential to drive impact and preparedness for a new role or promotion. It also includes shifting the responsibility of designing the assignment to the team members themselves and aligning the assignment to the team member’s career aspirations, growth areas and business needs.

Additionally, you must define the scope and expected outcomes, breaking it up into smaller pieces and tracking progress along the way. Leverage your performance system or use a shared doc for this. Finally, create accountability and provide support via coaching and feedback at regular check-ins and important checkpoints.

When there is clarity via a plan, alignment to the work, motivation to do the assignment and support from managers, stretch assignments will help employees channel the stress and discomfort of doing something new and challenging to grow.

 

 

George Marica
Technology Director • CSC Corptax

CSC Corptax is a B2B software development company that provides corporate tax departments worldwide with technology-based tax solutions. 

 

Share an example of when you extended a stretch assignment to a direct report. What was the assignment, and how did you know the individual was ready to take it on?

One of my reports took on a stretch assignment to start a new design team. This was not an area he was familiar with, but I knew he was ready because he was doing a great job understanding people and helping to build camaraderie within a team. He was also asking the right questions and showing a willingness to research new information. And as I hoped, he was able to apply these talents in new ways to accomplish the stretch assignment successfully. 

His ability to understand the whole person helped him find the right people. The goal was to assemble a team, find the right people, create a new design process and foster team collaboration. I also tasked him with ensuring documentation was created to ensure future onboarding and knowledge transfer between the other teams.

 

How do you ensure that team members are not overburdened by stretch assignments and are supported throughout its completion?

It’s extremely important to be there for your team members. You don’t need to solve their problem for them, but you should be an available sounding board. Encourage them to talk it out, step back and break the problem into simpler parts. As a leader, it’s crucial to keep a cool head even when it seems like a lot is going on. The best way to deal with that is to step back, take a breath and simplify. Frequent check-ins like one-on-one meetings and an open-door policy ensure your team members can reach you.

 

It’s extremely important to be there for your team members. You don’t need to solve their problem for them, but you should be an available sounding board.”

 

How have stretch assignments paid dividends for team members at your company?

The most important part of a stretch goal is learning and growing. When you give team members difficult tasks, they may have incomplete information or find themselves outside their comfort zones. They will need drive, tenacity and innovation to accomplish the goal. Team members should seek to do what is difficult because even though they may fail, falling short can lead to many learning opportunities. Plus, they will grow from the experience.

If done right, even a failed stretch goal brings value and lessons learned that contribute to the team’s overall growth.

 

 

Holly Gaspari
Director of Technical Operations • Evive

Healthtech company Evive helps employees take full advantage of their benefits through a data-driven platform complete with educational resources and recommendations. 

 

Share an example of when you extended a stretch assignment to a direct report. What was the assignment, and how did you know the individual was ready to take it on?

Throughout my career, I have given many stretch assignments to employees. One that stands out is a team member hired to help project manage client deliverables, who also showed an interest in our technical capabilities that went far beyond the expectations of their role. This included understanding how we received, ingested and reported on data as well as technical configurations like single sign-ons (SSOs). I assigned them the task of setting up an SSO between a client and vendor, including scheduling and leading calls, gathering requirements and submitting them to our engineering teams — all without the benefit of established processes or standard operating procedures! 

I knew this individual was ready for a stretch assignment due to a few factors. First, they excelled at managing their current workload. I never had to remind them to complete tasks within their job description and could depend on them to always hit deadlines. Second, they asked knowledgeable questions about the area of the assignment, demonstrating they had taken an active interest and would be more likely to succeed. And finally, the last was their willingness to learn and put themselves out there to do so.

 

How do you ensure that team members are not overburdened by stretch assignments and are supported throughout its completion? 

It is obviously important that stretch assignments be given when there is capacity, so making sure the team member has the time and bandwidth is key. Outside of that, I find it helpful to do a couple of different things to support them. I will work closely with any outside team members that might be involved in the project — such as the project manager or mentor — and make sure that my team members are attending and participating in meetings, milestones are being met and that they remain engaged in the overall project. I will also carve out roughly 15 minutes of every other one-on-one meeting we have to check in on project progress, ask questions and see how I can help with any roadblocks that have popped up. Providing these opportunities isn’t just about handing them out and waiting for the project to get done. Checking in and actively helping when needed shows your support as their manager and will make sure the project gets completed successfully.

 

Checking in and actively helping when needed shows your support as their manager and will make sure the project gets completed successfully.”

 

How have stretch assignments paid dividends for team members at your company?

The career growth of everyone on my team is a high priority for me. This means I am always trying to carve out time in our regular check-ins to ask about different areas of interest a team member may have. I find that if the stretch assignment aligns with the interests of the team member, they are not only more likely to succeed but be engaged and enjoy the additional workload. I take an active interest, whether I am the one managing the project or not, so I can lend my advice or support along the way. A large aspect of this support is helping to manage priorities, so no one is feeling overwhelmed or stressed, while also ensuring that day-to-day tasks and tasks related to other projects are still on target.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images provided by Shutterstock and listed companies

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