Want to Reinvent Yourself in 2019? A Stretch Assignment May Be the Answer

Young woman jumping gleefully with an umbrella against a bright yellow wall. Photo by Edu Lauton.We’ve all had those stalled career moments. Maybe you’re feeling like you’re not progressing. Perhaps you’re not challenged enough by your work. Maybe it feels like you’ve maximized the opportunities available to you. Whatever the case, a stretch opportunity may be just the antidote to reignite your career and uncover a bigger, bolder vision of yourself. A stretch assignment is a trial project or new experience that helps prepare a professional for future roles. Stretch assignments can last a matter of days, or extend for months or through multiple phases. Some are part-time projects performed in addition to an existing workload. Others require temporarily stepping away from regular duties to devote attention to the assignment full time.

Mounting evidence confirms the unique power of stretch opportunities to transform professionals into leaders. 71% of senior leaders identified stretch assignments as their biggest career enabler. Other research identified the most valuable developmental experience is rotational or stretch assignments. Stretch assignments - which are essentially tryouts - not only offer visibility and exposure, but allow learners to shape how they are known. A stretch assignment might include turning around a failed product, convening a task force to solve a tough problem, or moving a manual process to an automated one.

While stretch assignments can lead to meaningful results for individuals and organizations, they’re relatively under discussed and not well understood. That’s what led Jo Miller and I to conduct original research on stretch assignments, providing new insight into how people size up stretch assignments - and why it matters. For example, women have the same aspirations as men to reach top level roles, yet women are more likely to report that their organization's criteria for advancement is unclear.

 We all want the personal influence to effect a meaningful change, yet strategies for succeeding at stretch opportunities have been murky. What should you keep in mind as you take on new assignments outside of your comfort zone?                                                          

  1. Don’t be afraid to take a risk. Stretch assignments come with trade offs. It can be risky to commit to high-stakes, highly visible work that adds to your workload. But consider the upside: the chance to develop new skills, discover new strengths, build influential networks and make a meaningful contribution to your organization. Stretch opportunities are proven shortcuts to advancement. Don’t underestimate their career-making potential.


  1. Define your direction. The ideal stretch goal fuels your passions, plays to your strengths, and helps you make an impact. Reflect on your career goals, and scan your organization’s landscape for gaps, problems and business opportunities that would be a good match for new challenges you’d like to take on. Once you have ideas, find evidence to support why they would be helpful. Propose them to your management in a way that helps them see what’s needed and why you’re excited about the part you could play.


  1. Make informed decisions and negotiate for what you need to be successful. Before taking on a new stretch assignment, get as many details as possible about the opportunity, including compensation, recognition and career options that a stretch might lead to. Before agreeing to or starting a new role or assignment, negotiate the authority, resources and support you think you’ll need to be successful. Line up mentors and influential allies to help you navigate office politics. Don’t be afraid to ask, “If I do an excellent job on this project, what can I expect as a result?”


  1. Go after a project no one wants. Sure, everyone wants the stretch assignment associated with the shiny, cutting-edge trend or cool new client. But what about the assignment that makes people uncomfortable or nervous? The person who raises their hand for riskier stretches shows unique confidence in their abilities and commitment to their organization. Although management may have lower expectations for these assignments, such opportunities can be proving grounds for problem-solvers, change agents and fledgling leaders.A lone coffee cup with "Begin." Written on it. Photo by Danielle MacInnes


  1. Embrace a beginner’s mindset. Often, when we leave the comfort and safety of a role in which we’ve become an expert we are quick to judge the gaps in our knowledge of a new role or field, stymieing what we can learn. Rather than avoiding the vulnerability of being a novice, lean in to your newcomer status. Bring raw enthusiasm, be openly inquisitive, probe for the issue behind the issue and become a student of the problem you’re solving.


  1. Translate the experience. Stretch assignments can be stepping stones to your next career milestone, so it helps to be clear on what you have gained from an assignment. Be able to articulate three actions you can take in your current role based on what you learned while you were “on assignment.” Such actions could be possible because you developed new technical skills, guided a group through a complex change, or strengthened a historically problematic relationship.


  1. Over-deliver. If you are selected for a special assignment, it means someone vouched for you and put their reputation on the line to advocate for you. This person and your organization are invested in your success and will be watching how you perform. Rather than aiming to merely satisfy a project goal or stakeholder, find a way to deliver something memorable or extraordinary.


  1. Spotlight what you accomplish. Even the most brilliantly executed stretch assignment won’t mean much if no one knows about it. In your pre-deal negotiation, request that your stretch assignment be marketed internally. For example, ask that it serve as a best practice story and be shared on appropriate company channels, whether that’s via an internal newsletter, social networks or even in a brown bag information session.


By putting these strategies into place, you can not only deliver on a stretch assignment (and then some), but can permanently change how people think of you and your capabilities. In the words of IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, “I learned to always take on things I’d never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist.”

Have you recently completed a stretch assignment or are you looking to start one? Reply below to comment and share your experiences.

Contributing Editors Credit: Chelsea McGovern