If You’re Not Seizing Stretch Assignments at Work, You’re Doing It Wrong
These bonus opportunities have the power to boost your leadership cred and wholly transform your career. Here’s how to successfully take advantage of them without burning out.
There’s mounting evidence to confirm the career-transforming power of stretch opportunities—those projects outside your traditional line of work that allow you to put your potential to the test, learn, and prove your capabilities.
Though stretch assignments might seem like a way for you to do more work without any recognition, when sought out and seized correctly a stretch assignment could be what’s standing between you, a promotion and, ultimately, the career development and recognition you deserve.
A Stretch Assignment Pays Off
Philly-based legal executive Amanda Bruno would be the first to admit that she wasn’t always purposeful about taking career risks. Now a chief business development officer with one of the largest U.S. law firms, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, Bruno says a career-defining defining moment arose when she was asked by the firm chair to launch a firmwide, first-of-its kind initiative.
The assignment involved developing and launching a client service program that would be rolled out to the firm’s advisory board just four months later, with plans to take it to all personnel.
“I had never done anything of this scope – let alone within this timeframe and with no dedicated team. With so much on the line, I knew this was an amazing opportunity. And I was up for the challenge,” said Bruno.
In that moment, though she was feeling somewhat nervous, Bruno had the self-awareness to realize, “I think I have good instincts. If I put in the work and keep pushing it along, I’ll be able to create the program, and it will probably be well received.”
Bruno accepted the assignment, and the experiences and exposure that came with it changed everything. “Our program received a 96 percent positive feedback rating from personnel and has been a finalist for multiple external awards.”
Bruno’s career felt the impact too. She says she gained a reputation as a “change agent.” She was named director of client service, then subsequently chief business development officer.
Stretch assignments like Bruno’s are the ultimate “two-fer” for employers and employees. Companies like stretch assignments because they’re inexpensive and low-risk proving grounds for developing talent. Employees like stretch assignments because of their capacity to help a person quickly “upskill.” They can also help an individual rebrand how they’re known—broadening one’s visibility and delivering access to new people, products or divisions.
How to Successfully Execute a “Stretch”
Executive search firm Egon Zehnder’s survey of 823 international executives found that 71 percent of senior leaders identified stretch assignments as the biggest career enabler in unleashing their potential. Another report by Korn Ferry named rotational or stretch assignments as the single most valuable developmental experience – beating out mentoring, classroom training, 360° assessments and even exposure to senior leaders.
Given that women are less likely to receive these opportunities than men, we at Be Leaderly launched a study of 1,500 professionals to uncover the following: Do men and women differ in their perceptions of the enablers and roadblocks that come with taking on a “stretch”? And what factors motivate someone to say “Yes” to a stretch?
The professionals we surveyed concluded that executing a stretch assignment well is anything but simple or easy, and gave us detailed insights into the criteria they consider before accepting one. If owning a high-profile initiative like Bruno’s excites you, seize your own assignment and use these four strategies to execute it like a rock star.
- Define Your Direction: What if you’re not aware of any exciting, ready-to-launch stretch assignments? Reflect on your career goals, and scan your organization’s landscape for gaps, problems, and business opportunities that would be a good match for you. Once you have ideas, back them with evidence, proposing them to management with the same attention and care you’d give a VIP project. If you’re a woman, try not to “round down,” or understate your qualifications when deciding if you’re ready for an assignment, but rather “round up.”
- Negotiate for Your Success: Before taking on a new stretch, ask to fully understand the career benefits and options that might open up – even the financial incentives. Be unafraid to ask, “If I do an excellent job on this project, what can I expect as a result?” While you’re at it, negotiate the authority, resources and support you need to be successful. The last type of project you want to accept is one that is politically, positionally or otherwise doomed.
- Over-Deliver: If you’re selected for a special assignment, it means someone vouched for you and put their reputation on the line to advocate for you. This person, along with your organization, is invested in your success and will be watching to see how you perform. Rather than aiming to merely satisfy a project goal or stakeholder, find a way to deliver something that’s truly memorable and extraordinary.
- Translate the Experience and Promote Your Success: One complaint we hear from bosses is that it’s not always easy to see how a worker’s stretch assignment translates back to their job. Avoid this perception by developing a list of tangible, transferable skills you learned; articulate to your manager three actions you’ll take based on what you learned while “on assignment.” Spotlight your learning by ‘storytelling your stretch assignment,’ so it has a beginning, middle and end that illustrates the initial problem, some key context, and your solution.
Selena is a VP at Be Leaderly, where she teaches women at all levels to self-advocate and negotiate like a boss. She also consults to employers on how to make work truly “work” for women – by architecting workplace assessments and culture change. She’s the author of Pushback: How Smart Women Ask—and Stand Up—for What They Want and is based in Philadelphia. Follow her @SelenaRezvani.