The stretch assignment continues to be one of the best employee development tools every manager has at his/her disposal. When done correctly these assignments serve a dual purpose of providing learning opportunities for your people, while at the same time completing a project or task that will help the organization. The best part of developmental stretch assignments is that they are available as an option for each and every employee who reports to you.
I’ve had many stretch assignments during my career. Some have been long term assignments leading strategic initiatives, and others have been short term in nature. The one that stands out to me was only about 4 days in length, but it met the criteria of a stretch assignment, and I gained crucial experience that helped me progress in my career. It happened early in my tenure as a consultant. My boss at the time asked me to prepare for and facilitate an important meeting with a group of physicians and scientists at Pfizer in New York City. The assignment moved me out of my comfort zone. Although I was experienced at facilitating training programs where the content was set and there was plenty of time to rehearse and polish my presentation, this was to be the first time facilitating with a high profile group where there was no script or path to follow. I had to think on my feet, go with the flow, and manage the group and meeting so that everything worked the way it was supposed to.
Because my manager knew my capabilities, and believed I could handle an assignment outside that comfort zone, I was able to acquire a new set of skills that would be used for years to come. In addition, it served as an assignment that motivated me to do my best work going forward.
Here are three reasons you should consider stretch assignments as a way to develop your people:
1. It’s a low-cost development activity – The first thing many managers think about when it comes to employee development is training. Even if the training is effective, there is a cost involved in sending an employee (or many employees) to a training class. Stretch assignments can often be done in conjunction of the employee’s regular work.
2. It’s an effective retention strategy – Many people have reported that participating in a stretch assignment has helped them to feel more valued as an employee. When employees feel valued, they tend to work harder and become more engaged with your organization.
3. It helps you get important work done – Managers often talk about the fact that there is more work to do than people to accomplish it. Using a stretch assignment as a strategy to accomplish an important task or project will help you meet that goal and give someone the opportunity to play a lead role in its completion. Rarely will an employee complain about being given an assignment that challenges them and allows them to have some additional visibility in the company.
Even though some managers still shy away from the stretch assignment for a variety of reasons, the main one being that it requires the manager to really understand the strengths and interests of each person in the work group and then work to identify which assignments are a good fit, it remains one of the best development options available.
What’s the best stretch assignment you’ve had during your career? Tell us about it.
Tim Sieck
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