There are many ways for employees to develop. Training, mentoring, and attending industry conferences all make their way to individual’s development plans. Nothing compares, however, to the role experience plays in the development of individual capability. Stretch assignments play a big part in whether those experiences are effective.
The key to finding the best stretch assignment for developmental purposes is to identify tasks or projects that fit with the talents and aspirations of the individual, but the greatest success happens when the individual brings a passion for the work to the assignment.
Individual genius is a concept that helps define the unique differentiator we all have when it comes to our work and career. Your genius is what comes from taking your skills, knowledge, and abilities, and then adding to that, your passions and interests. This powerful combination is what sets you apart from all the other people you work with.
The concept is easy to see with the artists and athletes who are labeled as gifted. Take for example, a young person taking piano lessons. Piano boiled down to it’s simplest components is a mechanical process. If you learn to read music, know which keys correspond to which notes, and can understand the timing of those notes, you can make music. That’s the knowledge, skill, and ability part of the process. What makes one student outshine another, is the passion they add to those skills. Some students can’t wait to sit at the piano and practice and play. Others will put in the work required to learn the task because their parents say so, and no more. The more passion is put into practice, the faster the learning progresses, the more difficult the pieces become that are mastered, and all of a sudden people are sitting up and taking notice.
— CFOX (@CFOXvan) August 23, 2016
The Managers Role in Stretch Assignments
Using the piano analogy above, we can think about employees and how to think about the stretch assignments as a development tool. It starts with regular and ongoing conversations with your employees about their development. Part of these discussions should be focused on those individual genius components. You, as the manager, should have a good idea of what the skills and abilities are of each of your people. After all, you are working with them closely on a day to day basis and their talents should be apparent. The passion or interest part is more difficult to “see”. This requires a dialog about the types of things that pique the interest of your people. What do they read about on a regular basis? What types of podcasts are they listening to? What do they do on the weekends when the demands of work aren’t weighing on them.
Once you have a a good grasp of what your people are good at and what they are interested in, it becomes much easier to find a stretch assignment that will help to develop them. This starts with a scan of the organizational objectives or needs. If you look around even a little bit, you’ll find many challenges that need to be tackled in order to move the business forward. Armed with this list, it’s a matter of matching the needs with the person who has the skills to tackle the project.
The last step comes when you add the fuel of passion to the assignment. Let’s say one of the tasks you have uncovered is to create a sales presentation for a big client meeting. You might have someone on your team who can do the research necessary to identify the critical needs of the prospect and put the presentation slides together (skills and ability). Now imagine, you have two people who can do that, but in a recent conversation, you discovered that one of those people has recently been taking art classes and specifically digital design (passion). This individual not only does the research and puts the presentation together, but also includes a custom infographic about the customer’s business environment and the client is so impressed you win the business on the spot. It’s a win for everyone involved.
It takes some work, mostly in the form of conversation, to keep track of the abilities and passions of your team. The benefit of doing so will far outweigh any time spent doing this. The more you identify and work to delegate these stretch assignments that engage the interests of your people, you’re retention and engagement will increase dramatically.