Want to uncover a bigger, bolder vision for your career than you can imagine today? Try taking on a stretch assignment — a project that can’t be completed using your current expertise.
A stretch opportunity could be a temporary assignment or project that you oversee for a few weeks or a few months. Or it could be taking on a new, permanent role that increases your scope.
Examples of stretch assignments include:
- Delivering a presentation to a VIP client
- Structuring and communicating a rollout for a key change
- Leading the implementation of new tools to replace manual processes
- Convening or serving on a task force created to solve a difficult problem
- Relaunching an internal initiative that previously failed
- Performing data analysis to find business efficiencies
- Turning around a failing product or launching a new product
When you take on such an assignment, you’ll be compelled to develop new technical, business or leadership skills. As you engage in the process, you’ll build relationships with new stakeholders, and increase your visibility and your chances of earning a promotion or raise.
Why Stretch Opportunities Can Be Career-making
“There’s now towering evidence to confirm the career-transforming power of stretch roles and stretch assignments,” says Jo Miller, CEO of Be Leaderly, a firm dedicated to helping organizations develop a pipeline of qualified and engaged emerging women leaders.
According to McKinsey & Company, people who get advice from managers about how to advance — and who then land stretch assignments — are more likely to to receive raises. Similar research from Korn Ferry names stretch or rotational assignments as the most valuable experiences for career development, ahead of action learning, mentoring, relationships, 360-degree assessments, exposure to more senior leaders and formal classroom training.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that stretch assignments provide so many benefits to individuals’ careers, men and women are not on a level playing field when it comes to those opportunities.
Women More Likely to Feel Unsure About Whether They’re Ready
Recently, Be Leaderly conducted a study on workers’ attitudes and experiences around stretch assignments. They found that both men and women have similar ambitions: both genders are equally interested in being promoted into director or vice president positions and ultimately advancing into C-suite roles.
Yet, most women don’t feel their employers make it easy to gauge if they are ready for a promotion, while most men think their employers help them to know whether they are prepared to advance.
Additionally, when women assess how ready they are for a new job, they are less likely than men to overestimate or “round up” their skills, and more likely to underestimate or “round down” what they know or can do.
What might account for these differences between male and female professionals?
Selena Rezvani — VP of Research at Be Leaderly and co-author of this report — suggests that “women may be more sensitive than men to social cues signaling readiness to advance. [So] when stretch opportunities are unclear, unadvertised, and unevenly offered, it makes women hesitate even more to pursue them.”Most women don’t feel their employers make it easy to gauge if they are ready for a promotion, while most men think their employers help them to know whether they are prepared to advance.Click To Tweet
How Men Versus Women Evaluate Stretch Opportunities
For both genders, the top criteria for deciding whether to take a stretch assignment are having the influence to create a positive outcome, and getting an assignment that lines with their career goals. Yet, men are 3.5 times more likely than women to cite pay as an important factor in evaluating the appeal of a new assignment, job or level!
9 Ways to Make the Most Out of Stretch Opportunities
How can you make the most of stretch opportunities at your organization, knowing that your organization might not advertise these assignments or provide clear clues as to how ready you are? Below are some key tips from some experts in the leadership development space, including the authors of Be Leaderly’s report on stretch assignments and others.
1. Chart Your course
If you understand your passions, innate strengths and the direction you want to take your career, it will be much easier to identify the stretches that make sense for you. What types of work do you naturally feel passionate about or gravitate toward? Look beyond your immediately role and identify those unmet needs in your organization that you have an interest in solving. Once you have ideas, find evidence to support why they would be helpful. Discuss your proposal with management and share why you’re excited about the part you could play.
2. Gather Your Own Data to Assess Your Readiness
Be proactive in assessing your own readiness to advance. Seek out clear, frequent feedback on your work — both formal and informal — that is tied to business outcomes. For example, send a survey to those who work with you and ask them for their perspective for your strengths and how you show up at work. Include questions to help you understand how others see you, such as “What three to five words would you use to describe me?”, “What’s a success or a big win I had in the last six months?”, and “What one adjustment would you encourage me to make?”.
And here’s another important piece of advice from Selena: “If you’re a woman, aim to round up rather than round down your qualifications when deciding if you’ve got enough to go after a certain role or assignment.”
3. Trust in What You Already Know and Bring It Forth
You may have a hard time “rounding up” your qualifications because you feel that you haven’t learned enough or don’t know enough to tackle a new challenge. Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big and career coach to emerging women leaders, identified this as an issue for many of her female coaching clients. She believes that the reason women and men feel this way is because our experience in schools have taught us to value external knowledge over our own lived experiences and judgment.
Tara, in her book, points that in many schools, the dominant activity is absorbing information from the outside — whether from a book, a teacher’s lecture or the internet — and then internalizing it.
In school, most assignments follow this pattern: 1) do the readings/research, 2) absorb the information, 3) apply it through writing a paper/report/making a presentation. The message is that the value we have to contribute on a topic comes from information absorbed from an external source — from teachers, homework reading and research.
When we carry this sort of conditioning into our professional lives, we are led to believe that we need another qualification, degree or certificate before we can tackle a stretch assignment. But to reach our full potential, we must start to value who we are as much as what we know.
“Playing big often requires assessing what we already know, trusting its value and bringing it forth. This is particularly true as women advance to senior levels in their careers, where they need to be the source of ideas and of thought leadership,” says Tara.
4. Identify your champions and talk to them about your career goals
In addition to your manager, there are others in your organization who could become champions for you and refer you opportunities you may not be aware of. This group includes your manager’s manager, more senior colleagues from groups/teams you work with and staff from your HR team. Build relationships with these people, make sure they know your work and what you aspire to do. When they have this knowledge, they’re likely to have you in mind when an opportunity opens up.
5. Make informed decisions and ask for what you need to be successful
Don’t agree to do the extra work without the extra pay. Remember, men are 3.5 times as likely than women to cite pay as an important factor in evaluating the appeal of a new assignment, job or level.
Gather the details on what the new opportunity entails, including compensation, recognition and career options that a stretch might lead to. “Don’t be afraid to ask, ‘If I do an excellent job on this project, what can I expect as a result?” says Jo and Selena in their report.
Also, make sure you negotiate for what you need — resources, authority and support — to be successful in the role.
6. Take a Project No One Wants
Some projects are shiny, cool and trendy (e.g. working with a hip new client). But what about the riskier assignments no one else wants? When you raise your hand for the assignment that makes others nervous or uncomfortable, it demonstrates your confidence in your abilities and commitment to your organization. These projects can give you the opportunity to prove yourself as a problem-solver, change agent or emerging leader.
7. Focus on Learning as Much as the Outcome
Don’t be quick to judge the gaps in your knowledge when you take on a new role or project. Embrace your newcomer status and find joy in your learning process. Think of yourself as a student of the problem you’re solving.
8. Translate the experience and spotlight what you accomplish
Did your new assignment help you develop new technical skills? Did you learn a better way of working with a group? Document your learnings so others know what you have gained from an assignment. Identify at least three actions you can take in your current role based on what you learned.
9. Market what you accomplish
Even if you knocked the project out of the park, it won’t mean much if no one knows what you’ve accomplished. “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 it’s via an internal newsletter, social network, or even in a brown-bag information session,” suggests Jo and Selena.
Tell Us What You Think
Have you taken on a stretch assignment recently? We want to hear from you. Share your results in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.