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Stretch Assignments: What Are They and Is Your Employee Ready For One?

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Stretch assignments are a cornerstone of a strong employee development plan. A statement that is backed by a number of research studies. In one conducted by the Harvard Business Review of 823 executives, it was found that 71% of respondents said stretch assignments had the biggest impact on unleashing their potential. In another, this one conducted by Korn Ferry , stretch assignments were named the most valuable developmental experience, ahead of things like mentoring, classroom training, 360-degree assessments, and even exposure to senior leaders.

An intentional and strategic stretch assignment can go a long way in accelerating an employee’s development or supporting the trajectory of their career at your organization, though their success relies heavily on the one assigning the task - their leader.

In the following article, you will learn more about what stretch assignments are, what they are not, how to tell when an employee is ready for one, and more. Let’s begin.

What are Stretch Assignments?

While there are countless ways to define a stretch assignment, the following definition from BeLeaderly perfectly sums it up for the purposes of this article: “Stretch assignments are temporary, internal learning gigs that simultaneously offer an employee a chance to develop new skills while helping the organization solve a real business problem.”

Most commonly, stretch assignments are implemented to prepare an employee for an upcoming promotion, engage a high-performing employee, encourage skill development, or evaluate an employee’s level of interest or aptitude for another role.

As the name implies, stretch assignments mean they “stretch” or challenge an employee to think and act outside their comfort zone or day-to-day job. But what exactly makes a stretch assignment challenging ?

  • It presents employees with an unfamiliar challenge
  • It challenges an employee to create change
  • It gives an employee a high level of responsibility
  • It challenges an employee to work cross-functionally

At this point, it is important to define what stretch assignments are not. Stretch assignments are not a chance for you to hand off work you do not want to do. They should also not be what Korn Ferry calls “glass-cliff projects.” According to them, “stretch assignments and glass-cliff projects both involve some risk and often include crisis situations, but one is about building your skills and the other is about proving your worth, despite your many successes. One is encouraging; the other is an affront.”

Are you struggling to decide what to delegate and whom to delegate to? If so,  this guide will help!

4 Signs Your Employee Is Ready For a Stretch Assignment

Of course, there is a fine line between “stretching” or challenging an employee and overwhelming them. To help you distinguish if an employee is ready for and can handle a stretch assignment or not, here are a few key things to consider: 

  • Their Track Record An employee who is ready for a stretch assignment and can handle it will not only have a history of successful projects and good performance, but will have a track record of asking for help when they need it, respecting boundaries, proactively seeking learning opportunities, and taking accountability for their actions (whether good or bad). These behaviors show a level of discretion that is imperative to the success of a stretch assignment, where an employee is outside of their comfort zone.
  • Their Engagement According to Gallup , “engaged employees are highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. They are psychological ‘owners,’ drive high performance and innovation, and move the organization forward.” Whereas, “actively disengaged employees aren't just unhappy at work - they are resentful that their needs aren't being met and are acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers potentially undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.” Fortunately, stretch assignments are an ideal chance to further engage already engaged employees and those bordering on disengaged. You should be quite certain that the individual you will give the assignment to will see it as a positive opportunity and be willing to do their best work, not just because they have to, but because they want to.

An employee who has been given a stretch assignment is going to need your support more so than they would for their everyday job. Therefore, before you give a stretch assignment, be sure you have the availability and capacity to proactively support your employee from start to finish. 

  • Your Relationship Given the nature of stretch assignments, there is always a risk of failure and for some employees, failure is hard to handle even if it is a valuable learning experience. That is why it is so important to have a relationship built on trust before delegating a stretch assignment. Your employee needs to feel comfortable sharing their challenges and questions without fear of judgment, or else they might try to “go at it alone,” which is ultimately where people get themselves into trouble.

2 Major Things to Be Aware of With Stretch Assignments

  • Stretch Assignments Should Not Impede An Employee’s Day-to-Day Job As a leader, you need to closely monitor the progress of a stretch assignment, the well-being of your employee, and the health of their day-to-day roles and responsibilities. If your employee is suddenly working an exorbitant amount or is showing signs of burnout , then you need to be prepared to step in. While the stretch assignment is important, it should not put your employee's core roles and responsibilities , not to mention their wellbeing, at risk. If this becomes an issue, use it as a learning opportunity to help the employee identify their signs of burnout and set boundaries .
  • Stretch Assignments Need to be Fairly Distributed The unfortunate reality is stretch assignments are not always fairly distributed and accessible to all employees. This was highlighted in a study from BeLeaderly , which found that “women are less likely than men to receive challenging stretch assignments.” The report noted that “when stretch assignments are unclear, unadvertised, and unevenly offered, it makes women hesitate even more to pursue them. On the other hand, taking an open, equitable approach to stretch opportunities can create a thriving internal gig economy - one that’s accessible to all. This not only helps employees advance in the short term, but it can also set the course for diversifying, and therefore strengthening, your leadership ranks in the long term.” So, how can you ensure the distribution of stretch assignments is fair? According to a report by Catalyst , they recommend leaders link the distribution of stretch assignments to performance reviews, review the allocation of stretch assignments to ensure equitable distribution among women and equity-seeking groups, as well as consider providing new hires with a stretch assignment or assigning new hires to a team working on a stretch assignment. 

Employees who are given a stretch assignment will require more support, guidance, and encouragement than an average employee. Though the effort is well worth it as stretch assignments contribute to employee engagement, morale, satisfaction, productivity, and success, which in turn contributes to your success as their leader. It’s a win-win!

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Stretch Assignments that Develop Strategic, Interpersonal, and Personal Skills

meaning of stretch assignments

Given that most development occurs through experience (McCall, Lombardo, & Morrison, 1988), stretch assignments can provide a great vehicle for driving employee learning and/or leadership development. Stretch assignments are essentially short-term projects or assignments that provide unique and challenging experiences for the purpose of developing employee/leader skills and abilities. Although the use of on-the-job development is clearly on the rise, it is often applied without consideration of the necessary planning and support mechanisms.

The first thing to keep in mind if you’re thinking about leveraging stretch assignments for developmental purposes is the common-sense notion that different stretch assignments develop different abilities (e.g., public speaking skills cannot be developed through writing policy statements or crunching numbers). Because of this, it is important to first identify the specific skill(s) to be developed. Once you have a list of skills, the next step is to identify the available assignments that provide relevant exposure. This article will help you with this first critical stage of using stretch assignments – that is, thinking about competencies and identifying assignments. Below is a list of stretch assignments that have been shown to develop competence in the following three areas: strategic skills, interpersonal skills, or personal effectiveness.

If you would like to share this list, check out our reference guide which contains the same information in a PDF format.

Strategic Skills

These assignments will help develop competencies related to expanding one’s awareness of organizational functions and strategy ( e.g., coping with ambiguous situations, gaining a strategic perspective, influencing others, working with customers, problem solving )

  • Spend 3 days with clients and report back (presentation or written report)
  • Conduct a customer-needs analysis
  • Write a policy statement
  • Interview external stakeholders about their opinions of the organization
  • Analyze and compare a competitor’s product or service
  • Put together a presentation for a senior employee (i.e., supervisor or manager)
  • Evaluate a training program
  • Join a cross-functional team
  • Join work on a project that has been unsuccessful
  • Put together a task-force to solve a tough problem
  • Monitor a new product or service through its entire life cycle

Interpersonal Skills

These will help develop competencies that increase one’s effectiveness to work with and manage other employees or teams ( e.g., communication, listening, managing conflict, managing relationships, teamwork, negotiation, trust, approachability, delegation, leadership )

  • Lead a team meeting
  • Become a mentor to a new employee
  • Train a new employee in a particular skill
  • Represent team concerns to supervisor
  • Join a team that’s dealing with conflict
  • Negotiate a new customer contract
  • Take responsibility in resolving a team conflict
  • Troubleshoot a performance issue
  • Become a campus recruiter
  • Interview customers and report back
  • Work with a peer on a developmental opportunity
  • Delegate 2 tasks to a peer and ask him/her to delegate 2 to you

Personal Effectiveness

These are oriented around competencies most closely related to your performance and personal development ( e.g., organizing, planning, intellectual acumen, creativity, composure, time management, work/life balance, decision quality, customer service )

  • Help launch a new product or service
  • Re-launch a product or service that previously failed
  • Learn a new tool, process, or approach and give a presentation on it
  • Work with someone from another department on a tough issue
  • Handle a difficult negotiation with an internal or external client
  • Take on a project that others have failed in
  • Write a press release
  • Teach a seminar on an unfamiliar topic
  • Create a customer satisfaction survey
  • Take on a task that you do not like to do
  • Take on an employee’s tasks who is on vacation
  • Conduct interviews with employees on their work/life balance experience & present findings

Note: This list is informed by research presented in Lombardo & Eichinger’s (1989) book entitled “Eighty-eight assignments for development in place,” and Yost & Plunkett’s (2009) book entitled “Real time leadership development.” I highly recommend both books as resources for any organization that currently applies stretch assignments or plans to in the future.

Going Forward…

Going forward, keep in mind that this is only a single piece in effective use of stretch assignments for developmental purposes. There are a number of mechanisms that are critical for actually translating experience into learning and development. Employees who will be given stretch assignments need the active support ant participation of their supervisor before, during, and after:

  • Before – to meet with the employee and discuss what skills to develop, then chose a stretch assignment and identify learning goals
  • During – to give immediate feedback, support and encouragement, and provide access to resources (e.g., time to participate in assignments, introductions to other people who can provide guidance)
  • After – to reflect and debrief on what was learned during the assignment and how that can be applied to their current job or future development

Happy Development!

– Scontrino-Powell

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Use Stretch Assignments to Get a Raise, a Promotion and Anything Else You Want at Work

stretch assignments

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.

stretch assignments

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.

meaning of stretch assignments

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.

meaning of stretch assignments

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.”

[click_to_tweet tweet=”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.” quote=”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.”]

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 aligns 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 immediate 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

stretch assignments

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 .

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meaning of stretch assignments

I’m a well-regarded planning technician in the Community Development Department of a mid-sized city.  I’ve been in my current position for three years and have mastered most of the technical aspects of my job.  I want to move up in my department but need exposure to other elements of planning, building, and development services, plus the opportunity to develop new knowledge and skills.

I believe that I have good potential, but I worry that others don’t see what I have to offer beyond my current position. 

So, how do I start?   Should I take some courses and workshops?  What do you suggest?

The fundamental question is, how do you accelerate your development.  The best way to accelerate your growth and development is through a series of stretching job assignments coupled with helpful and candid feedback or coaching.

What is a “stretch” assignment?

A University of Michigan School of Medicine paper provided the following definition:

“A stretch assignment is a project or task given to an employee which is beyond their current knowledge or skills level in order to ‘stretch’ the employee developmentally.  The stretch assignment challenges employees by placing them into uncomfortable situations in order that they learn and grow.”

What are the benefits of stretch assignments?

For employees, a successful stretch experience can

  • Help you develop new technical and/or “soft” leadership skills.
  • Provide new knowledge.
  • Expose you to other areas of the department or other city services.
  • Develop new relationships with internal and external stakeholders.
  • Reshape other people’s perceptions of your capabilities.

For the organization, stretch assignments offer many benefits as well.  They provide

  • Low-cost employee development. Stretch assignments cost little.
  • Leadership “try-outs.” Special projects or team assignments can try out emerging leaders as formal or informal leaders.
  • Succession development. Since a wave of baby-boomer professionals and managers are retiring from local government, organizations can’t wait for people to develop. We need to accelerate development now and identify possible successors.

What are some examples of stretch projects?

As a plan checker in the Community Development Department, a stretch assignment for you could be any of the following

  • Participating in a department budget team.
  • Researching new “green” development practices.
  • Serving on a multidepartment team to develop a specific plan for a new growth area in the city.
  • Evaluating with other staff members potential vendors of new software that tracks development applications and activities.
  • Leading a small workgroup to identify best practices and make recommendations for a telework program or alternative work schedules for department staff.

What do I need to know about stretch opportunities?

Learn through doing. Both managers and their direct reports often believe that the best way to learn is to attend a workshop or class.  A seminar or class is an excellent way to develop a conceptual framework about new behavior, but it doesn’t create new behavior.  Only if you apply the material to your work does new behavior or authentic learning emerge.

Adults (as well as children) learn best through doing. A stretching job assignment immediately exposes you to new areas of knowledge and produces opportunities to learn new skills.  These kinds of special projects or team assignments accelerate your development if they are paired with feedback and coaching.  Constructive feedback helps you acknowledge mistakes or missteps and learn from them.

Seek the “sweet spot” of learning. When discussing a potential stretch assignment with your boss or others, seek the “sweet spot” of learning and development.  The sweet spot is when you have a 50-70% chance of success.  If your chance of success is only 40%, the project will tend to overwhelm you, and it will be too stressful.  With a 90% chance of success, the stretch project will be too easy, and you won’t learn anything new.

If a stretch assignment is in your sweet spot, you will be uncomfortable but not too uncomfortable.  Learning happens when you are uncomfortable but not overwhelmed or distressed.

Understand the ideal mix of development. The ideal mix of development is 70/20/10: 70% of your development activities should be learning through doing; 20% of your development should be getting coaching; and 10% should be classroom training or education.

Ensure adequate support. Before accepting a stretch assignment, you must ensure you have adequate support.  Adequate support comes in many varieties:

  • Management support, such as the community development director communicating to department staff the importance of the project.
  • Sufficient time for work on the project (this is a critical area of support).
  • Any budget monies needed for the project.
  • A good mix of people on your team if the project involves a workgroup.
  • Someone in management who can help you overcome any obstacles that arise or otherwise provide guidance and feedback.
  • Adequate decision-making authority within certain “guide-rails.”

Assuming you are offered a special project, you should negotiate adequate support before embarking on the project.

Ask key questions!  In her article " 15 Questions To Ask Before Accepting A Stretch Assignment " (Forbes. March 14, 2019) Jo Miller identified several themes, which include

Support from the top:  Always ensure that expectations are agreed on, and you have support from leadership. 

Work-life balance:  Work-life balance is important, especially in a career like local government that often requires after-hours investment of time. 

Is this something new?  When you take a stretch assignment, it's important that you stretch! If you're just adding more work of a similar level to your task list, that's only making more work. Make sure you're using new or different skills, or skills you want to brush up on, are meeting different people, or advancing the organization's goals beyond your usual scope. 

Keep one eye on the way forward:  If you set yourself up for success by answering all the questions in Jo's article, these assignments will be career-building. But, always ask if the investment if time will deliver a return, or otherwise "open more doors" in the paths ahead.

How do I secure a stretch assignment?

While your manager or another manager may approach you with a stretch project, don’t wait for someone to offer you the opportunity.  You must take charge of your own learning and career development.

Be on the lookout for opportunities

To seek out a stretch project, you must first ensure that you continue to handle your current job responsibilities successfully.  You won’t get new opportunities unless you are seen as a good performer in your current position.

Second, you must be on the lookout for new projects (and ask your colleagues to also be on the lookout for you).  Know the kinds of new challenges facing the city council, city manager, and the community development director, and keep your ears open for opportunities to participate as new initiatives begin to emerge.

Third, make it known that you’d like a stretch opportunity.  Have a development conversation with your supervisor and/or manager or other key managers inside and outside your department.  In a development conversation, you can discuss your career aspirations, new areas of knowledge or skills that you desire, new stretch assignments that may accelerate your development, and any support you may need.

Through these formal or informal development conversations, you want to “hook” the supervisor or manager on your development as an active supporter.  As part of the discussion, you should ask the manager to let you know of any new project opportunities.

Depending on your relationship, ask for the manager to “sponsor” or recommend you for the new team or project.

Ensure 2 + 1

To provide feedback as well as help in securing stretch opportunities, you must have support, especially from a formal or informal coach.

You should go beyond your immediate supervisor or manager who may serve as a coach.  The minimum number of coaches is 2 + 1.

For adequate coaching support, you need a formal or informal coach in your department who knows your work or the workings of the department.  You also need a coach in another city department who has a bigger picture view and a good feel for the organization and knows how things work.  These are the “2.”

In addition, you must have a coach outside the city organization who can provide advice and generally guide you.  That’s the “1.”

The coach outside your organization can suggest some involvements in professional associations in order to enhance your knowledge, skills, and network (see Career Compass #48 entitled “How Do I Benefit From a Coach?” ).

How do I maximize the stretch opportunity?

Here are some tips to leverage your stretch assignment:

1. Be an agile learner

Since you won’t be a subject-matter expert in your new assignment, be curious, ask questions, seek advice, and learn as you go.  For example, ask:

  • Why is this special project important?
  • What’s the “why” behind the effort?
  • What do we all need to learn?
  • What am I missing?
  • What else should I consider?
  • What would be a completely different approach for addressing the challenge?

2. Engage people in many conversations

Go out of your way to engage diverse people inside and outside the organization in conversation about the issue and the effort.  Listen and be open to the conversation.  By doing so, you will expand your perspectives and your network.

3. Try out new roles

As you engage in the project, try out some new roles.  For instance, if you are good at analysis, try out public speaking about the challenge and project (start in a safe environment).  Again, learning and skills-building happen when you get uncomfortable.

4. Leverage the assignment

Over-deliver if possible.  Over-delivering will get you future stretch projects and additional opportunities to learn and grow. 

(For other suggestions on how to maximize the stretch experience, see Jo Miller, “ 4 Ways To Execute a Stretch Assignment Like a Rock Star ,” , Dec 16, 2017.)

A Catalyst for Growth

Stretch experiences coupled with helpful and candid feedback are catalysts for rapid career growth.  In addition to new learning, relationships and skills-building, stretching job assignments help people see you in a new light (see also Career Compass #52 entitled “Recasting My Rep ”).

These experiences shape other people’s perceptions of you that are more aligned with your potential and career aspirations. 

meaning of stretch assignments

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Stretch Assignments in Succession Planning

Home » Blog » Stretch Assignments in Succession Planning

One of the biggest challenges of effective  succession planning  is creating and maintaining a pool of qualified succession candidates to take over a role when the time comes. Even in the most prepared companies, there are often gaps between the abilities of candidates and the necessary qualifications to perform a role. Assessing the development needs of your  succession bench  can make these gaps painfully clear and make them feel especially difficult to overcome. To begin closing these gaps, consider creating an  individualized development plan  for each candidate. This is critical for turning your succession bench’s development needs from broad limitations to concrete objectives. One of the best ways to facilitate this transformation is by using stretch assignments.

Video Transcription

Succession planning is all about preparing for your company’s future. One of the best ways to do this is to develop a pool of qualified candidates in your organization. This means when a senior leader leaves your company, it’s a smooth transition for someone else to step into their role.

If you feel like your pool of candidates is small, don’t worry. Even the most prepared organizations have gaps between the current skills employees have and the ones that will be required for a new role. To close these gaps, you can create employee development plans for each employee, focusing on their best opportunities for growth.

Today, we will discuss how stretch assignments can play a critical role in your employee’s development plans.

What are Stretch Assignments?

Stretch assignments are projects given to employees that require them to perform beyond their current expertise. It promotes growth and skill development by asking employees to try out new tasks, explore different problem-solving techniques, and change their ways of thinking. Although extremely important, skill development is not the only benefit of using stretch assignments.

Communicates Trust in Your Candidates

First, stretch assignments communicate trust in your candidates. By assigning your employee new responsibilities, you demonstrate faith in their abilities and in their ability to learn. It also shows the dedication to their growth and development which is motivating for performance.

Valuable to the Company Now

Next, stretch assignments have the benefit of being valuable to the company now. Many development opportunities such as courses or training sessions take time to arrange and even more time to see the benefits from. Stretch assignments do double duty by developing your employees and ensuring critical tasks are completed. It means getting work done while simultaneously providing on-the-job training.

Valuable Sources of Information

Finally, we can consider performance on stretch assignments as valuable sources of information. By using stretch assignments as part of a development plan, you can track employee performance across tasks and contacts. You can evaluate how they perform on different teams or on a range of capacities. Use this information to gain a deeper understanding of not only employee strengths and weaknesses but also their interests and their preferences. You can also use this data to determine who might be a suitable candidate for future roles, increasing your ability to plan long-term.

These are just a few of the benefits stretch assignments can have within your company and within your succession plan. For information on using stretch assignments within your organization, visit our blog at and contact us today for more information on how you can make the most of succession planning.

What are Stretch Assignments ?

Stretch assignments are projects given to employees that require them to perform beyond their current expertise. These assignments promote growth and talent development. They are the equivalent of a trainer asking an athlete to push for one more rep, or to run an extra mile. Pushing our abilities is the only way to get stronger or faster. Stretch assignments take into account an employee’s current limits and ask them to perform just beyond them. When designed well, stretch assignments challenge employees without putting them at risk of certain failure.

Benefits of Stretch Assignments

Besides being an invaluable tool to address your succession bench’s development needs, stretch assignments also have additional benefits:

Communicate Trust and Belief in Succession Candidate

Stretch assignments are real tasks in real situations that will benefit the company now. When an employer assigns responsibility in this way, it communicates that they trust their employee. This can be highly motivating. Not only that, because stretch assignments are intended to be challenging, they also show that the company believes in the candidate’s potential to grow and perform beyond their current abilities.

Provide Value Now

Unlike in-class training, workshops, and other ways of  addressing talent development  needs, stretch assignments add value to an organization immediately. They involve completing projects and tasks that the organization has a need for. Furthermore, the employee receives an opportunity to learn important skills, and the company points the focus and dedication of a high-potential employee at a project of value.

Uncover great insights

Following a thorough  development needs assessment , stretch assignments can provide greater insight into strengths and areas for growth. This is evident as the succession candidate tackles a project with evolving obstacles and difficulties. This complements an initial assessment by providing greater context and allowing for a deeper understanding of a candidate’s talent development needs. Finally, the insights learned from a successful or difficult stretch assignment can help identify better future development activities.

How to Create Stretch Assignments

Despite their potential for addressing candidates’  talent development  needs and adding value to an organization, stretch assignments can be a daunting development activity to implement into a candidate’s development plan. They are generally not obvious in the larger scheme of operations, and few companies track the types of talent development opportunities that might make good stretch assignments.

We recommend you encourage succession candidates to identify potential stretch assignments that can be integrated into their development plan. High-potential candidates often have a strong understanding of the kind of experience they need and skills they want to learn. Then, with the results of a development needs assessment at hand, they can match their aspirations to relevant assignments.

Linking stretch assignments to a succession candidate’s development needs provides both them and the company with objective markers of progress. Consistently checking movement towards development plan objectives encourages focus on the stretch assignment’s critical purpose: honing the candidate’s potential for succession.

How SIGMA Can Help

At SIGMA, we want to help your company develop strong candidates with succession planning. Our Launch Series will deliver a personalized succession plan in just 30 DAYS, with only 8 hours of time from your senior leadership team. For more information on our  Succession Process ,  Launch Series , or Succession Planning solutions,  contact us  and learn more about how we can help your organization plan for the future.

About the Author

Sharon brings our tests and assessments from the development stage to marketable product. She ensures quality control at every step of a project, edits technical documents and manuals, and artistically enhances reports and resources. She also manages contracts with clients across the globe and answers technical questions.

Stretch Assignment

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meaning of stretch assignments

Develop People with Stretch Assignments

Career Step up framed

This blog is not about justifying why it is important for companies to conduct or provide ongoing training programs. Yes, there are many excellent training strategies and approaches that organizations can into their corporate employee programs that help achieve overall company goals. For the purpose of this blog, let’s start by agreeing  that it is essential for every organization’s business plan to include ongoing training – not just training new employees.

Knowledge and skills development is vital to the health of organizations

Business 101 tells us that training plays a major role in employee retention programs.The ongoing and consistent training of employees has a number of high value impacts.

  • Instills loyalty and commitment.
  • Prevents employees from stagnating and becoming bored.
  • Acts as the key motivator that increases productivity.
  • Supports employees with changing job requirements.
  • Allows for faster adoption of new technologies

And, most importantly …

Ongoing training of employees demonstrates that the organization places a high value on their people and is willing to invest in a future together.

Development occurs when employees are given assignments that  are different from their typical responsibilities and stretch their existing abilities.

Not your usual training and development programs.

Most companies have some form of training programs. Sometimes they are limited to ‘onboarding’. Sometimes they include sending people out on courses or seminars. The focus here is about using specific techniques within the organization to build the company’s future by fine tuning the direction, leadership and succession strategies of corporate employees.

In recent years technology has introduced unprecedented change and uncertainty in both our personal and business lives. It’s absolutely no surprise that executives have had to become much more concerned about their organization’s agility, growth, ability to adapt and utilize technologies that have become commonplace. So how does that happen? The most effective and sometimes quickest manner is to prepare talented and highly valuable individual contributors for fast-track development by ‘stretching’ their skills with special assignments.

Special assignments are a very valid tool that provides opportunities to stretch skills, provide further learning and/or leadership development.

What are stretch assignments.

Stretch assignments proactively provide and effectively manage the future (and career expectations) of high-potential employees. They are unique and challenging experiences that optimize on-the-job development. Over the last few years, this tactic has clearly been on the rise because stretch assignments provide the opportunity for individuals to be tested for creativity, innovation, judgment and drive.

Planning short-term projects or assignments is an excellent tool, and a great vehicle, to test an individual’s ability and motivation.

  additional development strategies.

In addition to stretch assignments, there are other forms of validating the investment for development or promotion of prized talent such as:

  • Mentorship programs
  • External career coach
  • Delegate more responsibility and / or authority with decision making
  • Send employees on specific training programs, seminars or conferences
  • Offer Internet-based learning
  • Encourage self-directed learning
  • Committee work
  • Job rotation
  • Lateral moves
  • Project leadership

The above techniques can also add diversity and depth when preparing individuals for promotion, however stretch assignments have the added advantage of building interpersonal relationships, improving internal communications and increasing flexibility among various business units.

Offering career support to individuals can support retention of valuable employees who might otherwise leave the company for greener pastures.

Why use stretch assignments.

Some of the most common reasons that companies utilize and encourage the implementation of stretch assignments include:

  • Vet whether or not an individual has the potential for what the company believes they see or anticipate
  • Prepare individuals to step up immediately if leadership takes leave, quit or for any other reason no longer be present
  • Build internal strength and ability to quickly develop and test new ideas and concepts as well as “re-tune” approaches, techniques and products
  • Enhance the business’ ability to adopt and use advances in technology
  • Raise the bar by building efficient, effective and highly motivated self-managed, decisive team leaders
  • Improve a company’s competitive position and enhance a reputation for being employee-centric
  • Ensure the business has adequate resources for expansion into new programs

Short-term successful outcomes build capability and knowledge for the next step and the one after that.

Stretch – one, two, repeat.

As they say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”. Being a cat person,  I don’t particularly care for that expression so I’ll share with you how the expression is used in the southern US states. To skin a is in reference to the catfish, often abbreviated to cat, because it is usually skinned in preparing it for eating. I have no idea why ‘cat’ was selected for this expression, but suffice to say the point seems to be-

Any challenge generally has more than one solution.

Talent can be stretched both Vertically and Horizontally. In our modern workplace, it is important for employees to know and understand the difference. It may even make sense to stretch talent in both directions, if it meets with employee agreement and makes sense for the employer.

Vertical Stretch


Vertical stretching is an excellent tool to develop individuals for future leadership assignments and/or promotions. This form of stretch helps to find the optimal level of discomfort in the next role or project, because that’s where the most learning happens.

A good stretch helps find the optimal level of discomfort in the next role and that’s where the most learning happens.

Horizontal Stretch

A horizontal stretch goal inspires people to take on different responsibilities, develop new processes or products, or expand the organization outward in some way.

Not all individuals have the personality, drive or interest in climbing up the corporate ladder when it involves managing budget and/or people. Having both the responsibility and the accountability for others is only satisfying when an individual has a strong desire to move in that direction.

Horizontal development often results in subject matter experts that are just as valuable to an organization as the leaders of people. In this case, it is just as critical to grow solid individual contributors by adding  diversity to their work with complex and challenging projects that carry more responsibility. This is another way that will create certain kinds of discomfort that results in further learning and development.

Pushing your high potentials up a straight ladder won’t accelerate their growth—uncomfortable assignments will.

To stretch or not to stretch.


Two guidelines to consider when using short-term stretch goals

  • Ensure that the immediate goals are part of a larger, more ambitious effort so that whatever is achieved and learned is a building block, not an end-in-itself.
  • Intentionally design the short-term stretch goals in ways that force innovation, collaboration, and learning — so it’s not just a matter of working harder for a short period of time.

Deconstruct extremely ambitious stretch goals into several short-term stretch goals and include multiple cycles. Small wins maintain motivation and engagement

Advantages of stretch goals.

The most beneficial stretch assignments are intentional. They are selected to develop specific competencies that fit into a carefully created career development plan. Stretch assignments are the acknowledgement of an individual’s value to the organization and provide a rich context for the employee to grow.

Stretch goals are intended to encourage creative thinking and exploratory learning. They help companies  uncover new ways to improve processes and develop products and services.

Stretch goals help individuals become more self-confident and more engaged. They force people to re-evaluate what they’re capable of and this leads to a transformative experience.

Companies that utilize stretch assignments in their organizations, find that they are able to significantly increase the competence levels of their people over their competitors. .

The best stretch assignments are those that build business acumen, technical skill or leadership ability.

Disadvantages of stretch goals.

When management are over zealous and set goals that are impossible to reach, significant damage can be done. When a talented individual becomes overwhelmed or set up for failure, it can result in terrible losses to the business, the individual and the rest of the organization.

It is critical that stretch assignments are carefully designed. When top-performers can experience high levels of stress, feel pressured to take excessive risks and if  success is impossible or unattainable, there is always a risk that one feels leaving the company is their only choice.

Examples of Stretch Development

Stretch assignments are intended to develop specific and agreed to skills by providing the appropriate experiences. Devising the right strategy to gain experience and build skills can be done using a variety of assignments such as –

  • Manage a volunteer or intern
  • Execute a new or important company project
  • Participate in the company’s strategic planning process
  • Turn around a failing project, department or operation
  • Organize and lead an important company event or meeting
  • Lead a high profile initiative
  • Conduct a customer-needs analysis
  • Write a policy statement
  • Facilitate change in the way a business or a process is conducted
  • Fix a preexisting problem
  • Evaluate a training program
  • Join a team dealing with conflict
  • Create a customer satisfaction survey
  • Negotiate a new customer contract
  • Re-launch a product or service that previously failed
  • Lead people from different cultures, gender, racial or ethnic backgrounds
  • Influence and oversee people or processes for which one has no direct authority

Not all stretch assignments are created equal.


By training, developing, monitoring, and witnessing the success of high performers, these people each become individually better and more valuable to the organization. The business will exhibit  higher levels of success, a more engaged workforce and the foundation for succession planning.

When the global executive search firm, Egon Zehnder, asked 823 international executives to look back at their careers and identify what had helped them unleash their potential, the most popular answer, cited by 71%, was stretch assignments.

Harvard Business Review Video

“Pushing your high-potentials up a straight ladder toward bigger jobs, budgets and staffs will continue their growth, but it won’t accelerate it.” ~ Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, author, international speaker and global expert on talent and leadership

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