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.

stretch goalsNot 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.

stretch ambitionWhy 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

reachThe term Vertical Stretch is used to describe building on existing skills, processes or knowledge that will take them to new heights. Typically vertical stretch goals align with current activities, organizational goals or business processes.

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

goalsLeaders may sometimes feel like they can’t afford to provide stretch assignments to high-performing employees and forget that they can’t afford to lose these valuable employees either. Using stretch goals effectively can lead to a number of gains and desired outcomes when they are right for both the company and the individual.  Working with talent on stretch goals requires commitment, support, leadership and flexibility.

Two guidelines to consider when using short-term stretch goals

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

stretchExamples 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.

In Closing

solveNo ethical company sets out to stretch people beyond their limits. When using stretch assignments, most leaders have the same objective – to develop well-rounded, values-focused leaders who see the world through a wide-angle lens.

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


About JKS Talent Network

Janis Strathearn is an experienced business leader who has led high-performance organizations in a variety of industries and functional areas. She has a unique perspective on identifying talented individuals who will make a positive difference in her client’s business. You can count on Janis to never present any candidate she would not hire herself.

Contact JKS Talent Network by email or call Janis @ (604) 731-2073  

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